Witching Hill (1913) is a haunted house story, with the unusual twist that the "house" in question is an entire London suburb. Author E.W. Hornung (best known for his Raffles books and largely overshadowed by his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle), combines the supernatural with some period pop psychology to create a very modern sort of thriller.
The Witching Hill Estate is somewhere within the greater London environs; a shiny new middle class suburb built on the grounds of the old "Mulcaster" lands. The houses are new, lovely and largely interchangeable. They all even have their own tennis courts. The central artery - Mulcaster Park Road - isn't paved, but they all have high hopes. Town is a short (but inconvenient) journey away, so most servants and staff stay on the estate as well. The original manor house still stands, Sir Christopher Stainsby residing. Sir Christopher maintains his own private wilderness as well; one that is well-littered with crumbling ruins.
For Gillon, our narrator, the Witching Hill Estate is like some sort of gloomy purgatory. Gillon is an open, friendly, broad-shouldered Scot. He's none too smart and, as he freely admits, a born follower. Currently serving as the general dogsbody at the Estate, salesman, light handyman and office manager, Gillon is bored to the point of tears.
Fortunately, entertainment soon arrives in the form of Uvo Delavoye, who "dropped into the office from another hemisphere". Delavoye is a young man of Gillon's age, recently returned from a short stint in the diplomatic corps. He's recovering from some sort of tropical disease, but what he lacks in constitution, he makes up for in charm, wit and enthusiasm. The two form the traditional Scooby team: brains & brawn, thinker & do-er, believer & skeptic.
Whereas Gillon finds his surroundings painfully dull, Delavoye thinks the Estate is "one of the most interesting in England! None of these fine old crusted country houses are half so fascinating as the ones quite near London. Think of the varied life they've seen, the bucks and bloods galore, the powder and patches, the orgies begun in town and finished out here..." (7). Delavoye goes on to describe the scandalous misadventures of an early Lord Mulcaster. Three centuries ago, that Lord committed "every crime in the Newgate Calendar" - murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, rape and more.
Delavoye is convinced that the heinous actions of that sinister noble still permeate the very "soil" of the Witching Hill Estate. Whenever Gillon is summoned to take care of a problem in his official capacity, Delavoye invariably follows, bounding along gamely like an occult-obsessed Airedale. Gillon explains away all the mysteries, Delavoye exaggerates them.
Initially, the mysteries are relatively minor. The two men find a secret tunnel and spy on Sir Christopher, learning that he's not quite the paragon of virtue that his public reputation would have them believe. Later they interfere with a young couple's engagement. Then the vicar's young daughter writes a story that eerily captures the crimes of the old Lord Mulcaster. Were this as far as Witching Hill got, the reader would not be blamed for quitting. Goofy ghost-or-no-ghost pratfalls can only go so far, and there's a whiff of the romantic comedy about it that had me nervous every time Delavoye's unmarried sister walked into the room.
However, halfway through, their adventures take an unexpectedly morbid turn. Delavoye and Gillon help solve a rash of local burglaries. During the adventure, Delavoye feigns a hatred of guns to fool the thieves. Given a pistol, he pretends to be fascinated with it - putting it against his head, studying the right angles for suicide in a mirror and other grim tricks. The act swiftly begins to concern his friend Gillon as well.
Nor is he the only person in the estate to contemplate suicide. An accountant, caught for stealing money from his employer kills himself in one of the first stories - earning Delavoye's praise for sparing his family the "disgrace of capture". Even the ridiculous story about the on-again/off-again engaged couple has an ominous foreshadowing, as the groom-to-be is plagued by dreams of killing both himself and his bride.
The final story in Witching Hill focuses wholly on Delavoye. He's now feeling the full force of the "corrupting influence". Unlike the earlier pull towards suicide, he's now being led towards an affair with the unhappy wife of another estate resident. Lonely, miserable, self-absorbed, a bit emo, Delavoye is lured towards dishonor. The ancient Lord Mulcaster, of course, had no such scruples. Delavoye's encounters with the woman take place in one of his ancestor's follies, a ruined temple of Bacchus, hidden in the estate's park. In the shadow of that orgiastic structure, Delavoye must make the final choice between redemption and corruption.
There's no question that the Witching Hill Estate is unnaturally plagued with disaster, but Gillon's rational and Delavoye's irrational explanations are equally balanced. Many of their conclusions still fall short of modern psychological science, but it does make a nice change of pace from blaming things solely on omnipotent external forces.
Witching Hill makes an odd sort of haunted house story. There's no explicit ghost, just a (maybe) aura of corruption. Although it starts as a silly series of mysteries, it gradually unfolds into a more complex character study. The reader initially views the trials and tribulations of the estate residents from an external point of view - Gillon and Delavoye, Meddling Detectives. When the trouble strikes closer to home, Witching Hill becomes a more powerful book. It is no longer an exercise in creative problem solving, it is a study in lost souls and their redemption.