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Case Book: Old Dark Houses

Old Dark Houses Le Fanu's Wyvern Mystery was an early milepost of the "old dark house" genre
By Ron Miller

When newly married Alice finally arrives at Carwell Grange, the sprawling country mansion that will be her new home in The Wyvern Mystery, she's greeted at the front steps by a cluster of glum-looking servants.

"Welcome to Carwell, milady," says the dour housekeeper, with all the warmth of a prison warden.

Yet the bad vibes sail right over Alice's pretty head. She's blinded by the light of a sunny day. All she cares about is the fact that this great pile of masonry is her first home as a new bride -- and it's one big piece of real estate!

"I'm sure I will like such an old, quiet place," Alice exclaims, eagerly striding past the gloomy servants into the spacious entry hall.

If we all could tell her something right then, no doubt it would be, "Sure, you will, Alice. At least until the sun goes down."

However, we can't fault her innocence about "old dark houses." In 1869, when J. Sheridan Le Fanu first published The Wyvern Mystery, people like Alice hadn't read many thrillers like his -- and there weren't any movies or radio and television shows at all, let alone ones set in spooky old houses.

Because MYSTERY!'s season-opening telecast comes nearly a century and a half after Le Fanu published his book, we have the benefit of knowing what's likely to happen in places like Carwell. We know those servants are keeping a secret; that there's a reason why nobody ever goes into that unused upstairs wing; that there's something behind that locked door. It might be Rochester's crazed wife from Jane Eyre or the desiccated corpse of Norman Bates' mother in Psycho. We may not know which it will be, but we can be sure it won't be pretty when seen up close and personal.

The tradition of the spooky old house goes back even further than Le Fanu. You can find it in Edgar Allan Poe, father of the modern mystery. In 1839, he wrote: "I know not how it was, but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."

That would be "The House of Usher." Poe was one of the first authors to give a house a physical persona, telling us it had "eye-like windows" that looked down upon the visitor, filling him with dread.

Barely a decade later, Nathaniel Hawthorne described Pynchon House in a similar fashion, saying, "The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressing, also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within."

Hawthorne's central setting for The House of Seven Gables was meant to be a metaphor for the depravity within its walls over the generations. When he tells us we couldn't walk by the house "without passing through the shadow of that weather-beaten edifice," he was delivering the same message as Poe and Le Fanu: Old houses seem to soak up evil.

And, naturally, that's why they've always made such wonderful settings for stories intended to frighten us. For Alice in The Wyvern Mystery, her nightmares multiply in such an environment. The very walls of Carwell seem to drip menace. So, when the "lurking presence" literally bursts through one of those walls to confront her, we surely can understand why her hair stands on end, not to mention ours.

The "old dark house" genre didn't really get that name until after 1908 and the coming of Mary Roberts Rinehart's first bestseller, The Circular Staircase. In that book, a middle-aged woman moves into a large old country estate called Sunnyside. That name smacked of sarcasm, of course, because there's nothing sunny about what happens there, starting with the discovery of the dead body at the foot of the circular staircase.

Rinehart's novel later became a hit play called The Bat, which also was filmed several times. It popularized the notion of the old dark house filled with secret corridors, hidden panels, spiral staircases -- and hooded killers, who usually were after overnight guests whose car had broken down during a rainstorm. In the 1920s, there were scads of such stories, including John Willard's 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, which became one of the most famous of all silent movies. They continued into the 1950s, until every movie comedy team from Abbott and Costello to the Bowery Boys had done at least one.

The genre probably first crossed the line into comedy when J. B. Priestley's Benighted parodied it. When James Whale (of Frankenstein fame, and more recently the subject of Gods and Monsters) directed Benighted for Universal Studios in 1932, the studio even changed the name, calling it simply The Old Dark House.

Romantic novelist Daphne du Maurier became the most popular modern purveyor of the genre in 1938 when she published Rebecca. The novel began with what would become one of the most famous lines in movie history, immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film version: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Manderley was the old dark house where the heroine came to feel the unwelcome presence of her husband's former wife. The unnamed heroine of Rebecca, like Alice, also was met at the front steps by dour-faced servants who all seemed to be keeping a secret or two.

Du Maurier's approach was always quasi-romantic, but others began to turn the genre darker as publishing restrictions relaxed. In Ethel Lina White's The Spiral Staircase, for example, a killer terrorized a mute girl who couldn't scream like all her predecessors. In Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, a husband tried to drive his wife insane in yet another mysterious old house.

Today the genre is more likely to include ghosts, as in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- which also included a spiral staircase for good measure. But some of our most popular modern authors still give us classic old dark house mysteries, like Mary Higgins Clark's Remember Me.

Even after some 150 years, you can still find mysteries that echo back to the days of Sheridan Le Fanu and The Wyvern Mystery. By now, though, you'd think young women would know enough to stay away from houses with names.

This is the first in an occasional series by Ron Miller, author of MYSTERY! A Celebration.

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