THE SHADOW ON THE HOUSE
by Mark Hansom
Introduction by John Pelan
Welcome to one of the finest novels of psychological horror of the last century . . . That this novel is being reprinted should surprise no one. That a masterpiece of this calibre should have remained out-of-print and known only to the cognoscenti of the horror genre for seventy-five years is more than a little puzzling. Perhaps the most surprising element of all is that this book was the debut novel of a gentleman who went on to author several novels of equal merit and then after four years, seven novels, and one short story vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.
To present a convincing portrait of the darkest and most aberrant workings of the human mind is a difficult feat. In this arena Mark Hansom can stand as a peer with the likes of Peter Straub, Robert Bloch, and Ramsey Campbell. All of the above have offered up seminal works of psychological horror wherein the reader almost expects to find a supernatural agency at work. Writing a novel that relies on the perspective of a protagonist who may or may not be not be wholly reliable isn’t an easy feat to pull off. Relevant details must still be conveyed to the reader and even if the protagonist is mad as a hatter, the standard conventions of the horror mystery novel still need to be adhered to. In other words, while his perspective of other people may be skewed by his insanity, descriptions of their actions as relevant to the story must be scrupulously described so as to not “cheat” the reader.
Bloch gave us Psycho after two decades of writing short stories of both supernatural and non-supernatural horror. Ramsey Campbell spent a long apprenticeship writing pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories before offering up such masterpieces as The Face that Must Die and The Doll Who Ate His Mother. Peter Straub began his career as a gifted poet, progressed to novels and short stories and had a substantial body of work behind him by the time he launched the remarkable series of “Tim Underhill” stories that includes Koko, The Throat and several other pieces.
Mark Hansom submitted his credentials to join this august company with his very first work of fiction. The Shadow on the House would be an impressive book under any circumstances. The characters are fully realized (even if everyone isn’t exactly who or what they seem to be); the plot moves along briskly with no wasted scenes and as the oppressive sense of impending doom grows stronger the astute reader is able to piece together the clues that have been presented throughout the story and come to certain conclusions about the main characters just as the author pulls the curtain aside and reveals all.
The Shadow on the House has the distinction of being Hansom’s only novel that was published in the US as well as the UK during his lifetime (in 2002, Midnight House published a new edition of The Beasts of Brahm, which is still available from the publisher. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Ramble House customers may purchase the book for the discount rate of $35.00 post-paid simply by saying “Fender sent me” in their e-mail). The Shadow on the House was also cited by the late Karl Edward Wagner as one of the thirty-nine best horror novels of all time. However, it is the opinion of this writer that at least two of his later novels were even superior. Mr. Wagner did confide to me that at the time his article and list appeared, he had read no other Hansom novels; so it’s quite possible that had his article appeared a few years later Hansom may well have been represented with a couple of additional entries.
So who was this mysterious author whose star burned brightly for such a short time? The fact of the matter is that no one really knows for certain . . . Even though I was responsible for his entry in the encyclopaedia Supernatural Literature of the World, I was unable to include more than a brief bibliography and some conjectures as to what may have become of him . . . We do know that “Mark Hansom” was a pseudonym; there are no records of a person with that name being born (or dying) in the United Kingdom that could possibly have been the author. The man writing as Mark Hansom began his literary career in 1934 and his activity seemingly ended almost to the day that Great Britain entered the Second World War. Assuming that he was a young man in mid-to-late twenties at the time it’s not at all unreasonable to think that he may have died in the service of his country. A colleague of mine proposed two theories as to his identity, the first is almost too absurd to comment on; namely, that “Mark Hansom” was yet another pseudonym of Charles Cannell (the author better known as “E. Charles Vivian” and “Jack Mann”). What makes this theory easy to refute is the great disparity in styles between the two authors. Some of the indicators are the class-consciousness of Hansom; which implies a first-hand familiarity with the aristocracy and is a distinction completely ignored by Cannell. Secondly, anyone that has read Cannell under any of his by-lines will immediately see his fascination with aviation. One recurring motif in Cannell’s work is that if airplane travel is involved, one is assured of a lengthy description of the plane, the mechanics thereof and possibly even the history of that particular model. If Hansom needs to use an airplane to move his characters from one place to another, we get no such descriptions; the airplane is merely a device to get the characters from point A to point B. Most definitely not the same person.
This same colleague also suggested that the obviously pseudonymous “Rex Dark” might also be Hansom. Other than the sheer illogic of using two different pen-names to sell the same sort of books (thrillers) for the same imprint, there’s also the fact that “Rex Dark” was big on recurring characters and while Hansom used a recurring theme (killing off the villain early in the book only to have him return from the grave to wreak further havoc), he did not re-use his characters even though the opportunity presented itself. Lastly, and most importantly, I’ll bring up that issue of class-consciousness once again. This is important as both a stylistic clue and very probably a clue to Hansom’s identity. Mark Hansom writes of the upper classes and the unwritten rules governing the servants with the authority of someone writing from personal experience. There are indications that the man writing as “Mark Hansom” was of the upper rather than the lower classes.
One bit of circumstantial evidence is the fact that in the pre-WWII days, the publishing industry was still considered suitable employment for a gentleman, who while wealthy enough to not need to work was nevertheless encouraged to get a taste of the business world by working for a few years. An example would be Sir Charles Birkin, who served his apprenticeship in the business world as an editor for Philip Allan and as a result, brought out the justly famous “Creeps” series. The hint that Hansom may have worked in publishing is based on a rather odd set of circumstances . . . Some few years after their initial publication, Mellifont Press reissued all of his books, the last in 1951. What makes this a bit unusual is that Mellifont was a reprint house and while they did indeed publish a number of thrillers originally from Wright & Brown (including a few titles by “Rex Dark”), two of their selections by Mark Hansom were issued in abridged format. As it really isn’t cost-effective to order up a re-write in such circumstances, one has to wonder if there was authorial involvement and if perhaps “Mark Hansom” was connected in some way to Mellifont Press? It could just as easily be that another employee of Wright & Brown made the move to Mellifont and recalled both Hansom and Dark as being among their more consistent sellers. The most unusual fact is the reprinting of Master of Souls in 1951, a full fourteen years after its initial publication. Generally speaking, Mellifont tried to get their reprints out within five years of a book’s initial release in order to capitalize on any publicity the book had garnered (much as mass-market publishers do today). Publishing a paperback fourteen years after the hardcover just simply isn’t done unless there’s an editor really pushing the book.
So, this leaves us with two possible scenarios as to the fate of the man writing as “Mark Hansom”. One of the many who died serving their country in WWII, or a life spent in the publishing business, perhaps affected so much by the horrors of war that he lost interest in the lesser horrors of the supernatural tale . . .
What we do know for certain is that he did leave a legacy of seven very fine novels a great novelette, and that at least five of these will see publication from Dancing Tuatara Press.
Summer Solstice 2009