Witch House: Sarai, Sarai, quite contrary

Witch House by Evangeline Walton horror book reviewsWitch House by Evangeline Walton horror book reviewsWitch House by Evangeline Walton

Ever since British author Horace Walpole kick-started the haunted house genre with his seminal short novel of Gothic romance, The Castle of Otranto (1765), there have been hundreds of short stories and dozens of novels centered on this most shuddery of literary subjects. But for this reader, the two novels at the very top of the ectoplasmic heap have long been Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), still the most spine-tingling book that I have ever read, and Richard Matheson’s ubercreepy Hell House (1971); perhaps not surprisingly, those two were later adapted into exquisitely scary cinematic fare, in, respectively, The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973). And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two novels of haunted shenanigans that are beloved by many, Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), which I personally found more suspenseful than frightening, and Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (supposedly based on fact, and also from ’77). Seldom mentioned these days, however, is Evangeline Walton’s Witch House, a novel that has been on my TBR list for ages, and which I have finally gotten an opportunity to read during this Halloween season.

Witch House was the first full-length novel from August Derleth’s famed Arkham House publishing company. When it was released as an Arkham House hardcover in 1945, with cover art by Ronald Clyne, the selling price was $2.50; today, that volume is selling for $50 – $200 on Amazon and $52 – $315 on eBay! Walton was 38 when the book was released, having been born in Indianapolis in 1907 (four years prior to another female writer of the fantastic from that same city, C. L. Moore). She’d had one book published prior to this one, 1936’s The Virgin and the Swine (later rereleased as the first part of her Mabinogion Tetralogy and retitled The Island of the Mighty), and so Witch House became her second published work, although the rest of that tetralogy was apparently already written and languishing in her drawer at home. As for me, I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on the novel’s first English-language paperback: the 1962 Monarch Books edition, with a cover price of 35 cents and cover art by Ralph Brillhart. This was my first encounter with Ms. Walton, who turns out to be a meticulous writer; one whose overall output was comparatively small, and who apparently invested inordinate amounts of time in polishing and re-honing her works. And if Witch House is not as frightening as the Jackson and Matheson books mentioned up top, it yet remains a beautifully crafted experience, and one that deserves a wider renown today.

In the book, NYC-based physician Dr. Gaylord Carew is asked to come up to New England and tend to a very distressed young patient. It seems that upon the recent death of the 97-year-old harpy Sarai Quincy, her three young heirs — brothers Joseph Quincy and Quincy Lee, as well as their cousin, Elizabeth Quincy — have been left with a considerable fortune, but with one proviso: that the three of them, along with Quincy Lee’s Russian wife Zoia and widow Elizabeth’s 9-year-old daughter Betty-Ann, spend the next 10 years living under the same roof of the hereditary family home, Witch House, so called due to the satanic nature of some of their Colonial forebears, and located on a barren island off the coast of northern Massachusetts.

It also seems that young Betty-Ann is to be Dr. Carew’s patient. The poor girl has lately been in hysterics, and claims to have repeatedly seen a giant black hare at her window, as well as Aunt Sarai’s eyes following her from a painted portrait. Two of the family pets had been murdered, and poltergeist-like phenomena had occurred in the house (broken dishes, upset chessboards and so on). A trip to California to calm the girl’s nerves was to no avail, as Betty-Ann swore that Aunt Sarai’s hands were grabbing her own, from 3,000 miles away! Thus, during a stretch of miserably wet and gloomy February weather, Dr. Carew drives up to the little burg of Harperstown, and from there embarks by boat to the haunted pile that is Witch House, to see what he might do to assist…

Witch House, it bears repeating, is never as chilling as the Shirley Jackson book (it is not nearly as atmospheric), and is hardly as horrifying as Matheson’s (although there is violence and sudden death in the pages of Witch House, the sheer number of awful things happening is not nearly as great as in Hell House). Still, the book manages to impress. For one thing, Walton presents us with an interesting sextet of characters here: Zoia is the daughter of one of Rasputin’s mistresses; Betty-Ann is cute and adorable, when not frightened to the brink of hysteria; the three cousins are novice explorers of the arcane, to the point where the two feuding brothers are said to have fought with objects that they hurled at one another telekinetically; and Carew? He is perhaps the most fascinating of the bunch, having studied the arcane himself in the Far East and in Tibet beside his scientist mother. Now, Carew has the ability to not only read minds, but to put himself to sleep instantly and awaken at any time he chooses (boy, would I love to be able to do that!), as well as hypnotize others with ease. Always in command of the situation and aware of just the right words to say and when, Carew almost comes off like a Dr. Strange type of character here, and more than well equipped to handle the forces arrayed against him and Betty-Ann at Witch House.

Walton, as it turns out, is a wonderful storyteller, and an unusual one. She gives her story glints of strangeness by having her characters engage in conversations that are often borderline elliptical. Some of these discourses, such as between Carew and Joseph, touch on matters of religion, God, fate and predestination, and are delivered in language that does not seem … well, realistic. Her descriptions of Witch House are nebulous at best, and while I was reading the book it seemed to me that this was a possible failing, but upon further reflection, one senses that this may have been a deliberate ploy on the author’s part, to engender a sense of dislocation and strangeness. Witch House is the sort of abode where corridors don’t merely turn or twist, but fork (!); truly, a home from hell.

Following the book’s opening pages — a somewhat difficult-to-follow section in which the genealogy of the de Quincy family is traced back to the 17th century — Walton gives us a bravura segment that is practically Lovecraftian in tone, during which we are presented with a newspaper story written by Joseph Quincy that tells of the family’s 17th century warlock ancestor, the Huguenot Joseph de Quincy, his namesake. The book takes a good long while before it chills as effectively again, but those scary scenes do eventually crop up, including Carew’s first glimpse of that spectral hare; the appearance of the dead Aunt Sarai in a room where Betty-Ann has been led, in a deserted section of the house; the visitation of Sarai in Betty-Ann’s sleeping chambers; and the entire, surprising final sequence, of which the less said, the better, I suppose.

While experiencing the book, the reader may marvel that this was only Walton’s second published work, as her prose often comes off like that of an old master. Thus, we get lines such as this:

…Harperstown had aged like a handsome woman, an overworked and disappointed woman, who breaks under the lean, piling years…

And this:

More days, a necklace of days, clear crystals threaded with ebon beads of night. Spring came slowly, like some wan and beautiful woman rising from a sick-bed in a chamber that still smelled of death…

And this:

…there was evil, positive, undiluted evil, in Witch House, he did not doubt. His trained faculties had seen enough in these vaporous pictures eddying round Barret to assure him of that. There are plague-spots for the soul as well as for the body, breeding-grounds of spiritual infections, and this old house, so sinister in its building, might be such an one…

I love it! Actually, in the entire course of Walton’s book, I could only come up with a few complaints, but the first is a major one, I’m afraid. Early on, Witch House is described as “a quaint stone structure, low and rambling, like a Breton farmhouse…” But much later on, the house is said to be made of wood, and this wooden nature does play a very large role in the book’s final pages. It is a discrepancy that I would have thought a perfectionist (such as Walton was reputed to be) incapable of making, but there it is. And, oh … that old book in the Witch House library entitled Demonologie, which Carew tells us was written by Cotton Mather? It was actually authored by the Scottish king James VI. And the title of the W. E. H. Lecky volume referred to should be History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, not History of the Rise and Progress of Rationalism in Western Europe. And to end this nitpicking, is it credible that a 9-year-old would use the word “slaunchwise” during casual conversation? But these minor gaffes aside, the book remains great and delicious fun. It is a novel that practically cries out for a big-screen adaptation of its own. Haunted house films, after all, have always been popular, and this story, if handled correctly by a respectful team (and no, big bucks for special FX would not necessarily be important here), could just result in huge audiences. Are you listening, Hollywood?

Bottom line: I read Witch House over the course of a few October evenings and found it a perfect accompaniment to the season. More than highly recommended!


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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11 comments

  1. “Slaunchwise”? What does that even mean? *off to Google*

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Right? So if an adult, 21st century woman like Tadiana has to Google this word, does it make sense that a 9-year-old in 1945 would know what it means?

  2. Marion /

    It’s Appalachian; is it possible she was attempting a regionalism the little girl would know? Or have heard, at least?

    (I had to look it up too.)

  3. OH, so funny. I looked up slaunchwise before seeing these comments and then scrolled down to admit here that I hadn’t known the word. I guess I’m not the only one!

    • Clearly it’s not in common use nationally, even if it is regionally.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I think the only person who knows what this word means is 9-year-old Betty-Ann Quincy!

      • To follow up on Kat’s comment, “slaunchwise” is now trending!

        • Sandy Ferber /

          I think we should all incorporate the word at least once in all our reviews here on FanLit, as well as use it in casual conversation at least three times a day. Let’s bring it back into general use!

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