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.
If it becomes rather talky by the halfway stage, it suddenly springs to life with all manner of Golden Age detective tropes that only serve to enrich the lives of the people involved. I hadn’t realised it until it happened, but it was a strangle airless brew to that point, with events being discussed but no real sense of the people involved, and the juxtaposition of these more earthly concerns brought it all home to me in a very real way. Plenty of sub rosa goings-on come to light, and then we start to see the pattern that Selden insisted was there all along…but just because there’s reason behind it, does that mean it has to be an earthly reason…?
Writing this now, I realise how much I will enjoy rereading this book. The lack of certainty over its eventual direction was a delightful experience, but it’s always nice knowing where you’re going to end up. Masterman doesn’t quite live up to his name, but he is very adept at the creeping dread, and this kept me guessing and speculating and, frankly, worrying about what I had signed up for. And the explanations when they come, well, they might make for happier reading when I know the direction from the beginning, but I’ll be honest that on this first go there was a soupçon of “Oh, for pity’s sake” in my reaction, and it’s fair to say that it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Because Masterman does rather fall down on things like character and plot. Selden and Hartley are interchangeable in just about every regard – it became really quite difficult in my mind to keep clear which one had done what, but since they meet up so frequently to tell the other what they know it doesn’t really matter – and the romance angle shoehorned in can make uncomfortable reading with its insistence on implying some sense of attractiveness, thankfully stopping shy of outright pulchritude, with regard to Harman’s young niece. Indeed, he fares far better with the less salubrious characters, and I can’t help but wonder if this is grounding in supernatural concerns where the characters tend to be more, erm, unhinged. Further reading, which I intend to do, will make this clearer.
So, a mixed bag. I should probably tell you at least the direction of the narrative to help inform your choice, but I want to know if anyone coming to this as blank as I did has the same reaction to it. One for the curious, for the adventurous, let’s say, and leave it a that for now.