THE SHADOW ON THE HOUSE by Mark Hansom (2009, Ramble House)
“#10. The Shadow on the House. Hansom is another of the unjustly neglected group of thriller writers. Usually his novels only appeared to have supernatural content, and in the end we learn it was only Uncle Geoffrey in a Mad Monk costume behind it all. The ending to this one is a stunner.”
– Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
A difficult book to find for years, Shadow was recently reprinted by Ramble House‘s Dancing Tuatara Press imprint. It also features a new introduction by John Pelan about the possible identity of the author Mark Hansom. Very little is known about Hansom, other than a number of thrillers were written under his name between the world wars. We may never know who he was, or if the name was a by-line for other writers. At least this edition doesn’t feature a contrived cameo of the unknown writer.
Shadow is told from the viewpoint of Martin Strange, a young man living in genteel poverty. Martin’s family had at one time possessed a lot of money and land, but the bulk of it went to a relative, leaving Marion with one manservant, Makepeace, and a stipend which allowed him enough for survival. At the beginning of the book, he’s living in an unfashionable flat in London with Makepeace.
Soon he makes the acquaintance of Sylvia Vernon, a woman of stunning beauty, and her aunt, Lady Somerton. Martin is smitten with Sylvia and can only think of marriage. However, he lacks the funds to make a proper British husband and she is penniless herself, depending on the good graces of her aunt. Furthermore, there is a rival to Sylvia, Martin’s good friend Christopher Knight. Almost by accident, Martin wishes Christopher would drop dead.
Before the book turns into another Henry James pastiche, Christopher is found murdered under very strange circumstances. Next, Martin’s worthless cousin Mick, who inherited most of the family fortune, is also found dead. Mick had also been a rival for Sylvia. Martin makes a marriage proposal to Sylvia, who accepts, although she’s worried there may be a curse on her.
At this point the novel begins to get very weird. Martin hears a tale from Makepeace about a similar death which occurred during the time of his grandfather. There’s a friend of Lady Sommerton, Professor Wetherhouse, who starts showing up at unexpected times. Strange men seem to be watching Martin outside his new apartment. Martin begins to suspect he is the victim of a ghost which has been stalking the family for generations. Or is he going mad?
The novel is written in a very refined style. I agree with the introduction as to how the author had a very clear understanding of the British class system. Once Martin comes into the family money, Makepeace hires other servants who are forbidden to cross into the master’s side of the flat after 9 PM. Even the title refers to a “shadow” of shame which may have fallen on the “house” of Strange. And it’s not too hard to figure out the solution to the the two murders in the book well before the end of it.
Ramble House is to be commended for bringing out this hard to find classic.