He Arrived at Dusk by R.C. Ashby
Not for the first time, a novel resurrected by the fine folks at Valancourt Books has turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. Back in 2020, J. B. Priestley’s Benighted (1927), reissued by Valancourt in 2013, was one of my favorites, and just last month, Ernest G. Henham’s Tenebrae (1898), brought back to life by Valancourt in 2012, became one of my top picks for 2023. And now, the firm has done it again, and the novel that I’ve just experienced from this enterprising publisher might just be the finest one yet. The book in question this time is the intriguingly titled He Arrived at Dusk, by R.C. Ashby; a perfect mixture of Gothically inflected supernatural horror, murder mystery and detective story. To be succinct, I really loved this one!
He Arrived at Dusk first saw the light of day in February 1933; a hardcover edition released by the British publisher Hodder & Stoughton. An American edition from the Macmillan Company (with wholly different cover art) would follow four months later, and then the book would go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 80 years, till Valancourt opted to resurrect it in 2013. Featuring the original cover art that had graced the British edition, as well as a scholarly introduction by one Mark Valentine, the book was a very welcome addition to Valancourt’s already impressive catalog.
Before diving into the wonders to be found in Ashby’s novel, a quick word on the author herself. Ruby Constance Ashby was born in Yorkshire in 1899, and before her marriage to electrical engineer/philanthropist Samuel Ferguson in 1934, managed to come out with eight novels, primarily mysteries; He Arrived at Dusk was her sixth. Following her marriage, she released 14 more novels, many of them romance, under the name Ruby Ferguson, as well as nine novels in the so-called “Jill series,” concerning a young female equestrienne. R.C. Ashby ultimately passed away in 1966, at the age of 67.
Now, as to the author’s He Arrived at Dusk – which, Valentine tells us, “was among her most successful thrillers” – the novel is divided into three discrete sections. In “Mertoun’s Story,” our narrator is the 38-year-old, London-based antiques dealer William Mertoun, who relates his recent harrowing experiences to his friend, Ahrman, at their gentlemen’s club by the Thames. It seems that several weeks earlier, Mertoun had received a letter from a Colonel Germain Barr, asking the antiques expert to come up to the Barr estate in Northumberland to appraise the contents of the house. Mertoun had found the house – called the Broch, a reference to the ancient rounded fortress, or broch, that stood on the hillside behind it – without much difficulty, situated as it was on a barren moor not half a mile from a high cliff overlooking the gray and wintry North Sea. He had met the two occupants of the home: the colonel’s nephew Charlie Barr, an amiable fellow of the same age as Mertoun, and Winifred Goff, the colonel’s nurse, who had forbidden one and all to step foot in the colonel’s room. That gentleman, apparently, had recently suffered a stroke of some kind following the death of his brother Ian.
It had only taken a few days before Mertoun learned of the poltergeist that afflicted the Barr household; that the broch sitting on the hillside was supposedly haunted and hence shunned by one and all; and that Ian Barr was thought to have been thrown off the cliff to his death by the living ghost of an ancient Roman centurion named Vitellius Gracchus … dead now for 1,600 years! Mertoun’s initial skepticism had been shaken following some spectral manifestations, including the nighttime slashing of a Barr family portrait; the increasingly legible writing of Gracchus incised on a stone in the Broch’s cellar; and a nerve-racking séance at which Gracchus’ voice had boomed out with maniacal laughter. A local doctor, Dr. Peter Ingram, half insane with grief after the loss of his wife and family, had given Mertoun much in the way of confirmatory information regarding the centurion’s history, and Mertoun had managed to have some happy moments away from the dreary Broch household with Ingram’s niece, Joan Hope, a woman half the antique dealer’s age with whom he’d nevertheless fallen quickly in love. But the worst was soon to follow. A shepherd named Blaik had been foolish enough to go exploring in the ruined broch tower, and had been found dead, murdered, with an ancient Roman short sword in his back. Mertoun had even seen the ghostly centurion walking on the moors on the night of the murder, his face a shimmering haze of smoke. And then, another calamity had struck, as the colonel had been mysteriously spirited away, despite Nurse Goff’s unremitting attentions.
Part 2 of Ashby’s novel consists of “Hamleth’s Diary,” Hamleth being the young brother of Winifred Goff. Hamleth’s job was to tend the nearby lighthouse, along with his father, and his diary goes far in explaining what had happened to Colonel Barr, and what transpired when Mertoun and Ahrman returned to the vicinity three months later to do some investigating on their own. Finally, in the book’s third section, “Ahrman’s Report,” all the novel’s many inexplicable manifestations are clarified by this most objective of observers…
He Arrived at Dusk is a difficult book to write about without giving away any of the story line’s many surprises and secrets, so my comments here must perforce be comparatively brief. The book manages to keep the reader guessing from beginning to very close to the end as to whether or not the events depicted are supernatural in nature, if something more mundane (but certainly no less diabolical) is going on, or if perhaps a combination of the two might be occurring, as was the case, from what I hear, in the final book under the Ashby byline, 1934’s marvelously titled Out Went the Taper. I would not think of revealing which to you, the prospective reader, and thus spoil the enjoyment of finding out for yourself. I will say, however, that the book is often brilliantly ambiguous in its use of misdirection, and in its employment of misleading dialogue (such as when Winifred and her brother Hamleth discuss “that fiend”); a perusal of the book after one is finished will reveal how fairly Ms. Ashby has played with her readers, however. This is the sort of novel in which every little detail is meticulously arranged, as in some of the finest mystery stories, a top-tier category in which He Arrived at Dusk must surely be placed.
In addition to being an ingeniously designed, genuinely frightening mystery, Ashby’s book is also beautifully, indeed elegantly written, with a wonderful emphasis on atmosphere. Thus, the author has Mertoun tell us:
…I couldn’t go to bed. I threw up the window and let the wet, gusty air rush in; wild and salt from the sea, fresh and clean on my face. The night shadows were deep over the tangled garden and the crouching hill; above was a tattered sky, like a grey pool into which inky poison had been dropped…
Any number of marvelously atmospheric sequences are skillfully interspersed throughout, including Nurse Goff’s and Mertoun’s discovery of the slashed portrait in the dead of night; the séance, during which several ghostly presences make themselves known before Vitellius Gracchus overwhelms the proceedings; Mertoun’s spotting of the Roman centurion on the moor at night, revealed in the glare of the lighthouse’s revolving beacon; the discovery of Blaik’s body on the moorland on a dreary rainy morning; and, of course, the exploration of that haunted broch at 2 A.M. These well-done sequences are alternated with fascinating bits of backstory and some lighthearted escapades engaged in by Mertoun and Joan; trust me, you will never grow bored or restless.
Ashby’s book is filled with credible and well-drawn characters, half of whom are hiding secrets and are not what they initially appear to be. The dialogue crackles, and the author’s use of dialectical English, the vernacular of the northernmost English county, is never forced. The book has a delicious sense of place as well, and the bleak moorlands are clearly depicted in both their winter and springtime glories. Many readers, I have a feeling, will experience a desire to visit Northumberland for themselves after reading Ashby’s book, and visit Flodden Field and Hadrian’s Wall; two historic locales mentioned in passing during the course of the story. All told, He Arrived at Dusk is the perfect book to read on a rainy October night, I would imagine. Personally, I read it during the course of a nasty, early-September heat wave, but found it quite good company, nevertheless. As mentioned, it is yet another inspired revival from Valancourt; ideal for all fans of Gothic literature, supernatural horror, and the ingeniously plotted murder mystery. It is appalling that such a fine work could have been allowed to languish in oblivion for 80 years, so Valancourt, I suppose, is to be doubly thanked.
Remarkably, I cannot find any faults at all with Ashby’s work here; no minor quibbles to raise. Oh, the incorporation of British slang may pose some minor challenges for the modern-day American reader (“scrummy,” anyone?), but nothing that a quick trip to the Google machine couldn’t clarify. As far as I am concerned, this is a flawless book, and a highly satisfying and entertaining one, too. “Truly a little masterpiece of a book,” wrote J. F. Norris on the Mystery File website; “Really a classic of its kind.” But perhaps I will leave you with a line from Mark Valentine’s very astute introduction to this Valancourt edition: “…if ever a book justified the term ‘page-turner’ it is this one.” I could not agree more.