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.