Edgar Mittelholzer | Secker & Warburg | 1960 | 191 pages
Initially establishing itself as a Caribbean-flavored variation on the “Old Dark House” mystery popularized during the twenties and thirties, Eltonsbrody upends the established genre conventions with a shocking, unexpectedly gory finale.
Or, perhaps, not so unexpectedly, as indicated by the warning in the first chapter:
“It’s a shocking story—a story of real horror—and anyone that feels that he can’t stomach real horror had better go no further than here.”
Mr. Woodsley, an English commercial artist on holiday in Barbados, takes up residence in Eltonsbrody, a hilltop mansion on the island’s sparsely populated, windswept Atlantic coast. Since the death of Dr. Scaife eight years previously, the estate has been run by his widow, Dahlia Scaife, a self-proclaimed eccentric who claims a form of psychic ability that allows her to see the mark of death written upon people’s faces. Eltonsbrody also serves as home to a small staff of servants, all of whom—according to Mrs. Scaife—share the same deadly, tell-tale mark upon them.
Soon after Woodsley’s arrival, Mrs. Scaife learns of the tragic death of her young nephew. Exhibiting a morbid fascination for death, Mrs. Scaife confides to Woodsley her puzzling emotional reaction—equal parts horror and inexplicable joy. While weighing the evidence of his proprietor’s sanity, Woodsley encounters a series of strange occurrences around the mansion.
For most of its page count, Eltonsbrody succeeds as an atmospherically rich, Gothic potboiler. The constant, swirling winds of the desolate landscape are almost a character themselves, sending stray leaves tapping against windowpanes, circling drafts around Woodsley’s feet and up his trouser legs, and violently shaking the foundations of the house itself. Two locked rooms upstairs are off-limits, even to the servants, although Woodsley frequently hears the sound of a wardrobe creaking inside. The small bedroom established for Mrs. Scaife’s late nephew periodically is locked, and a rich odor of earth and–later–formaldehyde–permeates the hallways.
Although the Barbados setting, with its canefields and rugged coastline, is evocative, the West Indies vernacular dialogue of the household staff can be occasionally off-putting. “Sir, Oi ain’ loike how matters happening, sir. Oi ‘fraid. Dis house froighten me bad.” Malverne, the housemaid, also suffers from a distracting bit of exhibitionism. She repeatedly opens her bodice and reveals herself to Woodsley.
Events eventually take a deadly turn when Malverne, after claiming to witness the appearance of an evil visage peering over the landing (and after another episode of “peek-a-boo” with Woodsley), falls down the stairs and sustains a life-threatening injury. Joined by Ms. Linton, the nurse assigned to the stricken maid, Woodsley vows to determine whether Mrs. Scaife is indeed insane, or some other nebulous forces are at work in Eltonsbrody. Matters are purposely muddied by Mrs. Scaife’s insistence upon engaging in “practical jokes”, some involving coffins, finger bones, and pails of blood.
Amateur sleuthing aside, the small details are what define the mood, providing the spooky appeal of the mystery: the somehow sinister play of light over a glass centerpiece, the striped afternoon shadows falling upon the sideboard in the dining room, and the chipping sound of mortar being removed from a tomb in the graveyard. Below it all, however, stirs the restless tendrils of the wind, alternatively sneaky or blunt in its never-ending incursion into all corners of the mansion, sometimes carrying the scent of death.
A final reveal inserts a sharp sting into the proceedings, vividly etching all the previously unseen horrors into stark reality and transforming a potentially creaky haunted house tale into something entirely else, all accomplished through the simple act of opening a locked door and looking inside.