I had been meaning to read Evangeline Walton's 1945 novel Witch House for many years, but somehow I'd never got around to it. Part of that was that I wanted a copy of the original Arkham House hardback and I could never find one in reasonable condition for a reasonable price. The book is rather collectible.
However that little snag was solved this year on my birthday when my good friend Cliff Biggers presented me with a nice copy of the book. I lost no time in sitting down to read it.
Witch House is a very interesting book, in some ways a combination of occult detective story and Gothic novel. The protagonist, Dr. Gaylord Carew, is a psychologist who also has some psychic abilities. He's contacted by a lawyer representing Mrs. Elizabeth Stone, whose daughter Betty-Ann is being haunted by some malignant, supernatural entity at Elizabeth's ancestral home, the titular Witch House in New England.
Carew arrives and immediately picks up on the hostilities between Elizabeth and her cousins, Joseph and Quincy, and Quincy's wife. In true Gothic form, the place simmers with old rivalries and hatreds from childhood.
It isn't long before Carew sees physical evidence of whatever is haunting Witch House. At first it seems that Witch House is just a 'bad place' like Shirley Jackson's Hill House, a sort of 'psychic battery' that has stored the trauma and resentment of the family for decades and particularly of Elizabeth's scheming, wicked late aunt, Sarai. But slowly Carew begins to realize that he's up against, not an undirected evil force, but an inimical intelligence.
Walton's prose style is ornate and well wrought. She weaves a dark atmosphere of mood and fear, ratcheting up the tension as the story progresses. It's a short book at about two hundred pages, but that's
plenty of room for Walton to draw the reader in and tell her dark ghost story.
I didn't immediately connect Evangeline Walton with her fantasy series The Mabinogian which I had read years ago. She had originally written the series based on the Welsh Mabinogi in the 30s, but the first volume hadn't sold well. Rediscovered by Lin Carter, that volume and its sequels were published as part of the nigh-legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the 1970s. Those books finally made Walton a success.
Witch House too had reportedly been written in the 30s, but was first published by Arkham House in 1945, and was the first volume of original horror they published. Since this is 'Women In Horror Month' this was an excellent time for me to finally read Evangeline Walton's classic Witch House. Really glad that I did.