Home » Late Review – Matthew G. Rees on Benighted by J.B. Priestley

Feature by Matthew G. Rees, November 2019

Horla spotlights a 92-year-old horror novel that’s often overlooked

by J.B. PRIESTLEY

IF the name J.B. (John Boynton) Priestley rings any sort of bell with contemporary readers or theatre-goers chances are the works they’ll bring to mind are The Good Companions (a novel about an English touring acting company) or An Inspector Calls (his stage play about a family’s part in the death of a young woman, which savaged English snobberies about social class).

Priestley, who was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, died aged 89 in 1984. The Good Companions was his hit novel. For its part, An Inspector Calls has become a classic of repertory drawing-room theatre, seemingly always in production somewhere, like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

Significantly less well known, it seems, certainly on British shores, is a Priestley novel first published in 1927. It’s a book that, I believe, can plausibly be described as ‘full-on’ horror. Priestley was rather scornful of other possible tags: ‘thriller’ and ‘sensational mystery tale’ (though many might consider such descriptions as not wholly inaccurate).

The novel I refer to is Benighted.

Circumstances

I have forgotten the circumstances in which I first heard of it. This I suspect is due to the length of time it took me to obtain a copy. I eventually secured mine via a major library which dug one up in a depository from where it appeared not to have been borrowed for sixty-eight years. A first edition from 1932, the volume in question includes a second short novel, Adam in Moonshine, and was published by Heinemann of London.

In his day, Priestley was a national figure in England: a popular and successful writer (though he had his quarrels with his critics and came close to suing his contemporary, Graham Greene).

The obscurity surrounding Benighted – credit here, by the way, to Valancourt, a small independent American publisher in Richmond, Virginia, for bringing out an edition in 2018 – seems due to a combination of factors.

In an introduction to the 1932 edition, Priestley describes the work as an experiment that failed. He acknowledges its lukewarm welcome from critics and speaks of being out of step with fashionable writing of the day. ‘We live in a self-conscious, introspective, Hamlet-ish age… I still believe that a novelist should tell a story, and if possible a fairly shapely one…’

A tendency for modern-day audiences to perhaps be dismissive of writers of Priestley’s style and era – John Buchan might be considered a similar victim – may be another factor in the abandonment of Benighted.

And a sense that the story might have been better served in the form of a stage play (something that Priestley argued against) is perhaps something else that has contributed to its (relative) Cinderella status.

Finally, for now, there’s the fact that Priestley’s American publishers vetoed his title, christening his novel instead The Old Dark House for the benefit of buyers Stateside, where it achieved significant success, and became a film starring Boris Karloff. Hence perhaps some of the blank looks when its British title is given.

The novel concerns the fate of a party of travellers seeking shelter on a storm-lashed night in the uplands of Wales. Sanctuary – or so it seems – comes in the dark shape of a lonely old house with flickering lights. The rather odd occupants of this dwelling are reluctant to admit guests. And we gradually discover that theirs is a family more than a little ‘touched’ by madness.

The events occur on a single night. In total five travellers discover the house in two groups: floods rendering the mountain roads impassable to their motor-cars.

The marooned folk are Philip and Margaret Waverton (a couple whose marriage is failing), Philip Waverton’s friend Roger Penderel (an unsettled young bachelor), Sir William Porterhouse (an ageing, self-made businessman) and his companion Gladys Du Cane (a young woman from a chorus line in a small-time London club). For much of the novel the house has three principal occupants: bickering brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm and their mute manservant Morgan. (Two other brothers Femm also lurk there, as we come to discover.)

Storm

The ‘Welshness’ of the story is tenuous. Harlech, an old coastal town famous for its castle, is mentioned once (Porterhouse, the businessman, seems to be returning to London from its golf course) and that, pretty much, is it. The country seems to have been selected for a quality that Priestley felt it possessed – in parts, at least. He writes in the introduction: ‘I once actually drove a car through a terrific storm in North Wales and had to take to a very rough track because of a recent landslide. It was after that storm that we landed – not, fortunately, at the Femms’ – at the Inn of the Six Anglers, about which I wrote an essay that became a favourite with various friends…’

The novel is a short one, running in the Heinemann edition to just 153 pages. It might perhaps more properly be termed a novella – a form publishers have traditionally viewed with apprehension (and perhaps another explanation for the book’s obscurity).

(Continued next column)

Photo credit: the image of the statue of Priestley has been  edited from a photo by ‘Chemical Engineer’ via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The number of characters in the narrative is perhaps indicative of something. Eight is often seen as a handy-sized cast for a theatre production by smaller companies. And, for me, one of the frustrations of Benighted as a novel is the recurring sense that, really, it’s a stage play – something that’s heightened by its heavy reliance on dialogue and the feeling that chapters ‘cut away’ to scenes very much in the mannner of a play. (Indeed it was adapted and performed as a drama at the Red Lion Theatre in London in 2016.)

A tale of mismatched travellers at a marginal location somehow seems intrinsically better-suited to the stage (or screen), particularly if the timeframe of the narrative is tight – think, say, of Arnold Ridley’s vintage play The Ghost Train (set at a rural English railway station), or, for a more modern example, the John Cusack movie Identity (left), in which a storm sweeps strangers into a remote American motel.

Priestley statue

Although in present-day terms the cast of Benighted is too bulky for a short story (our contemporary emphasis is very much on compression), there is, throughout, a sense that – if not a play – then a short story is what Benighted may really be at heart. Maupassant’s ‘Boule de Suif’ – an odd menagerie of stagecoach travellers detained in an inn – comes to mind.

Weather ‘events’ (as they tend to be termed these days) also seem – by virtue of their episodic, sometimes explosive, nature – a better fit for short fiction than long. Rain and snow storms feature in some of my own stories – my Russia-set tale ‘The Glass’, for one, which can be found here at Horla. Another of my stories currently at Horla – ‘Dead Wood’ – features near-hurricane conditions. Unusual and, at times, extreme weather certainly plays its part in my collection Keyhole, set in Wales and its borderlands: a coastal storm is part of the crescendo of ‘I’ve Got You’; drought, meanwhile, dominates the story ‘Rain’. And I’m not alone in this. I can think of several stories by Welsh writers Glyn Jones and Rhys Davies that are either rain-drenched, freezing or thick with snow.

Of course it’s a trait that extends far beyond Wales. Chekhov’s ‘The Witch’ (a wild blizzard), Kevin Barry’s ‘The Fjord of Killary’ (a vast downfall of rain) and ‘Upon the Sweeping Flood’ by Joyce Carol Oates (a hurricane) are three stories that quickly come to mind. 

Influential

Possibly also influential in my thinking, I confess, is the tradition of the short story in Wales where, for a variety of reasons, it has arguably prevailed over the novel as a literary form. Perhaps working with that, in my mind at least, is the short story’s historic close association with horror.

Benighted though is simply too long for inclusion in a modern anthology – hence another reason for the way in which it seems to have been overlooked.

It could also be that (never mind Priestley’s reputation as a ‘literary figure’ and his seeming protestations that Benighted was misunderstood) that the work simply is page-turner fiction of a faintly pulp-ish kind, and so – in the eyes of scholars – undeserving of serious examination.

Clue

Maybe Priestley is giving us a clue when he writes in his introduction in the Heinemann: ‘… a great part of it was done late at night, chiefly because I was working hard at other books – not fiction – during the day.’

Priestley protests in the same piece that Benighted was never – in his mind – a play: ‘… the five persons who visit the house are intended for real persons, but the inmates are not: and that is one reason why I have never adopted with enthusiasm the repeated advice to turn this novel into a play. The members of that household serve their turn not too badly in the thick atmosphere of the tale but they would never survive the journey to the floodlights. After all they are only forms of post-War pessimism pretending to be people.’

Yet the film and stage treatments during and beyond his lifetime rather scotch his argument, it seems to me.

Destruction

Strange as it may seem, Benighted – never mind a certain clunkiness and an occasionally crowded ‘feel’ – has moments that wouldn’t seem entirely out of place in a John Cheever story. One example being the guilty admission by the businessman Porterhouse of his deliberate destruction – for reasons of jealousy and insecurity – of an employee he once promoted.

And there is some tender writing here, too. I regretted the death of one of the principal characters, whose company – almost to my surprise – I had rather come to like (usually a sign that a piece of writing has hit the mark with me).

Given his fallout with Greene (left), Priestley would probably not have approved – but Greene’s term for certain of his own work – ‘an entertainment’ – might well be a worthy way of summing-up Benighted. However, Priestley also succeeds, in my judgment, with some of that ‘Hamlet-ish’ introspection he seemed so sceptical of in his introduction. True, the Femms are rather cartoonish grotesques and the passages that concern themselves with the relationship between Philip and Margaret Waverton are at times a trifle dull. But the character of small-time showgirl Gladys Du Cane (not her real name, as she reveals) seems to me well-drawn and her self-knowledge is rather moving. The huge storm that engulfs the characters is evoked convincingly by Priestley.

In that light, I recommend this tale of the fate of five travellers on a dark night in the wilds of Wales.

Some final advice. If ever offered shelter at an ‘old dark house’ in which a door on the top landing is bolted on the outside… think the better of it – fast – and run for your life!

Matthew G. Rees (right) is the editor of Horla. His short story collection Keyhole features eighteen stories with a supernatural twist set in Wales and its borderlands with England. It is available via the publishers Three Impostors press whose website is here: www.threeimpostors.co.uk His short fiction has been published and read internationally. He has also written two plays and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales.

His short stories ‘The Glass’ and ‘Dead Wood’ referred to in the article above can be found here at Horla –

The Glass

Dead Wood