I am continually astonished at the number of truly wonderful books that have been neglected and then forgotten as the years go by. Sometimes the books are simply ahead of their time, sometimes the authors die, leaving no one to advocate for them, and sometimes simple bad luck makes them disappear from the shelves. Fortunately, many of these books are being reprinted by quality publishers (such as Valancourt Books, who I’ve raved about for years and am now writing some introductions for); other can be uncovered freely available on internet archives.
Archives don’t really advertise, though, and sometimes it’s just dumb luck that I learn about an overlooked and exquisite novel. I was recently reading Sinister House by Leland Hall, which was reprinted by Hippocampus Press, when such luck hit. The introduction by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi includes a mention of the 1921 novel The Thing From the Lake, by Eleanor Ingram.
A “Thing” from a lake? How could I resist such a title? I immediately scared up an electronic copy and set myself reading.
In spite of the title, I wasn’t necessarily optimistic about the book, considering my search came across another recent review that was decidedly not positive.
I was pleasantly surprised, however! I found The Thing From the Lake to be a charmingly atmospheric haunted house story, albeit one that is also an early 20th century romantic drama.
The house cried out to me for help.
In the after-knowledge I now possess of what was to happen there, that impression is not more clearly definite than it was at my first sight of the place. Let me at once set down that this is not the story of a haunted house.
So begins the novel in an eerie and somewhat paradoxical manner! The story is narrated by Roger Locke, a successful composer from New York City. He decides to purchase a house in the country as both a retreat and a quiet working environment, and settles on an old home in rural Connecticut. The only issue with the property is a miasmic marsh within sight of the residence, but the venerable building is otherwise perfect for Locke’s needs.
Satisfied with his purchase, Roger decides to spend a first night alone in the unfurnished house to celebrate before heading back to NYC to make final arrangements. Late at night, he is visited by two strange beings: the first, an unseen woman who seeks to warn him of the danger of living in the house, and the second, an inhuman specter (the “Thing”) that attempts to break Roger’s will and claim his very soul.
Roger becomes enthralled by the mysterious woman and continues to stay at the house, against the woman’s wishes and in spite of the increasingly perilous psychic battles with the Thing. When the woman reveals her name to be Desire Michell, it only deepens the mystery: in the 18th century, a woman named Desire Michell lived on that very property and was accused of having made a pact with the devil.
The plot is complicated early on by a domestic drama involving his extended family. Roger is sent by his aunt to meet his cousin Phillida’s train in New York City and to escort her home. He is horrified to find that she has fallen in love with, and married, a lower-class cabaret performer named Ethan Vere who works in the city. Though the union will likely bring scandal down upon Phillida and her family, Phillida and Ethan refuse to annul the marriage. Roger at last relents to give them a chance to prove themselves by working as managers of his new Connecticut estate.
Though Phillida and Ethan do not themselves have supernatural experiences, they can see that Roger’s strength and vitality is being drained by the relentless nighttime attacks of the Thing. A number of surprising twists and revelations follow, and the story builds to a final desperate confrontation in which the survival of more than one soul is at stake.
Contrary to a number of other reviews of The Thing From the Lake online, I found the novel to be surprisingly compelling and atmospheric. Though Roger Locke says right at the beginning that it is “not the story of a haunted house,” all of the elements of a good haunted house story are present, and well-handled. (In fact, the house is not haunted: the threat comes from outside, and the home is constantly under siege.) Descriptions of the psychic battles between Roger and the Thing are beautifully and eerily written.
At first, the domestic travails of Phillida and Ethan may seem like a pointless distraction, coming right after Roger’s first dramatic encounter with the supernatural. However, I thought that their story was a nice compliment to the main plot, and their presence helped move the narrative forward in a way that would not have been possible if Roger was the only inhabitant of the house.
One thing that I find relatively rare in horror novels is a sense of utter hopelessness: a scene in which the protagonists realize that the nature of the threat facing them leaves them completely and utterly screwed. Such scenes are wonderful to read, but hard to pull off successfully. Dean Koontz’s classic novel Phantoms is one of the few places where I’ve seen it work well: when the characters see what they’re really up against, they review their options and grimly strike them down one-by-one. The Thing has a similar scene just before the final confrontation, where Roger, Phillida and Ethan try and find a way out and fail.
There is also a wonderful denouement near the end of the book, where a newcomer argues quite convincingly that everything that happened could be explained in non-supernatural terms. One simple observation, however, silences the visitor.
So, in contrast to many other commentaries online, I found The Thing From the Lake quite charming and effective. It may be a little slow-paced or too cluttered with sentimentality for many modern readers, but it is what it is: an excellent horror novel that was well-regarded in its time.
Sadly, this was not only the first but the only supernatural thriller written by Eleanor M. Ingram (1886-1921), who died soon after its release at the young age of 34. Before The Thing, she had reached a great deal of success with her other more conventional dramas such as The Flying Mercury (1910) and The Twice American (1917).
Her premature death possibly explains, as noted in the introduction to this post, why The Thing has remained in relative obscurity. There is also very little information about Eleanor Ingram herself available online: who was she? how did she get started writing? what was she like?
I have little information to go on, but some tantalizing hints are available in articles that Ingram wrote herself on the request of the literary magazine The Editor. Her letters give a partial picture of a modest but successful and optimistic young woman. In the August 1912 issue of The Editor, a letter appears from Eleanor in the column “Letters From the Literati:”
It is an exceedingly disconcerting compliment that your request presents. I do not in the least know how to write an article, and I confess ignorance of the subject under discussion. I sincerely wish I could say something that might be of use, but my method of attaining such success as I have reached has been simply-to write. And not to write unless I felt the thing worth writing.
I have stopped to consider that last statement. It is quite true, and for me the results have justified the system, although I know that many approve of writing voluminously and expecting to sell only a fraction of the work done. That may be an excellent way, but I know nothing of it. Frankly, I never write anything that I do not believe will sell; and I have no unsold manuscripts.
Nor does that mean that one may not follow one’s most fantastic desires and “dream o’ nights.” I have not found editors the narrow-minded conventionalists they are sometimes depicted, but cordial and considerate business men who only ask that the contributor keep in mind the character of the magazine. Of course, with books the field is open and unrestricted.
All this sounds much more mercenary and practical than the fact. For I can not write at all unless I am myself interested in the subject. And I think with Carlyle, that enthusiasm is communicable. One night, at the Brighton Beach Motor-drome, a famous racing driver and his mechanician crashed to death under their shattered car, almost at my feet as I sat in our own machine. I thought, then, that I could never witness another race or write an automobile story. Instead, the thing had gripped me-the pulsating nearness of life and death, the fierce excitement and reckless gayety of the boyish racers, the tense crowd who watched. I have seen many races since, and my last three books have been concerned with motor racing, as have been a number of shorter stories.
I am afraid I can not speak as to systems of studying writing, because I never used one. I have the very great good fortune to belong to a book-loving family who set me free in a classic library as soon as I could read, and who opened the doors to wider ranges by teaching me several foreign languages. But I have been a subscriber to THE EDITOR since the publication of my first story in Short Stories, a few years ago, and I have found it most useful and practical as an author’s business journal. The articles by its editors and contributors are interesting and offer much matter for thought.
I am not at all sure this is the kind of article you wished; pray accept with it my good wishes for your magazine’s success and that of the readers who have honored me by their interest.
This article shows that even at an early age Ingram had achieved a great deal of writing success; I don’t know of many authors that would describe the process of selling one’s work so casually as she does!
A few small glimpses of Ingram’s life are given in another letter, written for the April 1920 issue of The Editor:
How did I conceive the story “The Girl Named Rose”? (Munsey’s for November, 1919). Well, my home is on the shore of the Hudson River; my brother was away on his Submarine-Chaser; and I used to listen to the clamor of whistles when each transport brought in our returning troops! think you have there the beginning of the fabric. As for its development, I have been spinning stories ever since I could think and it already seems a long time since my first book was published.
I cannot honestly say much about early struggles, for I have always had markets for more than I can write and have found editors and publishers very charming, sympathetic folk. Although there are a great many writers nowadays, there seems to be a hungry public appetite for our confections. So surely no one should be discouraged, since the literary tables certainly will not cover themselves like the magic one in the fairytale. If this is not much to say, it is at least said with cordial good wishes!
Ingram does not seem to have been boasting about her literary success. The book section of the September 28, 1922 issue of The Christian Century refers to The Thing as “a strange tale that almost suggests Poe,” high praise indeed. A 1921 issue of the literary magazine Long Lines says “there are passages that bring the hair on the back of your neck straight up to attention.”
The Thing From the Lake makes me genuinely sad that Eleanor M. Ingram did not have the opportunity to write another supernatural novel, and that is about the highest praise I can imagine.