I am from a televisual generation and so struggle to comprehend the power radio held in its pomp – people actually believing that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was genuinely detailing an alien invasion of Earth, for instance. So, to me, the idea of presenting the haunting of a Spooky Old House as a radio show seems a bit…pointless. Nevertheless, Jack Hartley and his BBC radio chums descend upon Cold Stairs, the ancestral home of Sir John Harman (5 bed, 2 bath., stunning aspect in own woodland), to record ghostly goings on and bumps in the night with the intention of making a broadcast of it. Or that should really be ‘bumping offs in the night’ as some poor soul is murdered by the evil spirit that resides in the vicinity – the same spirit that shocked his housekeeper’s son so badly he fell down the stairs and crippled himself – and then it turns out that Harman’s introverted, reserved niece has been communing with something calling itself the King of the Forest, and that’s really the beginning of everyone’s problems.
Given that John Pelan’s superb introduction makes much of Masterman’s standing in the Science Fiction/Supernatural Horror genre, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be getting here: Ramble House are known for their commitment to the, er, more uncommon corners of genre fiction, after all, and so the deaths, photographs of skeletons, and blindfolded meetings with sinister wood-dwelling monsters all stirs a stew that could turn out to be a dream as easily as it could leave you with no explanation whatsoever.
And, in a way, that’s part of the fun and something I don’t intend to spoil here. Ring-in sleuth Dick Selden has the reader’s back – “One expects this sort of thing in remote countries, but hardly in England” – but this doesn’t mean that Masterman is willing to commit himself either way:
“We shall get a true perspective when we get away from this depressing atmosphere. These people see a rock with a lichen growing on it like the hair of a dead man, and take it for an earth-born creature of the old legends. Every tree becomes a being with stretching arms about to clutch, as in the Erl King.”
The first half is redolent in the kind of atmosphere that could tip either way, and Selden is hardly jocund in nature as he tries to figure everything into a pattern he insists it must have. For this alone it commends itself to students of detective fiction, as it’s interesting watching an honest to goodness sitting-on-the-fence plot unfold where ratiocination sits on the page comfortably alongside the type of description which is obviously Masterman’s more natural metier.
He seemed to see the green tunnel stretching out before the doomed man, and to hear the dry wind of the Thing of Hell that gained on him with every stride.