J. B. Priestley
Benighted Cover



Although little read today, J.B. Priestley was one of the most prolific and popular British literary figures of the 20th century. He began to make his mark as a theater critic before publishing his first two novels in 1927. One of those was Benighted, his entry into the then popular genre of the Old Dark House horror story. The novel was retitled The Old Dark House for U.S. publication and filmed under that name by James Whale in 1932.

In an Old Dark House story, a group of mismatched characters, friends or strangers, finds themselves stranded in a large, spooky structure, usually during a storm. Terrifying and possibly supernatural events occur. The genre is still with us, although it has migrated mostly to the movies. Read through the sentence summaries of the Chiller Channel film lineup on any weekend and half of them will be variations on this motif. It underlies a film like Alien, and recently reached its postmodern apotheosis with A Cabin in the Woods.

The young Priestley created a classic setup. Three people are trapped in the wildest reaches of Wales during a storm that is literally bringing down a mountainside. There is a young couple whose marriage is in crisis. Their friend is a returning WWI veteran who we today would diagnose with PTSD. (Priestly himself suffered both a shrapnel wound and a gas attack before being declared unfit for active service in 1918.) They find refuge in a massive stone house inhabited by the creepiest cast of characters the budding dramatist could dream up: a gigantic, brutish servant (mute); an aging, fearful old man; his obese, religious fanatic sister; a dying invalid; and, a madman in a locked room. They are soon joined by other refugees of the storm: a blustering industrialist and a London chorus girl.

I don't know what other, popular ODH novels may have been like, but I doubt that many could have been as psychologically acute as Priestley's. He tells each chapter from a different character's perspective, a modernist technique that provides depth to the lurid developments and allows the author to stage manage the suspense. The novel ages well. It's an entertaining melodrama, something of a hoot, filled with characters who become both increasingly interesting and sympathetic. Read the novel, watch the movie. Both are classics of the genre.