Norman Berrow seems to flourish under the eye of the eldritch. Impossible hoof-marks in the snow mystery The Footprints of Satan (1950) is widely seen — correctly, in my opinion and experience to date — as his strongest work, and Ghost House (1940) is another atmosphere-drenched invocation of supernatural terror. Evidently Berrow himself was either extremely taken with the book or extremely disappointed in it, since he rewrote some of the plot, changed the names of the characters, and reissued the book in 1979. I’ll get to v2.0 last of all, since I’m now reading Berrow chronologically, but for now let’s look at the original.
The first half of Ghost House — which finds young marrieds Peter and Marilyn Somerset seeking shelter from a raging storm in a purportedly haunted mansion recently re-inhabited by its owner after 30 years of neglect, only for all manner of weirdness and shenanigans to unfold — is marvellous. The brusquely bon vivant owner, his surly butler, their odd house-guests, the semi-drowned man found at the base of the bridge connecting the house with the Devon mainland, and the sudden loss of electricity all combine to wave enough flags to keep a swarm of vexillologists occupied for weeks, and Berrow has improved his prose to send the ice cubes of some great atmospheric chills down your spine:
Outside it was black night, with the wind shrieking and storming at the old house like a thousand tormented and raging devils, and the rain beating down with a steady deliberation that was at once furious and monotonous, with an occasional crackle and mutter of thunder in the distance, but inside was light and warmth and tranquillity, shelter and human companionship. And yet there was in that house an atmosphere of tension; of something veiled, something watchful, something queer…
Like John Dickson Carr, Berrow has found a way to eke out the uncanny in the everyday, to take an object imbued with an easily-dismissed mundanity and inject it with something akin to supernatural dread:
It was the one solitary mirror in that room, and it had been carefully and deliberately hidden from view. That black shroud stood up like the fingerstall of death. With the white candles on either side and that black panel in between, and the purple curtains hanging dark and dim in the gloom beyond, the dressing-table might have been an altar to some sly and evil and hope-denying god.
Berrow juggles, too, the sinister, otherworldly threats of a formless screaming and the Devil-Laugh that rocks the house to its foundations with more terrestrial concerns like the provenance of a suit of dinner clothes and the passing of a port decanter the wrong direction round a table. These details may be trivial in isolation, but against the extended ghost story we’re taken through they stand out in beautiful contrast to keep us equally uncertain about what’s happening in this world and the next.
The problem with supernatural dread, however, is that it tends to be banished with the daylight, and this is another example of Berrow using those contrasting real/spirit world concerns so smartly: the scene that greets Peter when he awakens to sunlight at the halfway point is a salutary piece of dread-sowing, left nameless for the remainder of the novel and so never reduced in eerie quality by being given a focus or limit. Additionally, the chapter immediately following this is a superb reflection on the looming threat of war (and carbon-dating this down to a specific pair of days, to boot), casually dropping in clues and widening the context in which this isolated terror is occurring. No doubt about it, the first 14 chapters of this book are something wonderful to behold, and the richness of clues Berrow drops and never picks up again (“[H]ave you got any bitters?”) bodes far too well for a man known to throw in a secret passage at every available opportunity.
And then…he keeps writing. And writing. And writing.
Most things are clear to the observant reader with 80 pages remaining, and the acquiescent author would know this and swiftly sum things up. Berrow might be enjoying himself too much, or might simply have left himself with too much still to do, and so at the point where this should have wrapped up we’re thrown an impossible murder and another séance of sorts where the appearance of the “soul” of the victim of that murder clues us into their, well, death. And we’ve still got all the house-based shenanigans to resolve, so a generic, voluble thriller climax results (complete with hidden passage…sigh) wherein a ton of explanation is info-dumped through uninterrupted speech, and the lightness and slow build of tension in the first half degrades into Berrow once again not quite knowing what to do with his plots when he’s constructed them.
The whole thing needs to be about 40 pages shorter for starters, and Berrow also demonstrates the skill of Carr in aping the master in another way that worked far better in Carr’s case: namely, in leaving some of the supernatural stuff unexplained. It spoils nothing to tell you this, since it’s mentioned at the time that no explanation is ever found by the characters, but a key set of incidents are left as simply being the result of Marilyn’s latent mediumistic powers…and, well. As much as I enjoyed the prospect of not knowing precisely how all this ghostly wobbling was going to be explained, there’s an element of needlessness in inserting (and leaving) such a large chunk of the events just to go “Yeah, psychic or somethin’, innit?”. It feels like Berrow trying to play with genre constraints a little, no doubt, but it also feels like him trying to ape that Carr novel wherein the same thing happens…and in that he’s less successful.
On the whole, then, Ghost House is Norman Berrow in a nutshell: great setup, full of promise, then hanging around too long before a duffed landing. Whether through war work or other considerations, he’d not publish another novel until 1946, and the Lancelot Carolus Smith books I’ve read from that later part of his career do show an improved creativity and plot-handling (and contain the two best books of his I’ve read) so maybe a break did him good. I am inordinately fond of Berrow’s writing, and I’m going to stick with him for the rest of his output, but these first nine books of his are a challenging time for anyone who wants to see obvious improvement in their authors. So I’m grateful that Ghost House 2.0 isn’t going to climb to the top of my TBR any time soon, even if I am intrigued to see how Berrow sought to improve this tale at its second telling.
Norman Berrow reviews — all books available from Ramble House — on The Invisible Event: