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.
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.)
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