The Hole of the Pit by Adrian Ross (1914; reprinted in Uncanny Banquet, 1992):
“Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.” Isaiah 51:1.
Ramsey Campbell unearthed this hitherto never-reprinted gem of a novel and had it serve as the capstone to his 1992 horror anthology Uncanny Banquet. It is, figuratively and somewhat literally, one hell of a novel. Ross, who primarily wrote librettos for operettas, wrote this one horror novel as a tribute to contemporaneous ghost-story giant M.R. James. Indeed, many of James’s stylistic trademarks — especially a strict attention to suggestion rather than showing, and the framing of the horror within a narrative from the past — are fully at work here.
However, as Campbell notes in his introduction to the novel, The Hole of the Pit seems more comparable to the horror works of equally contemporaneous William Hope Hodgson, whose monsters and spirits tended to have some sort of quasi-scientific (or at least rationalized supernatural) underpinning. Did Ross read The Ghost Pirates or The Night Land?
But to the novel itself.
The narrator is one Hubert Leyton, a Puritan scholar living during the English Civil War of the 17th century between the Cavaliers (those loyal to the King) and the Roundheads (those loyal to Oliver Cromwell). The narrator abhors violence and has stayed out of the conflict, though he knows Cromwell. A resident of his cousin the Earl of Deeping’s lands shows up on his doorstep one day to ask Hubert to attempt to stop the Earl and his men from plundering the supplies of his tenants.
The Earl, a Cavalier, is being pursued by the Roundheads and has taken up residence — along with several dozen soldiers and one peculiar Italian witch — in his ancestral home, a castle set on a small island in the midst of a tidal inlet and some pretty treacherous marshes.
Hubert goes in the hope that he can avert further bloodshed. Soon, though, he’s captive in his cousin’s castle along with the late countess’s cousin Rosamund. Actually, everyone’s a captive to the tides, the approaching Roundhead force…and something that’s come boiling out of ‘the Hole’, a mysterious underwater cave. Both Hubert and his cousin know that a bit of prophetic doggerel predicts that the Earl of Deeping will be destroyed by some supernatural punishment sent by the Devil. Neither believed such a thing — until now.
One of Ross’s great triumphs here is the first-person characterization of Hubert, who really is a good man, which is not the same thing as being a man without a backbone. Ross manages to make Hubert sympathetic in part by making Hubert sympathetic — to the criminals and mercenaries fighting alongside the Earl, and to the violent, murderous, but also honourable Earl himself. Hubert is no stranger to violence — indeed, he’s a much better swordsman than anyone else in the Castle, thanks to fencing lessons — but he abhors it nonetheless, and takes no joy in the deaths that begin to pile up. Because there is something awful stalking the inhabitants of the castle, kept mostly off-screen by Ross.
I don’t know how accurate Ross’s depiction of the time and place is, but the novel’s verisimilitude seems to me to be unassailable. The creature, or thing, or whatever, gains dramatic heft by Ross’s parsimony in using it and showing it. Many of its most sinister actions occur unobserved, with only the startling aftermath attesting to its presence and its malevolent powers and intent. All in all, this really is a gem of a historical horror novel. It’s a shame Ross didn’t write more of them. Highly recommended.