Valancourt Books, traditionally specializing in fiction of Edwardian era and older, has recently started printing new editions of excellent but forgotten 20th century novels. I, of course, have written introductions for a number of the books of John Blackburn (Bury Him Darkly, Broken Boy and Nothing but the Night for starters), but there are plenty of other intriguing books that Valancourt has been releasing, as well.
This was the second novel of J.B. Priestley (1894-1984), a prolific author who published 26 novels during his lifetime. It was with his third novel, The Good Companions, that Priestley achieved major success, but Benighted was significant in its own right, being made into the 1932 film The Old Dark House, starring the iconic Boris Karloff.
What is it about? The movie title is rather perfect, as the story is of a genre of what may be called “old dark house” stories. In such stories, a group of people are gathered by design or fate in a old sinister house, are trapped within it together by circumstance and subjected to unspeakable horrors.
In Benighted, Philip and Margaret Waverton and cynical acquaintance Roger Penderel are traveling through a remote section of Wales when a savage storm forces them to seek shelter. The only place available is an ancient mansion owned by the bizarre and decadent Femm family, together with their monstrous servant Morgan.
The Femms are clearly afraid of something, and very hesitant to allow guests even for the night. Nevertheless, there is nowhere else to go, so the Wavertons and Penderel take up a spot near the ground-floor fireplace. While there, they probe deeper into the mysteries of the house as well as their own fears and secrets. As the storm intensifies outside, the danger grows within. Before the night ends, the inhabitants of the house — visitor and resident alike — will find themselves struggling to survive.
Benighted is much more than a spooky thriller — it is also a character study. We learn about the Wavertons and Penderel (and others) as the story progresses, and gain sympathy for even the seemingly most reprehensible of them. That is not to say that the story is not creepy or thrilling — it is! At a mere 152 pages, it has no unnecessary filler and moves briskly, though it does not feel rushed.
The Valancourt edition has an excellent introduction by Orrin Grey, who like me has a love of the macabre, creepy and supernatural in fiction. He talks about his involvement in Benighted here, which he in fact recommended to Valancourt.
It was a good recommendation on Grey’s part, because Benighted is an excellent novel worth reading for its characters and ideas as well as for its creepy atmosphere.