Been working ridiculously hard lately, which is the explanation for my long absence from posting. Sorry about that! Hope to get back into the swing of things with this horror novel post.
The most fun books to read are often those hidden gems that you serendipitously come across. A good example of this is Adrian Ross’ The Hole of the Pit (1914), which I finished reading on my recent work trip.
I learned of this rather obscure novel while doing some research for my post on Ramsey Campbell’s in progress cosmic horror trilogy. In a 2015 interview, Campbell recommends Ross’ The Hole of the Pit, “dedicated to M.R. James and somewhat reminiscent of Hope Hodgson.” High praise, as James is one of the best authors of ghost stories of all time and Hodgson is one of the best authors of cosmic horror of all time. And, indeed, Ross’ The Hole of the Pit is a fun, unconventional, and eerie tale that will remind readers of both authors.
The setting of the novel instantly marks it as something unusual. It takes place in England during the English Civil War of 1642-1651, in which Royalists (loyal to the monarchy) fought against the Parliamentarians (known as “Roundheads,” supporting a parliamentary government). It is narrated by the gentleman Hubert Layton, a puritan who refused to take a side in the conflict and has lived in relative isolation on his father’s estate. As the novel opens, however, a messenger arrives to entreat Hubert’s help, and draw him into danger nevertheless: Hubert’s cousin, the Earl of Deeping, has returned to his ancestral home at Deeping Hold as his Royalist cause has failed, and has brought a retinue of fierce mercenaries along with him. They have taken to raiding the local village of Marsham for supplies, and the villagers have sent this messenger to Hubert to ask him to try and reason with his increasingly erratic and mad brother.
Hubert accepts the mission, and travels to Deeping Hold, which lies along the coast and is surrounded by treacherous marshland that floods with the tides. While boating in, he passes over the Hole, an exceedingly deep underwater pit that is, according to legend, connected to an unearthly and monstrous creature that will spell the doom of Deeping.
Hubert’s ambassador mission goes awry when his irrational cousin forces him to stay at the Hold, essentially as a prisoner. Fear is present throughout the Hold, as the soldiers have seen a bloody spectral vision of the Earl’s late wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. But this ghost is nothing compared to the horror that arrives later: the monster of the Hole, which begins to pick off the residents of the Hold with increasingly bold and violent attacks. Hubert must keep his wits about him to survive ghosts, his mad cousin, his cousin’s sinister and sorceress mistress, dangerous and scheming soldiers — and of course the thing from the Hole. And he must protect the life of Mistress Rosamund Fanshawe, kinswoman of the late wife of the Earl and fellow prisoner.
The Hole of the Pit is quite an ambitious and unusual horror novel, both for its time period as well as the unpredictability of its plot. Though the outcome of the tale is more or less clear from the beginning, there are many unusual twists and turns along the way, as well as unexpected machinations from the residents of the Hold. The story includes not only ghosts and monsters, but swordplay, explosions, and demonic rituals! I was delighted by how all these strange pieces fit together so well to leave me wondering what might happen next.
The thing of the Hole is masterfully written. As is the case with many great monsters of horror, we never get a fully clear idea of what we are dealing with, though its incredible size and strength and horrible stench is easy to deduce. The monster presents its own surprises as the story goes on, and it is as involved in the machinations of the Hold as its human residents. The monster is quite distinctive for that era of horror writing, with suggestions that it is both a biological and supernatural entity.
Sadly, The Hole of the Pit is only one of two horror stories written by Adrian Ross. Ross was the pseudonym of Arthur Reed Ropes (1859-1933), a prolific British lyricist who contributed lyrics to over sixty British musical comedies. Ropes graduated from Cambridge University in 1883 and ended up teaching history and poetry from 1884-1890; his pseudonym was invented because he feared his work on musicals would hurt his academic career. It was during his time at Cambridge that he apparently became acquainted, and inspired, by the famed ghost author M.R. James, leading to the dedication in The Hole of the Pit, “To Montague Rhodes James, Provost of King’s and teller of ghost stories.”
Ropes’ only other horror story is By One, By Two, and By Three, a more conventional horror tale set in Ropes’ era about a demon that haunts its summoner and kills his acquaintances. This story was originally published anonymously, and it was only in the 1980s that it was connected to Ropes. It is well done, but nowhere nearly as compelling and unique as The Hole of the Pit, which I can highly recommend. I only wish Ropes/Ross had written more horror, as The Hole of the Pit shows a great talent for storytelling in general, and horror in particular.