Imagine my delight, when perusing the net, in discovering a specialist publisher- a la Valancourt Books- that seeks out and republishes long-forgotten titles from the ghostly and macabre canon. Clearly a major spending splurge will commence. I have already added ‘The Elementals’ by McDowell to the pile and am seriously coveting ‘The Moorstone Sickness’ by Taylor and ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’ by Westall, after only a mere customary glance.
Having loved Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, it was a given that I would select ‘Benighted’ first, if only out of curiosity. Exploring how his writing would transfer from a play script to the novel format, holds a certain fascination for me. That said, it’s premise was equally as intriguing: that of an old haunted house in which a band of strangers must take unwitting shelter, from uncontrollable forces. While such a plot is now in danger of being perceived as mere trope, by today’s standards, I knew that Priestley would bring enough skill to his writing to move beyond this premise (we must also acknowledge that this novel was written long before our tired expectations). If I was to be wrong, and find this novel tiresome it would still appeal to the more Hammer-horror esque aspect of my imagination.
While Brad and Janet would of course be proud of the setting and exposition offered up in this novel, it cannot be denied that Priestley expertly conjures an oppressive and brooding backdrop to his tale. Surprisingly, his theatrical bent lends itself very well to the story itself. Instead of overloading itself on the expression of fear through language (which in other novels can become tedious, in that the narrative description becomes exaggerated and renders itself detrimental to the tone intended). To say his language is simple, would be unfair, as he obviously wears his vocabulary lightly. However, he is confident enough to allow the story to speak for itself and rely on the careful foreshadowing of what will come in the littering of a few carefully placed words amongst the ordinary flow of the narrative, to build tension. Indeed words such as ‘devilish’, ‘hunted beast’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘savage, ‘trembling’ and ‘threatening’, while being used to explain their situation and the torrential weather they are at the mercy of also expertly ratchet up the ominous unease that creeps up on you as you read.
Perhaps the setting and exposure to natures power, touch on our primal fears (much like painted clown faces and ghost trains do for me- tied to the hidden and unknown aspects of experience, that which you cannot see and control). Indeed, this novel circles carefully around metaphors of light and dark and how they juxtapose each other in our experience. The titular choice, ‘Benighted’, sums up nicely both Priestley’s command and control of language and also reflects the main themes of the novel- both moral and physical. Benighted can mean:
A) overtaken by night or darkness
B) lacking enlightenment or knowledge
which we understand clearly, once we have completed the novel and daylight has returned. Things always seem better in the light. While I was genuinely scared, while reading this novel, waiting to see what horror the writing would reveal and what fate would befall the protagonists, it was in the cold light of day and the dawning that we must all face our fears in the light, to examine them with clear sight that stayed with me the most. This is where the novel succeeds most and this is where Valancourt have done credit to the genre, by reminding us that great writing can be found amongst genre fodder. Thanks very much for the chills and the elucidation.