Been catching up on my huge backlog of unread fiction lately. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few horror novels rereleased by Valancourt Books, which has become an incredible source of forgotten and neglected classics. The one that I most recently finished is Arch Oboler’s House on Fire (1969).
This was the only novel by Arch Oboler (1909-1987), but not his only foray into horror fiction: he is best remembered as the most beloved writer for the radio show “Lights Out,” beginning in 1936 and running into the 1940s. (Of which we will say more momentarily.)
The great flame assaulted the sky. In the darkness the red phallic thrust could be seen everywhere, from the sea, to the hills, to the mountains circling the basin that cupped the city. And where the larger mountains shut off the view, the scarlet mirrored off the high night clouds.
After this bit of ominous foreshadowing, House on Fire begins with a celebration: teen Mark Elias has just won a college scholarship due to one of his genius inventions, and his family couldn’t be happier. Journalists Tony Dumont and Robin Shepherd are sent to the family’s home for the celebratory party, but something seems… off about the festivities. Mark and his younger sister Shirley spend most of their time locked away in his room, apparently working on his next invention. Furthermore, Dumont has learned that the family has a very dark history, centered around the children’s recently deceased grandmother, Mrs. Elias. The story takes on an increased urgency when members of the extended family begin to die. Can Shepherd and Dumont uncover the truth before it is too late for all of them?
Oboler’s novel is not for the squeamish. It features some of the most uncomfortable topics to be covered in horror, including sexual assault and child abuse. This is not done simply for shock value: House on Fire feels as a whole to be a musing on the nature of evil and its origins. Shepherd and Dumont, in particular, represent optimistic and pessimistic views of humanity, respectively, and they have extended arguments on whether there is inherent goodness in people. (Given Oboler’s background in radio plays, it is probably not surprising that the book has a lot of dialogue.)
The evil inherent in humanity is exemplified in the children Mark and Shirley; it is not much of a spoiler to note that there turns out to be something very, very wrong with them. House on Fire is reminiscent of stories such as The Bad Seed (1954) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967), which involve children who are born bad. However, the corrupting influence of Mrs. Elias on their lives also reminded me of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which the governess of two children begins to suspect that they are being influenced by the twisted ghosts of her predecessors. I suspect that Oboler was particularly inspired by the latter for the broad workings of his novel.
I also suspect that Oboler used his novel as an opportunity to write without the content restrictions of radio, which certainly wouldn’t allow the sort of dark topics he covers in House on Fire. Which isn’t to say that the radio plays aren’t scary: listen, for instance, to “The Dark,” embedded below.
This version was part of the revival of “Lights Out.” A longer version of “The Dark” was part of the original Oboler run of the show, but has sadly been lost. Nevertheless, I find this short version quite effective and terrifying.
Many people are familiar with the premise of “The Dark”, even if they don’t know it! From the introduction to House on Fire by Christopher Conlon, I learned that it served as the inspiration for the final musical number in The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror V, which appears at the end of the clip below.
House on Fire is a slow-burn of a book. The horror builds slowly, and many of the worst things are implied, and not explicitly stated. However, it reaches a horrifying climax, as hinted at by the “red phallic thrust” described in its prologue. It is a well-written novel of horror, and one worth checking out.
I can’t help but say a few words about “The Dark,” with some spoilers! If you haven’t listened to the clip above, you might want to stop reading here.
“The Dark” shows how well Oboler understood what makes genuinely creepy and unsettling horror work. We are presented with a horrifying premise — an amorphous, sentient “fog” that can turn people inside out — but given no explanation for what it is and what has happened. The narrator, like the listener, is simply thrust into the middle of the story and forced to cope with events as they are already unfolding. Oboler gives just enough information to make the listener’s brain struggle, but not enough to destroy the mystery of the unknown. Note in particular the presence of the insane woman, and the already inside-out, but still living, victim. Clearly some crazy shit has already gone down in the house when the narrator arrives, and we’re left to wonder what.
I’m going to have to track down more of Oboler’s “Lights Out” episodes to listen to. I’ve known about them for years, but always (foolishly) dismissed radio plays as not worth my time. This is a mistake I will rectify soon.