"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Subletting of the Mansion by Dion Fortune (1926).

Readers of this blog know I have a love-hate stance toward some horror fiction, mostly Lovecraft pastiches. I have also noted a couple of times my hate-dislike stance toward a subgenre almost as popular today as the Lovecraft pastiche: the occult detective story.

Fighters of Fear: Occult Detective Stories edited by Mike Ashley brings together a bumper crop with generous historical helpings. (It is apparently only 1.99 on Kindle.)

The contents:

Green Tea, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

The Shining Pyramid, Arthur Machen

The Haunted Child, Arabella Kenealy

The Mystery of the Felwyn Tunnel, L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace

The Story of Yand Manor House, E. & H. Heron

The Tapping on the Wainscott, Allan Upward

Samaris, Robert W. Chambers

The Whistling Room, William Hope Hodgson

The Woman with the Crooked Nose, Victor Rousseau

The Sorcerer of Arjuzanx, Max Rittenberg

The Ivory Statue, Sax Rohmer

The Stranger, Claude & Alice Askew

The Swaying Vision, Jessie Douglas Kerruish

The Sanatorium, F. Tennyson Jesse

The Villa on the Borderive Road, Rose Champion de Crespigny

The Room of Fear, Ella Scrymsour

The Seven Fires, Philippa Forest

The Subletting of the Mansion, Dion Fortune

The Jest of Warburg Tantavul, Seabury Quinn

The Soldier, A. M. Burrage

The Horror of the Height, Sydney Horler

The Mystery of Iniquity, L. Adams Beck

The Thought-Monster, Amelia Reynold Long

The Shut Room, Henry S. Whitehead

Dr. Muncing, Exorcist, Gordon MacCreagh

The Case of the Haunted Cathedral, Margery Lawrence

The Shonokins, Manly Wade Wellman

The Dead of Winter Apparition, Joseph Payne Brennan

The Garden of Paris, Eric Williams

St. Michael and All Angels, Mark Valentine

Jeremiah, Jessica Amanda Salmonson

So far I have only read "The Subletting of the Mansion" by Dion Fortune, featuring her psychic Holmes and Watson: Drs. Taverner and Rhodes. Taverner runs a suburban nursing home, Rhodes is his medical superintendant.

"The Subletting of the Mansion" deals with a troubled married couple moving into a neighboring house. The husband, Mr. Bellamy, is an abusive drug addict. The wife is old before her time.

The wife catches the eye of nursing home resident Mr. Winnington. Winnington develops a plan of his own for subletting, but on the psychic plane.

....As usual he [Winnington] enquired for news of Mrs. Bellamy, and I told him that I had seen her, and casually mentioned that her husband was bad again. In an instant I saw that I had made a mistake and given Winnington information that he ought not to have had, but I could not unsay my words, and took my leave of him with an uneasy feeling that he was up to something that I could not fathom. Very greatly did I wish for Taverner's experience to take the responsibility off my shoulders, but he was away in Scotland, and I had no reasonable grounds for disturbing his well-earned holiday.

     About an hour later, as I had finished my rounds and was thinking of bed, the telephone bell rang. I answered, and heard Mrs. Bellamy's voice at the end of the line.

     'I wish you would come round, Dr. Rhodes,' she said, 'I am very uneasy.'

     In a few minutes I was with her, and we stood together looking at the unconscious man on the bed. He was a powerfully built fellow of some 35 years of age, and before the drug had undermined him, must have been a fine-looking man. His condition appeared to be the same as before, and I asked Mrs. Bellamy what it was that had rendered her so anxious, for I had gathered from the tone of her voice over the phone that she was frightened.

     She beat about the bush for a minute or two, and then the truth came out.

     'I am afraid my nerve is going,' she said. 'But there seems to be something or somebody in the room, and it was more than I could stand alone; I simply had to send for you. Will you forgive me for being so foolish and troubling you at this hour of the night?'

     I quite understood her feelings, for the strain of coping with a drug maniac in that lonely place with no friends to help her—a strain which I gathered, had gone on for years—was enough to wear down anyone's courage.

     'Don't think about that,' I said. 'I'm only too glad to be able to give you any help I can; I quite understand your difficulties.'

     So, although her husband's condition gave no cause for anxiety, I settled down to watch with her for a little while, and do what I could to ease the strain of the intolerable burden.

     We had not been sitting quietly in the dim light for very long before I was aware of a curious feeling. Just as she had said, we were not alone in the room. She saw my glance questing into the corners, and smiled.

     'You feel it too?' she said. 'Do you see anything?'

     'No,' I answered, 'I am not psychic, I wish I were; but I tell you who will see it, if there is anything to be seen, and that is my dog; he followed me here, and is curled up in the porch if he has not gone home. With your permission I will fetch him up and see what he makes of it.'

     I ran down stairs and found the big Airedale, whose task it was to guard the nursing home, patiently waiting on the mat. Taking him into the bedroom, I introduced him to Mrs. Bellamy, whom he received with favour, and then, leaving him to his own devices, sat quietly watching what he would do. First he went over to the bed and sniffed at the unconscious man, then he wandered round the room as a dog will in a strange place, and finally he settled down at our feet in front of the fire. Whatever it was that had disturbed our equanimity he regarded as unworthy of notice.

     He slept peacefully till Mrs. Bellamy, who had brewed tea, produced a box of biscuits, and then he woke up and demanded his share; first he came to me, and received a contribution, and then he walked quietly up to an empty arm chair and stood gazing at it in anxious expectancy. We stared at him in amazement. The dog, serenely confident of his reception, pawed the chair to attract its attention. Mrs. Bellamy and I looked at each other.

     'I had always heard,' she said, 'that it was only cats who liked ghosts, and that dogs were afraid of them.'

     'So had I,' I answered. 'But Jack seems to be on friendly terms with this one.'

     And then the explanation flashed into my mind. If the invisible presence were Winnington, whom Mrs. Bellamy had already seen twice in that very room, then the dog's behaviour was accounted for, for Winnington and he were close friends, and the presence which to us was so uncanny, would, to him, be friendly and familiar.

     I rose to my feet. 'If you don't mind,' I said, 'I will just go round to the nursing home and attend to one or two things, and then we will see this affair through together.'

     I raced back through the shrubberies to the nursing home, mounted the stairs three at a time, and burst into Winnington's bedroom. As I expected, he was in deep trance.

     'Oh you devil!' I said to the unconscious form on the bed, 'what games are you up to now? I wish to Heaven that Taverner were back to deal with you.'

     I hastened back to Mrs. Bellamy, and to my surprise, as I re-entered her room I heard voices, and there was Bellamy, fully conscious, and sitting up in bed and drinking tea. He looked dazed, and was shivering with cold, but had apparently thrown off all effects of his drug. I was nonplussed, for I had counted on slipping away before he had recovered consciousness, for I had in mind his last reception of me which had been anything but cordial, but it was impossible to draw back.

     'I am glad to see you are better, Mr. Bellamy,' I said. 'We have been rather anxious about you.'

     'Don't you worry about me, Rhodes,' was the reply. 'Go back to bed, old chap; I'll be as right as a trivet as soon as I get warm.'

     I withdrew; there was no further excuse for my presence, and back I went to the nursing home again to have another look at Winnington. He was still in a state of coma, so I settled down to watch beside him, but hour after hour went by while I dozed in my chair, and finally the grey light of dawn came and found his condition still unchanged. I had never known Taverner to be out of his body for such a length of time, and Winnington's condition worried me considerably. He might be all right, on the other hand, he might not; I did not know enough about these trances to be sure, and I could not fetch Taverner back from his holiday on a wild goose chase....

Taverner returns, and he and Rhodes figure out what Winnington has done"

'I cannot conceive,' said Taverner, 'how the etheric double, the vehicle of the life forces, could be withdrawn for so long a time without the disintegration of the physical form commencing. Where was he, and what was he up to? Perhaps, however, he was immediately over the bed, and merely withdrew from his physical body to escape its discomfort.'

     'He was in the dispensary when I first saw him,' I answered, devoutly hoping that Taverner would not need any further information as to Winnington's whereabouts. 'He followed me back to his room and I coaxed him into his body.'

     Taverner gave me a queer look. 'I suppose you took the preliminary precaution of making sure that it was Winnington you had got hold of?'

     'Good Lord, Taverner, is there a possibility—?'

     'Come upstairs and let us have a look at him. I can soon tell you.'

     Winnington was lying in a room lit only by a night-light, and though he turned his head at our entrance, did not speak. Taverner went over to the bed and switched on the reading lamp standing on the bedside table. Winnington flinched at the sudden brightness, and growled something, but Taverner threw the light full into his eyes, watching them closely, and to my surprise, the pupils did not contract.

     'I was afraid so,' said Taverner.

     'Is anything wrong?' I enquired anxiously. 'He seems all right.'

     'Everything is wrong, my dear boy,' answered Taverner. 'I am sure you did the best you knew, but you did not know enough. Unless you thoroughly understand these things it is best to leave them to nature.'

     'But—but—he is alive,' I exclaimed, bewildered.

     'It is alive,' corrected Taverner. 'That is not Winnington, you know.'

     'Then who in the world is it? It looks like it to me.'

     'That we must try and find out. Who are you?' he continued, raising his voice and addressing the man on the bed.

     'You know damn well,' came the husky whisper.

     'I am afraid I don't,' answered Taverner. 'I must ask you to tell me.'

     'Why, W—,' I began, but Taverner clapped his hand over my mouth.

     'Be quiet, you fool, you have done enough damage, never let it know the real name.'

     Then, turning back to the sick man again, he repeated his question.

     'John Bellamy,' came the sulky answer.


That is a strong, well-executed scene, and Fortune has a number of them. 

"The Subletting of the Mansion" gives no easy answers. Taverner assures Rhodes that the transference will not bring a happy ending for Mrs. Bellamy any more than the two men in her life.

Modest and well done.


24 May 2020

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