Set in Inverness, Scotland by the shores of Loch Ness Collie Lodge is introduced to the reader via a newspaper advertisement in the very first paragraph of A House Possessed. Katie Murphy, the current caretaker of the inn and museum, wrote up a précis of Lodge's historical importance, the assorted 18th and 17th century furniture that still fills its rooms, the priceless Jacobite necklace on display and tantalizingly alludes to the ghost of Margaret Cameron, a wronged woman who eloped with her lover in 1813, who is said to haunt the Lodge. Peter Haynes, a twelve year old boy, is fascinated with the legend of Margaret and her soldier lover. He claims to have conversations with her and knows her story intimately. Miss Murphy is not the only one disturbed by Peter's morbid fascination with a dead 18th century woman. His father Nigel and aunt Barbara are also bothered though Barbara is more sympathetic to the imaginative boy's stories than is his belligerent father. Strangely, Margaret's ghost has been acting up with increasing frequency and Miss Murphy is determined to dispel her presence for good. Ghosts have their charms, she says, but when they start scaring the guests it's bad for business. She invites Father Andrews to perform an exorcism which serves as the climax of the book.
The novel flits between past and present as Blackstock tells two interrelated love stories. We learn of the tragic story of Margaret, her lover Dick Cole, and her disapproving father Colonel Cameron who banned her from his house when she asked for his blessing to marry dissolute Sgt. Cole. The story of Margaret and her lover and their doomed child is echoed in the story of Barbara, her brother Nigel, and the antiques broker Dick Ingham, a former flame of Barbara's whom she met in Athens years ago. Ingham has coincidentally shown up in Inverness and is staying at Collie Lodge. This allows for several flashbacks to Athens as Barbara recalls their meeting and her attraction for him. As her story is told we see numerous parallels to Margaret's story not the least of which is that both women have men they love who share the same first name.
Blackstock adds a few intriguing subplots among the minor characters. There is an unexpected moment of high drama that just misses teetering over into melodrama in the story of Miss Leslie and the troubled war veteran Flight Sgt. Major suffering from haunted visions and a private torment. Miss Leslie is at first introduced as a near caricature of the spinster tourist eager to hit all the top sightseeing spots and sample all the local fare at mealtimes. By midpoint, however, she has one of the book's most poignant moments when she pauses to listen to Major's life story filled with delusional thoughts and visions. She not only listens, she hears the truth where others hear nonsense, and she ends up preventing a tragedy. Blackstock always has the right touch to elicit a quick tug at the heartstrings without descending into sentimental bathos. Her depiction of a mentally ill war vet hits the right notes of compassion and insight.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R2 - "Book published under more than one title"