Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Benighted: J.B. Priestley

I read this book because it was the source for the film The Old Dark House. My husband bought the book and read it, and we wanted to re-watch the film. Because this is in the horror genre, I was not too sure I would enjoy it. But I did like it, although it wasn't scary at all to me. Atmospheric, yes, very much so.

From the book cover:
A torrential downpour forces Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel to seek shelter in an ancient, crumbling mansion inhabited by the strange and sinister Femm family. Determined to make the best of the circumstances, the benighted travellers drink and talk to pass the time while the storm rages outside. But as the night progresses and tensions rise, dangerous and unexpected secrets emerge. On the house’s top floor are two locked doors: behind one of them is the mysterious, unseen Sir Roderick Femm, while the other conceals something terrifying and deadly ... 
Benighted (1927), a classic ‘old dark house’ story of psychological terror, was the second novel by one of the most prolific and beloved British authors of the 20th century, J.B. Priestley (1894-1984). This edition includes an introduction by Orrin Grey, who discusses the connections between the novel and its film adaptation, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).
The first three chapters are told from the point of view of each of the three main characters (although not in first person). The first chapter focuses on Philip Waverton's thoughts as he drives his wife and his friend Penderel in a horrendous storm, on mountainous  roads, in "wildest Wales." Soon they are forced to turn into the drive of an old house off the road. The second chapter is devoted to Penderel,  who gains entry to the house. In that chapter, the Femm family members who reside in the house are introduced, and their servant, Morgan. Miss Femm and her brother live in the house with their brother Roderick, who is confined to bed upstairs. In the third chapter, we see things from Margaret's point of view as she changes out of her soaked clothes and experiences Miss Femm's strange ways. At this point, the reader is aware that there is some problem between Margaret and Philip Waverton, and it is clear that they both want it to be resolved.

Although the house has no extra beds, the visitors must stay because the road is entirely blocked in both directions. The Femms share their dinner with the unwelcome guests. And then two more victims of the storm seek shelter and the group gets livelier. For such a brief book, the character development is very impressive. Due to the unusual and tense circumstances, the group tends to share more than one might usually do in a social situation. Those looking for more thrills might find the conversations and introspection less interesting, but this was perfect for me. There are unpleasant surprises towards the end, but overall, an excellent read.

Very soon after I read the book, we watched the film; I remembered nothing from the first viewing. Up to a point, the film is very faithful to the book. The actors seem like good choices for the roles, although I wasn't picturing someone like Charles Laughton in the Sir William Porterhouse role. Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, was my favorite character in the book and the film. The film also stars Gloria Stuart as Margaret, Raymond Massey as Philip, and Boris Karloff as Morgan.

The film was more effective at being menacing and scary, but the book gets across the characters and their relationships better. I enjoyed both. The introduction by Orrin Grey, which discusses both the film and the book, was interesting and informative.

See the reviews by NancyO at Oddly Weird Fiction and J.F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books.


Publisher:  Valancourt Books, 2018. Orig. pub. 1927.
Length:     172 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:     Wales
Genre:      Horror, Psychological Terror
Source:     Borrowed from my husband.


Margot Kinberg said...

'Atmospheric' is exactly the word I was thinking of as I read your post, Tracy. It certainly does sound like that sort of story, and psychological tension can be at least as effective as any other sort of tension when it comes to building suspense. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Rick Robinson said...

Not my cuppa, I think. Scary, horror, whatever you name it, if it makes me too uncomfortable while reading, I'll quit it, if I even began.

Rick Robinson said...

Not that I need Farmer Friendly of Happy Farm in Pleasant Valley, but I just don't like horror.

Katrina said...

I've read a few books by Priestly and this sounds very different from those ones. I'll give it a go, sometime.

TracyK said...

I had an Anonymous comment that disappeared but I had a copy in my email and it was very interesting so I am restoring it:

I'm surprised you don't mention the magnificent and grotesque Ernest Thesiger as Horace ("Have a potato.") Femm or Elspeth Dudgeon as Sir Roderick Femm - an early case of cross-gender casting!
Herbert Millingchamp Vaughan's book The South Wales Squires - yes! it's real! - tells a little about the only slightly less eccentric lives of families like the Femms.

TracyK said...

And I agree. I should have mentioned both of them, but I especially liked Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm. Very convincing. And creepy without being menacing.

TracyK said...

It was a great story, Margot, and I am glad it came my way. Not my usual reading.

TracyK said...

I know what you mean, Rick, and more modern horror seems even worse, even though I haven't tried much of it from any time.

TracyK said...

I hope you do give it a try, Katrina. I will be looking for some more fiction by Priestley to read. My husband has two other books by him but they are histories.

Clothes in Books said...

I really like JB PRiestley - I think he is under-rated and unfairly forgotten. He creates wonderful, real characters and really gets inside their heads. I haven't read this one - he really wrote some varied books!

TracyK said...

Moira, I do remember now that you did two posts on Angel Pavement. I do want to try other books by Priestley.

col2910 said...

I've heard of Priestley, who hasn't? I'm not that minded to read him, or this one at least to be honest.

TracyK said...

Reading this one has encouraged me to try more by Priestley, Col, but who knows when I will find time?