The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle (1942)

A classic ghost story …..

Roddy and Pamela are brother and sister, and they are searching the Devon coast to find a new home. He is a playwright who wants to escape the complications of London life, and she has just been released from years of caring for their sick father.

They find the house of their dreams. It stood alone not far from the edge of a cliff, it was uninhabited and it appeared to have been neglected for quite some time, but they saw its potential. And they saw a “for sale” sign.

They find the owner, an elderly man with a granddaughter just out of boarding school. He seems reluctant to sell the house, and reluctant to explain why, but Roddy is persuasive.

The house will be theirs.

Roddy and Pamela are full of ideas for  refurbishing the house and making it into a home; and they dismiss local gossip that says that the house is haunted, and that terrified tenants had fled. They saw nothing amiss. They invite an old family retainer, Lizzie, to become their housekeeper; they enjoy the simple pleasures of life in the country; and they make plans to invite friends to stay.

The Uninvited

All of this is wonderfully readable, and utterly of its time.

I liked Roddy and Pamela; I found it easy to understand who they were, where they were in life. The sibling relationship was particularly well drawn; they were a team.

They had thought things through; they knew that their circumstances were likely to change, that they wouldn’t always want to share a home, and they had made provision for that.

In between the house talk and the ghost talk there were allusions to their Irish home and it was clear that their roots and their history were important to them.

It was interesting to follow sensible, practical people into a ghost story.

It was obvious there was going to be a ghost story. Roddy was telling the story and the substance of the book was a manuscript, introduced by a letter explaining that it was an account of what had happened in Devon.

That meant that a degree of suspense was lost – I knew from the start that something had happened and I knew, from the tone, that the Fitzgerald’s had been able to put whatever had happened behind them.

During a housewarming party, a friend of Roddy and Pamela’s is profoundly disturbed by something she sees in the mirror of the spare bedroom. Roddy spends the next night in that spare bedroom, and finds himself overcome by fear and foreboding.  And then, when Roddy and Pamela away from the house, Lizzie is terrified by something that she sees emerging from that room, something that she can not find the words to explain.


That is the turning point.

They know that something happened in that house.  They suspect that it involves Stella, the granddaughter of the man who reluctantly sold them the house, because she is drawn to them and to that room.

The story unwinds slowly as Roderick and Pamela set about uncovering the history of their home, in the hope that when they know what has happened there they can somehow put things right. The mystery, the ghost story and the story of country life are beautifully wrapped together.

A romance grows between Roddy and Stella and that complicates the story; because the house had been Stella’s childhood home, because the haunting of the house had its roots in a tragedy that happened then, and because whenever the Fitzgerald’s saw the possibility of a resolution they also saw the possibility of harm to Stella.

I had an idea of how the mystery would pay out at an early stage, but that didn’t spoil the story. It was an utterly believable human tragedy, and I could understood how and why it had happened. And I was caught up with Roddy and Pamela as they struggled to work out what had happened and what they could, what they should, do.

The plot was was well thought out, it drew in a lovely range of people and incidents, and it had things to say. This story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstance speaks of the importance of home, of the roles that mothers can play, and of the consequences of their absence.

 I’d call this a very good – almost great – ghost story.

And a lovely period piece.

The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar (1942)

Ernst Lothar was Austro-Hungarian writer, theatre director and producer; he left his homeland in 1938, and then, in exile, he wrote this book, which tangles the history and culture of his country with the story of one family.

It was published in 1943, and it was translated into English in 1944.

Towards the end of the 19th century Christopher Alt was a renowned piano-maker. He was a master of his craft; the best in Vienna, the best in Austria, and quite possibly the best in the world. When his life ended, he left behind a will containing an extraordinary clause. Because he was a strong believer in family, because he wanted his children, his grandchildren and the generations that followed to remain close, his will said that his descendants must live within the walls of the family home at number 10 Seilerstatte to claim any inheritance .

cover_9781609452728_230_600He had hoped to create a harmonious family unit that would live happily side by side and continue the work that he had started, but the reality was rather different. The family members were all very different. They had different occupations, different ideas about politics and society, and very different ideas about how they should live.

They all remained, living their different lives in their different appartments; and the mausoleum remained the same as the world outside changed.

In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Alt, who his family had believed to be a confirmed bachelor, brought home a fiancée. He built a new storey on to the house so that he could offer a fitting home to his beloved bride. His family mistrusted her. They had heard rumours that Henrietta Stein was a courtesan, that she was entangled with Crown Prince Rudolf.

She was, and that would have consequences for her, for her husband, and for her children.

Those stories, and stories of other members of the Alt family, are tangled up with real history. Their lives are touched and changed by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the First Great War and its fallout, the rise of National Socialism and the annexation of Austria by Germany.

That is done very, very well; and the changing times were so very well caught. But the story of the family was always in the foreground and their characters and relationships were understood and presented every bit as well as the history.

There were small family dramas and there was high drama too. Adultery, a duel, a murder, a poisoning ….

It might sound over-dramatic, but it was utterly believable.

Franz and Henriette remained at the centre of the story, and their very different characters and the love and tensions in their marriage were particularly well drawn.

I found much to enjoy, much to admire, but I was disappointed in the book as a whole.

I felt that I was being held at a distance, that these were people that I had been told a great deal about, not people that I knew. That meant that I never really felt as involved as I would have liked to have been. Had this been a shorter book that might not have mattered, but this book had six hundred pages, and there were times when I turned the pages very quickly, because I just wanted to find out what happened and move on.

untitledII suspect that the author might have been a little too close to the material – his afterword suggests that at least some of the characters were drawn from life – and certainly the book would have been better with a little more editing.

And maybe a little less drama and a little more thoughtfulness.

It isn’t that this is a bad book, and I’m not sorry that I took the time to read it; but I can’t help thinking that it might have been so much better.