Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mrs J. H. Riddell's The Uninhabited House

The Uninhabited House was originally published in Routledge’s Christmas Annual in 1875 and thereafter remained fairly obscure until it turned up in the 1971 E. F. Bleiler-edited anthology Five Victorian Ghost Novels (published by Dover Books).

The author, Mrs J. H. Riddell (1832-1906), enjoyed considerable success in her lifetime. She wrote around fifty novels and short story collections and this output included a respectable number of tales of the supernatural.

The Uninhabited House is, not surprisingly, a haunted house story. The narrator is Patterson, a young clerk in the London solicitor’s office of the kindly Mr Craven. Mr Craven’s most extraordinary, and most troublesome, client is the formidable Irishwoman Miss Blake. Miss Blake is imperious, querulous, selfish and manipulative. Most solicitors would have urged her to take her business elsewhere but Mr Craven cannot bring himself to take this step. Oddly enough his clerks, although all have suffered at Miss Blake’s hands, would be very disappointed were he to do so. The truth is that Miss Blake makes life a lot less dull than it might otherwise be. She is strangely repellant but strangely fascinating.

Miss Blake would be a challenging client in any circumstances but matters are made more exasperating by the matter of her house. The house was left to her by her widowed sister and the letting of this house provides the bulk of the modest income on which Miss Blake and her niece subsist. It is easy enough to find tenants for the house. It is, on the face of it, an attractive and desirable residence. The problem is that no tenant ever stays more than a few weeks, and several have vacated the house within a few days. 

The house displays all the symptoms of a classic haunted house - unexplained noises, doors that mysterious open and shut, lights that go on and off in impossible circumstances and worst of all apparitions for which no explanation can be found. 

Matters come to a head when the latest tenant flees the house and a law suit ensues over the matter of the lease. In desperation young Patterson volunteers to stay in the house himself in order to solve the mystery. He has been offered fifty pounds to do so but he has a stronger motivation than money - the chance to prove himself to a certain young lady.

The plot is, to be honest, a fairly routine Victorian ghost story. Its saving grace is that it is a particularly well written story. Mrs Riddell is skillful enough at creating atmosphere but more importantly she has a ready, one might even go so far as to say sparkling, wit. 

In the person of Miss Blake she has created a grotesque but perversely engaging comic character of almost Dickensian proportions.

A modern reader is unlikely to find this short novel to be in the least terrifying but it is consistently amusing. The Victorian ghost story, and even more particularly the Victorian ghost story written for publication in one of the special Christmas editions of popular periodicals, was after all intended as civilised family entertainment. Judged in this light The Uninhabited House succeeds quite well. Recommended for fans of the traditional ghost story.

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