The House of a Hundred Whispers is set in Allhallows Hall, a rambling Tudor mansion on the edge of Dartmoor. After the death of its master, Dartmoor Prison’s former governor Herbert Russell, his estranged children gather to inherit the estate. But within hours of arriving in the spooky old house, five-year-old Timmy has vanished without a trace. A sumptuously designed hardcover with a picture of those desolate moors, anyone picking this book up would expect a haunted-house story in the classic mould, and that’s certainly where it starts. However, Masterton’s tale veers off in a series of smartly and sharply executed swerves, and ends up in a very different place – less The Haunting of Hill House, more The Exorcist or 2018’s Here Comes Hell.
Masterton wastes no time with his set-up. The opening chapters are crammed with well-observed material, and really quite funny characters; Herbert’s grown-up children practically leap off the page, particularly the obnoxious banker Martin. All the niggles and nuances of family life are there, and the dialogue sparkles. Grace – Herbert’s daughter – and her girlfriend Portia rang true as a contemporary queer couple, which impressed me; I particularly loved Portia, who “thought it was quite erotic that she should be suspected of being a murderer so that her lover could inherit her father’s sixteenth-century mansion.” Masterton’s writing is both plain and descriptive, with liberal use of British idiom, which he uses to great effect when we start meeting the cast of colourful Devon locals. Allhallows Hall, meanwhile, has all the trappings of the genre, including an unsettling stained-glass window depicting “Old Dewer” – a local name for the Devil. When Timmy disappears, the police dogs are called in – brilliantly described as “connoisseurs of what tragedy smells like” – and they have a very satisfying reaction to the (obviously haunted) house.
The House is written in distant third-person perspective, which allows the story to be shared between narrators (particularly useful when Ada Grey, the local “witch”, also disappears within Allhallows Hall, and can show us what lies behind the walls), but ultimately I found this narrative distance robbed the story of much of its emotional impact. Shortly after Timmy goes missing, the rest of the family appear more interested in the mysteries of the house’s hidden priest-hole, and while this five-year old is out on the moors overnight – the wind “shrieking” and “whistling” as you’d expect – the characters appear somewhat to be going through the motions of a concerned family. Even his father Rob, while rhapsodising about “a dear little boy like Timmy” doesn’t conjure up any particular love or fear for his own son’s plight. Missing Timmy appears more a convenient plot device to keep the family at the house, and after a while I found I’d forgotten him altogether: while the dialogue still sparkled, the characters’ reactions appeared stunted. This effect persisted in other areas of the book. Accused of murdering his father – who he’s just been told isn’t his father – Rob’s reaction, for example, feels oddly lifeless: “Rob was growing angry, as well as confused.”
For better or worse, the book’s title and presentation – as well as its opening – did much to evoke the classic story of the haunted house on the edge of the moors. Herbert’s insistence on never being in the house over the full moon will put many readers in mind of Mrs Dudley in The Haunting of Hill House. However, the direction in which Masterton takes his plot brought to my mind Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series – in which “mundane” hauntings, murders or possessions were peeled away to revealed a hidden history of England, the rural pagan gothic, and the great magicians of the seventeenth century. The mysteries of Allhallow Hall involve a witching-room where time stands still, and a mismatched group of angry “ghosts” trapped in the time-spell over the years who drag visitors into their shadowy grey-scale existence. There’s a horrible sense of cosmic horror about Ada Grey’s predicament: doomed to exist in the room until the end of time, surrounded by aggressive, leering male ghosts with nothing to lose. The narrative then pivots away again to focus on what’s powering the time-spell. Magnificently, it turns out to be a malevolent pre-Christian force of pure evil to which Druids sacrificed humans. I loved the unfolding of these various layers, which ended up bigger and bolder and wilder than I’d expected, even including a nod to Machen’s Great God Pan in the entity of the Fluter, wielding a discordant and jarring “wind instrument being played in the wrong keys”. It’s an audacious move to refer to a genre classic like The Exorcist and imply you’re going to outdo it: “we’re not talking about some petty little troublemaker like Pazuzu here.”
Masterton manages to pull all of this off. While the novel’s set-up is a familiar literary one, by its end the content and tone belong to the finest traditions of pulp horror, and I loved it. People are pulled through walls, leaving behind skeletons and bloody silhouettes on the plaster. Heads explode and bodies disintegrate, leaving behind in one instance: “his liver, which lay on top of his glistening pink intestines like a basking brown seal”. Survivors of the witching-room age to bones and dust immediately, and there’s a dirty, greasy, smelly demon clinging to the top of Rob’s car in a wild chase, a car-park attendant yelling: “you’ve someone on your roof!” The tone is slapstick yet unsettling, gory yet occasionally extremely creepy, and I found myself turning the pages furiously.
However, once I’d begun to really enjoy the constant ramping-up of the book’s supernatural antagonisms, I found that a real misstep was a scene which depicted – in fairly explicit terms – the interrupted gang rape of one of the female viewpoint characters. In my view, this scene was unnecessary. While the main rapist is a horrifying and well-drawn antagonist, creepy and belligerent and wheedling, his creepiness could have been retained by making any sexual threat implied (as is done elsewhere in the novel to great and chilling effect). I was left with the uncomfortable impression that the only narrative purpose of depicting the gang rape outright in this way was to give Martin the banker the opportunity to save the day. The use of this rape scene as a source of horror accordingly appeared misjudged, and I found it had unfortunate resonance with the immediate – and unique – sexualisation of that particular female character when introduced.
The House is a pacey novel which quickly moves away from its familiar set-up to introduce weirder and much bolder content, then puts its foot to the accelerator and keeps going. While I found the characters sometimes curiously flat, their dialogue and interactions as a family were believable and well-judged, with occasional undertones of comedy working surprisingly well for such dark surrounding subject matter. The only notable misstep for me was the unnecessary inclusion of a rape scene within the novel’s blend of horrors. A wild ride which didn’t need to be scary to be engrossing, the book deserves otherwise to be judged on its own terms – and Masterton deserves applause for pulling off the ambitious task of combining time travel, magicians, ancient entities and the Devil within his haunted house story.
The House of a Hundred Whispers by Graham Masterton is published by Head of Zeus.
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