The Uninvited – Dorothy Macardle

The Uninvited ALBA gothic novel about a grown brother and sister who move into their dream house on the cliffs of Devonshire, in spite of warnings that the house is haunted by its previous occupants. 1941.

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. 

The UninvitedRoddy 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.

24 thoughts on “The Uninvited – Dorothy Macardle

  1. I love the film version of this, for Ray Milland and also because it has a rare film appearance by Cornelia Otis Skinner. I’ve never read the book though – I’d forgotten it was a book first!

  2. This sounds very good, I love a good haunted house story. I wondered if there was any explanation for Roddy & Pamela not doing war work (or are they?). Or was it published in 1941 but set earlier?

    • I don’t recall any mention of war at all in the novel. I looked back over the first page and realized the true first page is a single-page forward, a letter addressed to a friend regarding the book that’s just been written, signed by the main character Roddy. So I guess the telling of the novel takes place possibly a few years later than the events of the novel.

  3. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the new work and West Virginia–and that you’re still taking the time to post your reviews! I’ve been missing your comments on GR.

    • I miss commenting on GR! And it’s nice to hear I’ve been missed. 😀 There’s so much on my plate right now, but I trust that my site and all things bookish will soon resume their proper place in my life–somewhere towards the top of the “to do” list!

  4. My all-time favorite novel, I have read The Uninvited many times. Nearly seventy five years after it was published the characters still crackle with life. The abundant period slang and references mentioned in your excellent review are like a window on the past. This book always lets me briefly live in another time and place.

    As others commented, this is not a blood-curdling thriller. It reads much more like a British “cozy” country house mystery with the addition of supernatural elements. Because the ghostly manifestations are understated they come across believably.

    To the person who asked why the protagonists are not engaged in war work, this novel first appeared in 1941. I believe that the manuscript was written in the 1930s. So it is a pre-war tale. The 1944 film version states these ghostly events occurred in the spring and summer of 1937, although the year is never specified in the book.

    I believe what makes this novel remain so vivid is how much of herself the author poured into the manuscript. The narrative is chock full of totally unnecessary (to the plot) philosophical asides, some of which contain keen insights into human nature while others are just quirky and fun. The main character, Roderick Fitzgerald, is a drama critic who tries his hand at writing a play. Circa the 1930s, Dorothy Macardle had worked professionally as a newspaper theater critic who was also a playwright. She uses Roderick’s character to describe what the struggles of that vocation were like, in that now-vanished time and place.

    • Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments! I agree that this is a novel that elegantly transcends the boundaries of any one genre. Your clarifications and further insights into the author are also much appreciated! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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  10. Recently saw some of this movie on TCM. After seeing the house and realizing the setting was supposed to be Cornwall- though I have read it was filmed in California- it made me quite curious about the book. Then I find your review. Your review reminds me much of the movie… the house overlooking that fantastic vision of the sea … well who wouldn’t want to live there..?

    But it is the house … and Stella… that made me think twice. I keep wondering if the house is still around- the one they used for the movie- and I guess that house must have been in California. And Stella… the woman that played Stella didn’t seem to have a fun time in this life. Find “Gail Russell- in memoriam” @

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2007/07/gail-russell.html

    She started drinking apparently on the set of this movie- she was quite young when it was made- 18 or 20- but maybe never quite stopped and died when she was 35. Next to a bottle if the report is true.

    And what about Roddy and Pamela…? These days a brother and sister buying a house together would seem… unusual I think. However the fact they were orphans may have created an unusual bond. That story is outside the film… and it seems outside the book as well. Still I would like to read the book and Roderick above seems to have read it several times so along with your review it sounds like it comes with some converts.

    The treatment of the haunting itself is quite unlike a lot of stuff in a similar vein… it has the realism of the anecdotes that describe such paranormal happenings…

    I looked through some of your selections and would much recommend The Violet Apple by David Lindsay…if you haven’t read… written in the Twenties but not published for almost half a century it is still a fascinating read. Here is the setup from violetapple.org.uk:

    “Anthony Kerr is a successful playwright, a sort of cross between George Bernard Shaw and H P Lovecraft: he can present philosophical arguments to the public in an entertaining way, but only by disguising his basic outlook, which is that men are little better than insects in the face of vast, cosmic forces.

    While Kerr is polishing off the first act of his new play, a parcel arrives. It contains a family heirloom that predates the Crusades, a glass snake containing a withered pip supposedly taken from the Biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that caused the Fall of Man. When a visiting friend, Jim Lytham, accidentally breaks the ornament, Kerr pockets the seed.”

    And thanks for the review..! It has that personal touch and leaves out just enough… I quite liked it!

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, and for your own great insight into this story! I’m taking a look now at The Violet Apple site. I always appreciate recommendations! It can be challenging to find good books when nobody knows about them. 😉

      It’s funny, but I saw this review’s stats really jump up around the time you wrote this comment. And then you indicated it had recently been shown on TCM, and the jump in stats suddenly made sense! I actually haven’t seen the movie yet, but maybe when the next spring thunderstorm rolls through here I’ll settle in for a nice old old gothic movie. I definitely encourage you to read the book–it has unusual depth and even quality of writing for this genre.

      Hope to see you around the blog again! Here’s a recommendation, if you’re looking for another strange/spooky story: http://anotherlookbook.com/fortune-is-a-woman-winston-graham/

  11. where can I find this book? and is there an italian version? I saw the movie, and I liked it very much.

  12. I always had the Impression the book was set in 1937. At one point, Roddy and Max discuss the gathering storm clouds on the continent. In another book by the same author, The Unforseen, Pamela makes a brief appearance, along with her husband, the barrister who helps investigate the haunting in THIS book.

    • Wow, so much great discussion around my favorite novel! Wanted to reply to a few questions and comments.

      To the person who was hoping to find the location of the actual house used in the 1944 film: I hate to be a killjoy, but the exteriors of the house on the cliff are a matte painting, and I believe the interiors are a Hollywood set which was later reused in other films.

      To the writer who suggested the book is set in 1937, I think you are right on the mark. I believe this novel was written, or at least started in the 1930s, and that the author simply set it in the present at the time of writing. Today of course it has become a wonderful period piece for that uniquely unsettled time between the wars. I agree that the comment in the book attributed to Max (a character omitted from the movie) is an oblique reference to the growing ambitions of Hitler.

      Finally, the mention of two characters from The Uninvited, Pamela and her new husband, reappearing in Dorothy MacArdle’s 1946 novel The Unforseen, touches on a mystery that has bothered me for decades! I would love to hear from people who have read both novels. Whether you share my views, or think I am crazy, I would love hearing another opinion.

      Here’s the thing: I have read all 342 pages of The Uninvited through fully eight times over the past 25 years. During that same time, I have attempted (twice) to read the much shorter novel, The Unforeseen, and could not get through it.

      It isn’t just that the story doesn’t hold my interest like The Uninvited did, it’s like the two books could not possibly have been written by the same person.

      When you read a well written novel you develop a feeling for the author’s personality and outlook on life. In my reading experience, a narrative personality tends to remain discernible even when an author writes in vastly different genres, or from different character’s viewpoints. The author can change their plot dynamic and their characters – but they cannot change who THEY are as a storyteller.

      The Unforseen in no way strikes me as having been written by the author of The Uninvited. None of the quirky little asides or philosophical insights from The Uninvited are present. It isn’t just an inferior story, it really strikes me as not being the product of the same mind.

      I’ve thought up three possible theories to account for this glaring disconnect. The first, and probably least likely, is that one of the two novels is a collaboration with another writer who wanted to remain anonymous. The second is that The Unforseen might have been a much earlier unpublished manuscript by Dorothy MacArdle which was rushed together (with cameos from Uninvited characters added in) to capitalize on the success of The Uninvited.

      The last possibility is a health issue that might have changed her writing style in this final decade of her life. That has been suggested as the cause behind unusual changes in other novelist’s writing – examples being John Dickson Carr (following his stroke), Agatha Christie, and Lillian Jackson Braun.

      Would love to hear another perspective from anyone else who has read both The Uninvited and The Unforseen!

      Roderick Markham

      • Hi Roderick. I also just loved The Uninvited(read it at least 3 times), and also looked forward to reading The Unforseen. Unfortunately, my reaction was identical to yours. I didn’t even finish it! The movie is also one of my favorites. I have the Criterion Collection restored special edition that came out in 2013. It came with a 23 page booklet about the movie. In perusing the booklet,it references another Lewis Allen movie called, ironically, The Unseen, which I had never heard of! It started Joel McCrea and, again, the lovely but tragic Gail Russell. This one is based on a book by the unfortunately named Ethel Lina White. She wrote The Wheel in Spin,the book upon which another favorite movie, The Lady Vanishes, was based. As with The Uninvited, the book and the movie are equally good.

  13. Roderick M., I too have read this book many times over the years. I have often though the same. There’s a certain grace to The Univited that The Unforeseen lacks, though many of the charming details are there.

    I think if you read The Dark Enchantment, also by McArdle, you will see more stylistic similarities.

    The Unforeseen is my least favorite of the trio, but I’ve often wished the author had written more fiction.

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