It’s my custom around Halloween to dredge up and read a “moldy oldie,” a story of horror or the supernatural written many years ago, which is mostly forgotten today. This year, my choice was the two horror stories written by Adrian Ross, “By One, By Two and By Three” and The Hole of the Pit.
Adrian Ross was the pen name of Arthur Reed Ropes (1859 – 1933), an academic who went on to become a successful English musical comedy lyricist. Why he chose to write two, and only two horror stories is a bit of a mystery. It’s quite likely he was motivated by his friendship with the most famous writer of ghost stories in his era, M. R. James. Indeed, The Hole of the Pit is dedicated to James.
In some ways, the two stories are much alike. In both, the protagonist is beset with difficulties that include a family curse. In both, the narrator is a university man who gets unwillingly dragged into the workings of the curse. In both, fear is evoked by seeing what the horror does, not what it looks like. And in both, things end badly for the protagonist. (I’d have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence, but, c’mon, these are horror stories. You were thinking maybe they had happy endings?)
“By One, By Two and By Three” is a short story, the earlier of the two, originally published anonymously in 1887. It is generally considered to be more derivative than original. And there are elements of it that will grate on readers today, noticeably the stereotypical stingy Scottish uncle.
And yet, Ross’s characterization of his protagonist, Macbane, makes him to be a fascinating character. One suspects Macbane is even a mystery to himself. He unleashes the family curse, and yet clearly doubts the wisdom of his own actions. Ross also does a good job building up the atmosphere of horror, hinting, explaining, evoking. Some readers today might find the build-up a bit slow, but that’s what’s needed for it to work properly.
The Hole of the Pit, published in 1914, is longer, more complicated, and perhaps a better work. Unlike the earlier short story, which was set in contemporary times, Hole takes us back to England in 1645, in the midst of the civil war between Cavaliers and Roundheads. The story’s protagonist is a Royalist earl and commander who flees back to his island stronghold after Cromwell’s victory at Naseby. And almost all the story is set in the stronghold, the nearby village, and the waters that lap at their shores.
Unlike “By One . . .,” where the protagonist is the most interesting character, in Hole they are the narrator and the earl’s mistress. The former is the earl’s cousin, a Puritan of uncertain faith whose commentary on people and events is meant both to convey a mood of impending dread, and to provide touches of humor when the Puritan comments on people’s religious views and actions. The earl’s mistress is an Italian woman versed in magic. She could have been just a stereotypical evil woman, but we get to see her torn between self-preservation and her attachment to the earl. It makes her more wicked, but also more human.
Just as “By One . . .” had its stereotypical miserly Scottish uncle, so Hole has its stereotypical virtuous young woman who falls in love with the narrator. Say this for Ross, he may have realized how flat their romance is. Every so often, he hints at a match-up between the Italian woman with the narrator; how the sparks would have flown if they had!
“By One, By Two and By Three” was adapted to television for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series in 1972. I can’t recommend the adaptation. To its credit, it updated the setting and jettisoned the stereotype of a cheap Scotsman. And there is a truly frightening chase sequence. But the adaptation made two serious mistakes, reducing MacBane (as he is named in the show) to a caricature of a lazy and ungrateful student, while actually showing us the horror at the end. I’m sorry, TV special effects from 1972 have not aged at all well. You might say they were the Scottish uncle of the adaptation.
Are they worth reading? They aren’t bad. They aren’t great. If you don’t mind slow build-ups, they’re good enough to crack open on a cold, dark night. Readers of William Hope Hodgson’s nautical horror stories, including The Ghost Pirates, might find The Hole of the Pit of particular interest.