Bah, life has been so busy! For those of you following the changes in my life, things have almost settled into their new pattern: I now live in the highlands of West Virginia, where I serve on an AmeriCorps team promoting historic preservation in small, rural towns. So far it’s been a lot of training and orientation, but I’m eager to get to work!
In the meantime, there’s Another Look Book, and the fact that I read The Uninvited almost…yikes…a month ago?! And wouldn’t you just know that at the time I took very few notes of my reading impressions. Still, a month after the fact, I shall endeavor to do this well-executed book justice.
The Uninvited differs from many books—not just of the gothic genre, but of fiction in general—in that its two main characters, Roddy and Pamela, are brother and sister. Though both fully grown adults, they possess a pretty serious long-term plan of living together. In fact, they both quit their London jobs, pack up their lives, and purchase a house in Devonshire together. They’re committed, folks.
This setup also affects the pacing of the novel. There’s no clear romance from the get-go. By fleeing London, Roddy is also fleeing a woman, but that relationship is clearly over. Pamela seems pretty and convivial, although maybe a little…on edge? (Or is this just a high-energy woman in 1941?)
In any case, Roddy and Pamela find the house of their dreams. It shows signs of abandonment, perched on the edge of a rocky cliff, but very clearly there’s still a “for sale” sign. When they seek out the owner, they find he’s an elderly man with a pretty, young granddaughter. The man seems reluctant to sell them the house. It’s almost like it’s a burden for him to discuss the place at all. Still, our narrator Roddy perseveres. He and Pamela want this house.
They’re ecstatic when the sale goes through. They’re even more ecstatic at the prospect of refurbishing it and transforming it into their new home. Beneath their enthusiasm, however, there lurks a sense that this purchase was a huge risk. For one, the townsfolk persist in their assertions that the house is haunted. The previous tenants jumped ship suddenly, moving out without even settling their accounts in town; rumor has it that they were terrified by something they experienced while living in that house.
Roddy and Pamela dismiss the rumors. They do, however, become sort of transfixed with the previous owner’s granddaughter, Stella, that young, pretty thing they glimpsed while discussing the purchase details. How old is Stella, exactly? Eighteen, evidently, as we know she just returned from a boarding school in Brussels. Yet Roddy and Pamela see her as quite a child. How old is Roddy? He’s old enough to have an established career in journalism, and to have built up some life savings—I’d guess he’s maybe thirty. What’s the nature of his interest in Stella? He’s our narrator but this area of his mind remains hidden from us. And what’s the deal with Pamela? Roddy treats her as though she’s delicate, like she’s recently undergone some taxing ordeal. Pamela, along with Roddy, fixates on young Stella, mostly because they have imagined (or is it real?) that Stella is mistreated by her grandfather.
In any case, they love their new house. They’re joined by an old family friend/servant, Lizzie, who comes to help keep house for them. Together, they do quaint, home owning kinds of things, like building a garden. By now they’ve all heard the rumors about the house and its haunting, but they have yet to witness anything for themselves. During this part of the novel, there’s lots of reflection on the pleasures of country life compared to the chaos of city life:
‘In the city so much of your life is lived for you by others; you are required to fill so small a space. But here, as it were, the spirit has play in a more spacious body, and that is better, if the spirit is rich and strong.’
Then Stella starts to come around, and very quickly some strange things happen. During a housewarming party, a friend of Roddy and Pamela’s sees some kind of apparition in the mirror. Roddy spends the night in that spare bedroom, and all night long is overcome by a sense of gloom and doom, like his life is over and he has nothing to show for it. Yet Roddy, Pamela, and their servant Lizzie are still skeptical that the house is haunted. Then Roddy and Pamela go away for the weekend, and while they’re gone Lizzie witnesses something terrifying. Their doubts can no longer be dismissed.
The remainder of The Uninvited focuses on what spirits haunt the house, why they are haunting it, and how Roddy and Pamela might get them to leave—or maybe it’s Roddy and Pamela who will have to do the leaving. As they uncover the story of the house and its previous occupants, two of whom were young Stella’s parents, they discover that Stella might be the reason behind the hauntings. The question remains, foremost, whether Roddy and Pamela will be forced out of this house that they have transformed into a much-desired home. (Okay, well, maybe that was the tragedy I was most concerned with, haha.)
The Uninvited is not the most thrilling gothic novel I’ve ever read, but if you approach it as just a novel, you’ll see that it’s tightly constructed, with a wide range of characters and events. I do wish it had revealed more about the backstories of Roddy and Pamela. I really enjoyed them as characters, and I was curious why they were satisfied with creating a life together rather than with, you know, spouses. I figured out that it had something to do with being orphaned as teenagers, but the author never fleshes those stories out.
In the end, I’d call The Uninvited satisfying, although probably not earth-shattering. Macardle’s writing is solid and her dialogue is full of amusing, dated interjections, such as “Jiminy!” and “Rot!” and “Poor, town-blighted son of a hangman’s ghost!” Personally, I found these the best parts of the book. Also, as a side note, The Uninvited was first published under the title Uneasy Freehold, and in 1943 was made into a movie (under the title “The Uninvited”). If you’re a fan of Shirley Jackson-style ghost stories, my guess is Macardle’s storytelling will be just your ticket.