John C. Hocking is the author of the forthcoming Conan and the Living Plague. His short fiction has appeared in Flashing Swords, Black Gate, Weirdbook, Skelos and Tales From the Magician’s Skull. His novella Black Starlight is currently being serialized in Marvel’s new Conan the Barbarian comic.
I have a real attachment to the supernatural tales that appeared in what is often called the golden age of the English ghost story. Ranging from around 1880 to somewhere in the 1920s its boundaries are as vague as its achievements are remarkable. For a time, in that difficult to imagine world in which fiction had yet to solidify into specific genres, any author might try his or her hand at a tale of the supernatural, writing primarily motivated by the desire, as M.R. James put it, to make the reader feel “pleasantly uncomfortable.” While dozens of authors who would later distinguish themselves in genre fiction did fine work, many literary luminaries, including Henry James, Somerset Maugham and Edith Wharton, thought nothing of doing their level best to creep readers out. The result of all this hard labor in the service of the macabre was an avalanche of memorable tales of the supernatural.
Despite all the craft involved, to the contemporary reader these stories can be something of a mixed bag. There is a concern for verisimilitude and insinuation rarely seen in modern horror, and the unveiling of the supernatural may be delicate or ambiguous enough that some tales feel anticlimactic to modern sensibilities. But there are plenty that pack a surprising wallop, and among these is Adrian Ross’s little known short novel, The Hole of the Pit.
Ross was actually Arthur R. Ropes, a gifted fellow who is credited as one of the founders of musical comedy. Before he made his fortune writing and translating tuneful amusements for the stage he was at King’s College, a Senior Fellow who worked beside M.R. James, inarguably the master of the English ghost story. The Hole of the Pit is dedicated to James and does the master no dishonor.
The novel poses as a historical artifact, a found narrative dating back to the English Civil War. The pacifist narrator finds himself drawn into the aftermath of this conflict when his cousin, a Royalist fleeing the defeat of his cause, holes up in his family castle at Deeping Hold accompanied by a group of desperate and lawless soldiers. The narrator is impressed into interceding with his cousin, whose soldiers are pillaging the area for supplies and generally being obnoxious. So he heads to Deeping Hold, a stony stronghold in the midst of a flooded marsh and near a submerged pit rumored to be bottomless and connected with ominous legends that tell of an unspeakable evil that lurks within, waiting for its opportunity to rise and wipe out Deeping Hold and those who dwell there.
After this engaging set-up the reader is treated to a well-paced array of surprisingly sensational developments, including a ghost, a sorceress, a satanic rite, and the protean, unknowable Thing that rises from the pit to harass and slay the poor humans trapped in Deeping Hold. Although all of these elements are a pleasure to encounter, it’s the thing from the pit that makes the biggest impression. While much of the supernatural here is spectral, this is a very physical menace even though it’s almost entirely unseen. It moves beneath the water and extends ‘ribbons’ of slime. It’s a massive oozing presence that gives off a ghastly stench and stalks those in Deeping Hold with stealthy relentlessness. It is, in fact, so Lovecraftian that it seems criminal to me that HPL apparently never read this story. As The Hole of the Pit was first published in Britain in 1914, at the advent of the First World War, and swiftly faded from view, it’s not truly a surprise that he missed it. Had Lovecraft read it I daresay it would have delighted him and that critics might well have written essays on how the tale’s grisly aquatic monstrosity might have influenced him.
I owe the discovery of this story to the 8/19/18 posting of this site’s weekly DMRtian Chronicles, and am grateful for it. The Hole of the Pit is currently available from Oleander Press, a Cambridge-based publisher that is apparently run by a group of fellows that have spent a good many nights free-climbing the local architecture and then writing books about how their readers can do the same.