John Norris has featured several postwar Gothic mysteries of late over at his fantabulous Pretty Sinister Books, whetting my appetite for something similar. So I finally decided to dust off this mystery by Hilda Lawrence (1906-76) and give it a whirl. The House (aka ‘The Bleeding House’) doesn’t feature her regular series character Mark East but instead is narrated by Isobel Stone, a fragile woman a month shy of her 21st birthday. After spending 15 years away at boarding schools she finally returns home but this proves highly traumatic – not long afterwards her beloved but clearly ailing father apparently kills himself. Now she stands to inherit the eponymous family mansion, which inexplicably wasn’t left to her mother. Then things start to go bump in the night …
I submit the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the ‘Golden Age Girls‘ section where I have elected to review at least 8 mysteries by women authors published pre-1960. I also offer it as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog and you should head over there to both of these blogs right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.
“Nothing is changed except that I am home, my father is dead, and my thoughts will not let me sleep”
Isobel’s father made her promise that if something happened to him she would stay in the house for at least a year, not a particularly onerous request one would have thought – this is the family home after all. But the trouble is that Isobel has spent so little time there – just Christmas holidays from the age of six onwards – that this dark and brooding place hardly feels like a home at all. On top of which, all her feelings about friends and family there are mainly tied in with her early childhood memories. It is however her mother’s pride and joy, which makes her father’s will even harder to fathom. The house clearly suits her mother’s quiet and emotionally stilled personality far more than Isobel’s – she lives there with three servants (the superstitious animal lover Anna and Mr and Mrs Tench) and is visited regularly by her three spinster cousins: Jane, Bess and most caustic of all, Cassie, who still treats Isobel as a child. This is a place steeped in the past and formed of a routine that has remained unchanged in twenty years. Isobel finds it stifling and in fact would much rather live next door with the friendly and down-to-earth Barnabys, not least because she is in love, and always has been, with their eldest son Michael. And then there is Tray, her father’s grinning black dog. He now follows Isobel everywhere after somehow surviving the car crash in which her father apparently killed himself by driving into a ravine. It was classed as an accident but as it was a clear night and his health was already in decline, everyone assumes he decided to end it while his mind was under strain. But Isobel has many questions – why had her father not been eating and refusing to see a doctor? And why was he spending so much time among the indigent men living in a nearby encampment? Was he really losing his mental faculties? And who is it walking through the house at night?
“I heard the house hold its breath”
This is a smoothly written story that follows all the rules of the genre – there is the young and innocent female protagonist; the kindly father and remote mother; the hysterical maid; the avaricious relatives; the oppressive mansion; the mysterious death; scenes at night of candle-lit wanderings from room to room; the faithful butler and even more loyal pets; true love; even a secret chamber. Lawrence is a skillful and confident writer, happy to hit all the necessary points on the grid to make the book commercial yet also delivering dreamlike prose in a semi stream of consciousness style that is often arresting, if admittedly occasionally shrill. There are no chapters at all, only a single divide into two parts, which is very well-chosen however as it marks the point where the story seems to take a turn for the supernatural when Isobel starts to speak more and more of the house as a living being, suggesting that her father’s death has truly started to unbalance her. Given its rigid adherence to the conventions of the Gothic romance there are no real surprises perhaps and the plot has more than its fair share of illogicalities, especially in explaining the various peculiarities of Isobel’s father before his car crashed.
Isobel makes for an unusual narrator, one instantly familiar from the likes of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, in that she is unusually sensitive to atmosphere, which gives her thoughts a sometime alarmingly jumbled quality. On the other hand, her nice-guy go-getting beau Michael is a truly stock character, which is a bit of a shame. But on the other hand the lowering Poe-like atmosphere is rather well caught as Isobel becomes and more entangled in the idea of the house as a sentient being. This may not ultimately go anywhere new or special but suggests that Lawrence was a more than capable writer even when working tightly to a formula an delivers a reasonable payoff to the accumulation of mysterious events, even if they have to be rather laboriously explained in the concluding wrap-up. This was a fun little read, well outside of my usual bailiwick, and although it is generally thought of as the least of Lawrence’s books I still found much to enjoy – another debt I owe to the indefatigable Bev. While my edition is a single volume reprint by Avon (its wax-laden cover is featured at the top of this page), this novel was originally published together with another shorter piece, ‘Composition for Four Hands’, to form Duet of Death in 1949.
An amusing portrait of the author emerges from her article ‘Domesticating the Murderer’, published in The Saturday Review (17 February 1945) and available online from: www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1945feb17-00016.