The Uninvited: Macardle’s Political Ghost Story

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It moved smoothly forward. The white, flowing shroud was a gown now and I saw hands. They were poised over the banister rail…as though the mist was crystallizing, the outlines were defined gradually…

Rarely had a ghost been described this directly, this unapologetically, in mainstream fiction. Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold was published in 1942 in the British Isles. For its US edition, the novel would attain its more familiar title, The Uninvited.

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Tramp Press’s recent edition of the 1942 classic novel, The Uninvited/Uneasy Freehold

Readers of the time were no doubt taken aback by an approach which must have reminded them of photographs from a medium’s parlour. The norms of supernatural fiction had long been defined by avoiding the obvious. Edgar Allan Poe, America’s most iconic master of horror, for instance, tended to employ dense allegories and explore themes of insanity. Poe’s fearful sights and sounds projected the psychological dysfunctions of the protagonists rather than sentient spirits returning from the dead. M.R James, perhaps Britain’s most famous ghost story specialist, was interested in malign supernatural forces. But typically he gave his readers only glimpses of visceral terror through the distance of secondhand narratives in the form of letters, reported conversations, and forgotten manuscripts.

Macardle’s ghost story with its coils of ectoplasm, seen by an undeniably sane protagonist in the modern age, represented a broadside attack upon the genre’s subtler conventions.

While Macardle’s frankness likely challenged reader expectations, it would be a mistake to imagine there was anything simple about either the story or its writer. Macardle was one the most sophisticated authors of her time, and Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is a challenging and, in many senses, political novel (I will avoid obvious spoilers).

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Feminist, author, and renaissance woman, Dorothy Macardle.

The plot involves a literary critic and budding playwright Roddy Fitzgerald and his younger sister Pamela who leave their Bloomsbury home to seek a rural idyll in Devon. For years, we are told, twenty-something Pamela has been sole carer for an ailing parent who is now deceased. This classic ‘woman’s role’ for an unmarried daughter has left Pamela in urgent need of rejuvenation. She and her brother do find their refuge, or so they think, in Cliff End, an isolated house overlooking the sea.

After purchasing the property from austere retired naval commander, Commodore Brooke — who is acting for his nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith — they settle in only to discover that the rumors of disturbances at Cliff End have more substance than they might have wished.

Macardle invokes atmosphere slowly: The rain ceased; the last smoldering log crumbled and died into white ash. The curious, living stillness, with a tremor of the invisible in it, that de la Mare creates in his stories, possessed the place.

A grief-stricken moan is heard through the night. A night-light is seen in the former nursery, and an overpowering scent of mimosa pervades the home at odd hours of darkness. At other times the siblings experience a dreadful cold and a sense of evil on the main staircase.

While Roddy and Pamela theorize about past trauma seeping into the fabric of a home — a variation of the “stone tape” theory — one thing becomes clear. Every time Stella Meredith, now a friend of the Fitzgeralds, visits her former home the haunting seems to intensify.

Seeking an explanation, they discover that Stella’s mother Mary Meredith died after falling from the cliff near the home fifteen years before. A second death occurred in the house soon after. A Spanish woman named Carmel, model to Mary’s artist husband, succumbed to pneumonia while under the care of Mary’s friend, Nurse Holloway.

Gradually, through the testaments of the townspeople and former acquaintances, Roddy and Pamela build two character portraits. Model Carmel, they hear, was a volatile, spiteful homewrecker who’d been having an affair with Mary’s husband. Mary, in contrast, was revered as the ideal wife and mother.

To the elderly local priest, Father Anson, Mary was “almost a saint.” To Stella, her mother “never told a lie in her life.” To Commander Brooke, she was an “unstained, saintly spirit.”

Mary is said to have taken in the vicious Carmel, despite the affair with her husband, and to have willingly submitted to her artist spouse’s infidelities and cruelties. As a mother to Stella she was disciplined and rigorous, and Stella, with encouragement from her grandfather, idolizes her memory.

When the haunting threatens Stella, Pamela and Roddy believe it is the spirit of Carmel returned to seek vengeance on the daughter of the home she ruined.

The plot panders cleverly to the reader’s prejudices. When holes appear in these portraits of Mary and Carmel, when it becomes clear that Carmel was wronged and that Mary, far from being a saint, was quite deliberately building the myth of her own perfection, it is a sucker punch. We, like Pamela and Roddy, feel we have been fooled by our own expectations.

The Fitzgeralds are not randomly chosen in terms of background and culture. Half English, half Irish, they are international in outlook. Bohemian friends from London visit Cliff End and articulate one of Macardle’s  themes. Artist Max complains that they live in an era when “life is reduced to some crude, fanatical party creed.”

He is referring, of course, to the rise of Fascism across Europe, but Macardle had her own brief which lay closer to home.

A feminist and Irish Republican, Macardle viewed the newly-minted Irish Constitution in 1937 as a betrayal of the ideals of  the 1916 proclamation. The earlier document had promised to deliver gender equality in Ireland. Macardle was critical of the Constitution’s focus on the role of the mother in the home, a kind of faux-veneration which served only to disempower women in practical terms.

In a recent edition of The Uninvited published by Tramp Press, an excellent introduction by Luke Gibbons, Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at Maynooth University, expands on Macardle’s theme of motherhood. Gibbons takes the reader to the premiere of the 1944 movie of The Uninvited at the Savoy Cinema, Dublin. The showing was attended by none other than Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, close friend of Macardle.

“Typical Dorothy,” de Valera was heard to say after the screening.

De Valera apparently saw the story’s take on the “cult of the saintly mother” as a riposte to his own work as the Constitution’s sole author. There was no love in any of Mary’s acts of apparent self-sacrifice, Macardle seems to tell us. This is a challenging message in a novel with several other subversive twists.

In the end it is Pamela who pieces together the true story while her brother provides the novel’s narration. The reader, firmly in Roddy’s point of view, is encouraged to view Pamela as he does — as illogical, vulnerable to hysteria, and in need of his special protection.

Pamela is, in fact, way ahead of Roddy and all his friends in terms of understanding the haunting, but she must pussyfoot around their egos as they (in modern parlance) “mansplain” to her that she is deceived by a too active imagination.

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“Typical Dorothy,” Macardle’s ghost story which hit  the screen in 1944

The 1944 movie that seemed to irritate de Valera is remarkably faithful in most regards to Macardle’s novel. Directed by Lewis Allen with a screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, the Paramount production reduces the number of characters, eliminates the priest, Father Anson, and turns Roddy (Ray Milland) into a composer, which allows for the melodic theme by Victor Young to heighten the romantic elements of the story.

Gail Russell  gives an appropriately otherworldly performance as the troubled Stella, and Donald Crisp is her forbidding grandfather, renamed Commander Beech.

The film has a very special kind of cult status among genre filmmakers. Movies often play conscious tribute by having characters quote directly from the 1944 screenplay. Ghost Stories, the 2017 Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman supernatural thriller is the most recent example.

One aspect, somewhat underplayed from the novel, is Pamela Fitzgerald. Ruth Hussey, though well cast as a demure, intelligent Pamela, is not given the scope afforded to her character in Macardle’s original.

When, in the novel, Pamela explains to Stella and her grandfather that she is a namesake of a famous Irish rebel, Commander Brooke is not amused. Later in the same conversation he disparages the Celtic Welsh with an unfavourale comparison with the more reliable Devon stock.

Commander Brooke and Pamela Fitzgerald are polar opposites. The Commander represents an insular Anglo-Saxon point of view complete with unhealthy emotional repression. Pamela is a half Celt with global interests and a respect for the intuitive senses. It’s possible to see in Pamela an aspect of Macardle’s younger self.

By the time Macardle wrote Uneasy freehold/The Uninvited she had already led a remarkably dramatic life as an activist as well as a leading journalist and author. She had been imprisoned during the Irish Civil War in 1922 after opposing the Anglo-Irish (partition) Treaty, and had also been on hunger strike. In the 1930s she worked as a journalist with the League of Nations and became a vocal opponent of the Nazis. During this time and later she became an advocate for children who had been psychologically traumatized by occupation and war.

One aspect of supernatural fiction is a sense of being closed off in a world with rules quite separate from real life. This can be one of the genre’s comforts and sometimes one of its limitations. The most striking quality about Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is the extent to which Macardle’s varied life is in evidence in the novel.

The Uninvited is a rare thing, a ghost story with its finger on the pulse of society and world politics.

 

See blog articles related to supernatural fiction:

Ghosts and the Radio

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

Little Strangers and haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Note to publishers wishing to send reissued classic fiction or new fiction for possible review on this blog, please email me (using ‘Contact Me’ page) to arrange submission. Thanks!

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 

 

 

 

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Ghosts and the Radio

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Radio could almost have been made for supernatural drama. It’s the medium which can create sound and atmosphere while leaving just enough to the listeners’ imagination. Alone or with family, in the muted lamplight of the evening, listeners can visualize the very things that scare them most.

Fans of supernatural drama are excited that Mark Gatiss is unearthing the annual tradition of the Christmas ghost story for BBC television and particularly that the subject is a radio host who specializes in late night horror stories.

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British Film Institute cover for the Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD, a seasonal tradition.

The story, The Dead Room, will have its first broadcast in the UK on Christmas Eve. The fictional radio host, Aubrey Judd, will be played by Simon Callow.

Gatiss, co-writer and co-creator of Sherlock, has the perfect pedigree for the Christmas horror tradition. A long-time M.R. James enthusiast, Gatiss dramatized James’s The Tractate Middoth for television in 2013, and wrote and presented the documentary, MR James, Ghost Writer. Gatiss’s self-penned portmanteau supernatural drama, Crooked House (2008) satisfyingly combines an M.R. Jamesian interest in antiquities — in this case a door knocker — with a Tudor necromancer searching through time to steal an heir for his name and fortune.

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Author Mark Gatiss and his Jamesian antique, a haunted door knocker

The fact that The Dead Room involves a radio host promises to bring the ghost story back to one of its most natural homes.

The premise will remind many of another radio-based story, David Thompson’s, A Child’s Voice, an Irish production broadcast in the UK also in 1978. Thompson’s story, directed by Kieran Hickey, features a larger- than-life storyteller, Ainsley Rupert Macreadie (T.P. McKenna). Each week, in three nightly episodes, radio star Macreadie gives his flamboyant introduction and reads a new macabre tale.

The solitary studio, the producer watching through the glass, the rituals of performance — a tray of sherry glasses brought to Macreadie after his sign off — all speak of a fondly-observed tradition. We imagine a whole population united in one mood, pleasantly chilled yet satisfied, cocooning themselves in their cozy bedrooms as the station closes down for the night. “There’s magic about radio,” Macreadie tells his producer. “It glows gently upon the embers of the imagination.”

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T.P. MacKenna as radio star Macreadie

 

This week, Macreadie’s story involves a stage magician, Orsino, whose trick leads to the accidental suffocation of his assistant, a young boy. After the first atmosphere-building episode, Macreadie feels uneasy on his walk home. Late at night, while in bed, he receives an anonymous phone call. It is a child’s voice pleading with Macreadie not to finish the story.

Naturally, Macreadie ignores the warning, but his nerves begin to fray when, after the second of the three installments, he receives another warning.

The battle lines of the drama would have been very familiar to an audience brought up on M.R. James television adaptations such as Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas (1974). Reducing the stories to a basic pattern, the formula  might read like this: a cocksure individual is pitted against supernatural forces which slowly eat away at the foundation of their certainty.

It’s a universal enough comment on the human condition to be pretty much the default structure of the ghost story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In A Child’s Voice, the use of a technological medium, the radio broadcast, is a feature which adds a new dimension to the terror. Suddenly, it’s the levers of advancement and civilization — the radio station, the phone — the very trappings and protections which are supposed to move us away from primitive fears, which become the conduits of the haunting.

The radio acts as a point of convergence between modernity and primal fear. It is, after all, a disembodied voice; if the hearer is unmindful of the science behind it, a disembodied voice is the essence of a ghost.

The same idea was exploited by L.P. Hartley in his 1926 short story, A Visitor from Down Under. A rich prospector, Mr. Rumbold, returns to London after many years in Australia, and checks into a familiar old hotel. A smug sense of having ‘got away’ with something hovers around the guest as he’s greeted as a returning hero by the hotel staff.

At the same time, a cadaverous stranger on an open-top omnibus is making his way to the same location through the wintry rain.

As Rumbold drowses in the hotel lounge before the fire, he’s startled by, “A cultivate voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky,yet careful and precise in its enunciation.” The voice is emanating from nowhere. He knows just enough of the changes which have taken place since he left the country to calm himself. It is only a BBC broadcast.

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L.P Hartley collection

Hartley has fun with  the novelty of radio in his ghost story.  Curiously, although written nearly a century ago, the BBC culture is entirely recognizable today to those over a certain age. The host self-consciously describes a children’s party taking place at Broadcasting House, his voice, “nicely balanced between approval and distaste.”

Stilted dialogue and children’s games subsequently give way to nursery rhymes. With the sense of disquiet descending on Rumbold, the rhyme of Oranges and Lemons takes its well-known morbid turn:

Here is a candle to light you to bed

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Chop, chop. chop…

Meanwhile the cadaverous stranger comes closer to Rumbold’s hotel . . .

A Visitor from Down Under is one of the cleverest and most innovative ghost stories from the period. Hartley seemed to realize that primal terrors do not require ignoring the wires and electricity of the modern world.

Much better to embrace them and make them part of the terror.

 

See related blog articles:

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

Little Strangers and haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

I will return to the Dracula theme in the next blog entry.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

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It’s not often that a screenwriter says he would be happy to shoot a former collaborator dead on sight. The artistic differences arising from the 1957 movie The Night of the Demon, however, were strong enough to provoke this reaction from former Hitchcock associate, Charles Bennett.

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Night of the Demon, official poster

Bennett had acquired the rights to M.R. James’s short story Casting the Runes. In a move he would later regret, he sold the rights to Hal. E. Chester, former child actor and producer. Chester, with whom Bennett would share screenplay credit for The Night of the Demon, was the man to earn Bennett’s violent animosity.

The difference of opinion centered around Chester’s decision, against the wishes of both Bennett and director Jacques Tourneur, to show the demon of the title in frank and undeniable detail at the end and at the beginning of the film.

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Culprit or hero? Does this demon make the movie or ruin it?

Here, in broad strokes, is a summary of Night of the Demon.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), an academic leading an investigation into a ‘devil cult’, finds himself pursued by cult-head Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Karswell demands Holden stops his investigation and leave Karswell and his “followers” in peace. When Holden refuses, Karswell puts a hex on Holden. He predicts the date of Holden’s death and says Holden’s “symptoms” will start with mental deterioration and uncertainty, then escalate into fear and, finally, horror as death approaches.

Although assailed, as predicted, by unexplained occurrences — preternatural winds, a glowing, smoking sphere on the grounds of Karswell’s home — Holden remains resolutely skeptical, much to the frustration of Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins). Joanna is the niece of Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), who was similarly cursed and died on the exact date predicted by Karswell.

Showing the demon early in the film is pivotal to how the audience experiences the battle of wits between skeptic Holden and black arts practitioner Karswell.

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Unconventional Battle of Wits, Karswell and Holden (image: British Film Institute)

Unbeknownst to Holden, there is no level playing field between them. The audience knows in advance Holden’s confidence is unjustified. When Holden patronizingly waves Joanna’s warnings aside, the audience is on her side and, ironically enough, on the side of Karswell, the nominal “villain.”

This turns out to be a rather unconventional twist and it draws attention, in true M.R. James style, to the intellectual brittleness of the protagonist (Holden). It’s left to Joanna, a schoolteacher, to articulate the thematic core of the story when she tells Holden, “You can learn a lot from children. They believe in things in the dark until we tell them it’s not so. Maybe we’ve been fooling them.”

It isn’t surprising director Tourneur wanted to keep his demon confined to the viewer’s imagination. Working under Val Lewton’s RKO unit in the 1940s, Tourneur had played a leading role in establishing a  sophisticated brand of horror which relied on ambiguity. The viewer is rarely certain whether Lewton’s “monsters” are genuinely supernatural or part of the psychology of the main characters.

In Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), the closest in style and structure to The Night of the Demon, newly-married Irena (Simon Simone) believes she will turn into a murderous panther should her husband attempt to make love to her. Determined, in her psychiatrist’s words, “to loose evil upon the world,” she lets a panther out of its cage in the Central Park zoo.

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Supernatural horror, or all in the mind, Tourneur’s Cat People, 1942

Animal attacks ensue off camera and the viewer is unsure which — actual panther or Irene transformed — is committing them.  Irene’s rival in love is tormented by a distorted black shadow in a hotel swimming pool. Her bath robe is shredded, apparently, by monstrous claws. The possibility that Irene really is transforming grows slowly in the mind of the viewer. The suspicion becomes all the more tantalizing because it is posed as an alternative to a logical explanation (namely that the escaped panther is committing the mayhem).

Tourneur works in reverse, slowly debunking this “logical explanation,” leaving the viewer’s mind vulnerable and open to hints about that other possibility. A woman’s footprints the sidewalk, for instance, dissolve inexplicably into animal paw marks.

Tourneur believed the fearful images conjured in the mind are far more subtle and potent than anything an on-screen monster can present. If The Night of the Demon had been part of the famous Lewton package, Tourneur might have been right to keep to this theory.

But the film had to serve the spirit of M.R. James. The question becomes whether  this most celebrated of ghost story authors would have disapproved of the demon as much as Tourneur and Bennett did.

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M.R. James: atmosphere and frank, physical horror

The first obvious counter point is that James relished very specific, sensuously vivid details. Who can forget the “intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen,” (italics in the original), as Professor Parkins’s bedclothes come to life in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad? Or the painfully visceral descriptions of the ghostly waif in Lost Hearts whose chest showed only “a black and gaping rent?”

In Casting the Runes, hexed Mr. Dunning (Holden’s equivalent), slips his hand under his pillow and touches “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it . . . not the mouth of a human being.”

While there is a sense of distance between the story and the reader in James it’s not achieved by eschewing physical horror. The arms’ length between reader and monster is created by framing the stories within the fussy, competitive world of scholars and English “types” of the period.

But this frame is merely an effective ruse. The reader comes to James through a humorous after-dinner glow. The reader sinks, smiling into their chair. It feels safe to descend into horrors. This is where James starts to work on our unconscious fears.

 

Even the extreme malignity of Karswell — one of the most chilling aspects of Casting the Runes — is cunningly established through a comedy of manners. The reader is presented with a series of formal but increasingly firm rejection letters from an (unnamed) organization’s secretary. These are in response to Karswell’s (unseen) requests to present a paper, The Truth of Alchemy.

It is clear from the final letter that Karswell is demanding to know the identity of the peer reviewer who gave his proposal a negative report. We subsequently hear, second hand though a dinner conversation, about how Karswell dislikes village children and bitterly complains about them trespassing on his extensive grounds. Unexpectedly, we are told, he recently invited all the children to a slideshow, only to display the most vivid and appalling horrors, including a demon on Karswell’s grounds who seems to have “torn in pieces or somehow made away with” a trespassing child.

James’s subtlety as a writer is revealed in his ability to create a formidably wicked characterization from the distance of reported events. James’s Karswell is, rather like the demon Bennett and Tourneur wanted to create, made up of shadows, hints, and an accumulation of small details.

But as The Night of the Demon‘s Karswell is not as terrifyingly cruel as in James’s original, the film instead concentrates both Karswell’s evil and James’s love of physical horror into one memorable image. With its shining teeth, smoking talons, horny flesh and fierce eyes, the demon does an admirable job being evil incarnate.

Aided by evocative photography by Edward Scaife, and a framing background of scholarship and edgy competitiveness, The Night of the Demon‘s monster also encapsulates the medieval-style terrors of M.R. James.

I think the famed author would have approved.

Paul Butler is the author of the novel, The Widow’s Fire.