Friday, April 24, 2015

FFB: A House Possessed - Charity Blackstock

A House Possessed (1961) was published in England under the title The Exorcism. Both titles are apt but I prefer the US title for its multi-layered metaphoric possibilities. An exorcism does take place but it is not really the ghostly inhabitants who are affected by this arcane Catholic ritual. Collie Lodge is troubled by not only the haunting of other worldly spirits but by the troubled and haunted souls of its very human residents. It is a rich and evocative possession that grips the reader not unlike the complex ghost story The Turn of the Screw. And just as in Henry James' classic tale a child is at the heart of the problem.

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 prĂ©cis 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.

All the while there are the strange manifestations in Collie Lodge. Footsteps are heard in the hallways and within the walls. A woman's moaning and keening travels down the corridors in the late night hours. Few people can sleep without some sort of disturbance intruding. The legend of a secret passageway is drudged up again. Peter becomes increasingly frenzied when he learns that Margaret's spirit may forever be driven from the house. He has hysterical fits and lets loose with foul curses at all the adults. He seems to have gone beyond obsessive thoughts to true demonic possession. Peter claims to have become one with Margaret and he will make sure that Father Andrews, the visiting exorcist, will fail in the ritual meant to bring peace to Collie Lodge.

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.

The mystery here is more metaphysical than criminal. That is not to say there is no mention of crime. Blackstock manages to add another unexpected element related to the Jacobite necklace that I'll say no more about. A wary reader who pays attention to the characters and their professions may catch on to her plot tricks. Overall the book is more concerned with the complicated emotional lives of the residents of Collie Lodge, both living and dead, and how Peter Haynes and his eerie relationship with a ghost acts as a catalyst to bring about major changes in the lives of all involved. Dick and Barbara turn sleuth when the exorcism seems to have backfired and while some modern readers may find their antics to be a parody of juvenile fictional boy and girl detectives -- something which Barbara herself makes fun of -- in the end the mysteries of Collie Lodge and their resolution have a powerfully healing effect. A House Possessed while not a traditional detective story per se is most assuredly a mystery of another type that will hold sway over any reader willing to succumb to Blackstock's unequaled prose and perspicacious storytelling.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R2 - "Book published under more than one title"

8 comments:

  1. Sounds great John - and I particularly like the cover of the UK hardback - smashing stuff. Is the wikipedia on Torday / Blackstock reliable at all, do you think? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_Torday

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    1. The UK DJ is fantastic, isn't it? I like that it shows Peter who is such a force to be reckoned with in the book and he's shown in a noteworthy room in Callie Lodge.

      The Wikipedia article looks OK to me. One of the rare footnoted articles using real sources and not internet posts so I'd say it was 100% accurate.

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  2. Nice to see you back, been wondering if you were OK.

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    1. Reality intruded, Rick. Family troubles. All is well as can be now. Don't really want to write about it on my blog.

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    2. Sorry, John. Too many of us know that's like, of late. Meanwhile, I'm trying to remember what previously recommended Blackstock/Torday in the past...one of 100 BEST books, perhaps...

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    3. Last year I wrote about Miss Fenny (aka The Woman in the Woods) Coincidentally, that other book also features a remarkably conceived little boy character.

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  3. Hope things are/will be well. The cover of the top edition is the superior one. They devolve from there down. The book itself sounds...interesting, but not compelling.

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  4. Glad you're back, John! (and that all is as well as possible). Blackstock is an author I've got on the list to find more of...I've also read The Woman in the Woods as well as Dewey Death (which I liked better than Woods). This one sounds quite intriguing.

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