The Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom

The Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsFor the past 35 years or so, I have been so busy trying to experience all the 200 books described in Stephen Jones’ and Kim Newman’s two excellent overview volumes – Horror: 100 Best Books and Horror: Another 100 Best Books – that I was completely unaware, until recently, that there is yet another trusted resource that horror buffs in the know have been using for recommended reading; namely, the Wagner 39 List. It seems that back in 1983, in the June and August issues of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, editor/author Karl Edward Wagner provided a list of the 39 books in the horror arena that he felt were of the highest calibre, or most in need of being discovered by a new audience. The 39 books were broken down into three categories: The 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels, The 13 Best Sci-Fi Horror Novels, and The 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels. Just recently, I wrote here of one of the items on that first list, H. B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary (1940), only available today from Ramble House, and now would like to tell you of another of those 39 gems that I’ve recently experienced. The book in question this time is entitled The Shadow on the House, by the author known only as Mark Hansom.

The Shadow on the House was originally released in 1934 by the British publisher Wright & Brown, in a hardcover edition. It then promptly went OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 75 years, till it was revived by Ramble House’s Dancing Tuatara Press imprint in 2009. This volume, as do so many other titles from Ramble House’s gargantuan catalog, features a highly informative introduction by the late John Pelan and beautiful cover art by the Australia-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe. As for Hansom, no hard details are available about the author’s life, and even Pelan, in his introduction, spends more time telling us who the author wasn’t than on who he – or she – actually was. (It seems that theories abound on this matter.) All that seems certain at this time is that Hansom was a pen name, under which the author, between 1934 and 1939, managed to write seven novels and one novella. It is almost a surety that he/she was English, and The Shadow on the House, Hansom’s first book, surely does evince a firsthand knowledge of the city of London. It is further theorized that Hansom, whose career ending corresponds almost precisely with the commencement of WW2, may have been killed in action during that conflict. Odds are, we will never learn the actual facts. Today, those in the know apparently feel that Hansom was one of the 20th century masters of the supernatural horror tale, and if this first novel is any indication of quality, I will be wanting to read a lot more of him … or her, or whatever the case may be.

The Shadow on the House is narrated to us by a man-about-town, in his early 20s, named Martin Strange; a fairly normal-seeming young man, despite his unusual surname. Two years before the beginning of the events in his narrative, Strange had been cut off from the family’s immense fortune, as well as from the ancestral Gothic pile known as Bolton Towers, in Hampshire, when his cousin Mick, from the other side of the family, had taken possession. Now reduced to modest means in London, Martin manages to finagle an invitation to one of Lady Somerton’s exclusive supper parties, attending as a friend to one Christopher Knight. He arrives at the party before Christopher does, and almost immediately falls in love with Lady Somerton’s beautiful niece, Sylvia Vernon. Martin vows to himself that Sylvia will one day be his bride, and is thus dismayed when he learns that Sylvia and Knight are very much an “item.” He does not take the news very gracefully, to put it mildly, and the next day repents his bad manners and betakes himself to Christopher’s flat to apologize … only to learn that Christopher is now dead, having been strangled overnight by an unknown assailant! After a proper period of mourning elapses, Martin begins courting Sylvia, and all seems to be going well, until the arrival of his hated cousin Mick on the scene. Mick, fabulously wealthy and a more colorful personality than poor Martin, manages to charm Sylvia almost immediately, and things once again appear to be problematic for Martin Strange. But then, incredibly, tragedy strikes again, and Mick is discovered dead, after having plummeted from the top floor of his London townhouse! And it is only then that Martin begins to suspect what is going on: that he has some kind of a homicidal guardian angel; a wrathful spirit of vengeance that will eliminate whoever Martin feels is in his way! As Martin puts it, “…the awful truth [was] that some supernatural being was secretly in league with me, ready to destroy anything that stood between me and my desires. My responsibility was terrifying; and the sense of the nearness of this secret, ghostly presence was unbearable…”

As his tale progresses, Martin learns a fact from his dedicated manservant, Makepeace, that only serves to strengthen his suspicions. It seems that some 60 years earlier, the romantic rival of his own grandfather, Abraham Strange, had perished in a similar manner, after plunging from the highest point in Bolton Towers. And then other, uh, strange things begin to transpire. Martin begins to sense that his Grosvenor Sq. residence (some fancy digs that he was able to relocate to after inheriting Mick’s fortune) is being watched round the clock. Makepeace reports that he has sighted some kind of presence inside their townhouse at night. One of Lady Somerton’s friends, an elderly professor named Wetherhouse, begins to subject Martin to unusual attentions. Sylvia, never especially warm in Martin’s presence, starts to grow even colder. And when the professor’s young son, Sydney, begins to take a romantic interest in the seemingly irresistible Sylvia, Martin realizes that he must try harder than ever to keep his jealousy under control, lest that avenging spirit strike lethally once again…

Now, you may have noticed that I have not mentioned which of those three Wagner lists The Shadow on the House appears in, but that apparent omission was completely deliberate on my part. In this particular case, I feel, the foreknowledge of whether Hansom’s novel is supernatural, non-supernatural or science fictional in nature would constitute a definite spoiler of sorts, so forgive me if I don’t elucidate on the matter. The factoid is, of course, fairly common knowledge that a 10-second Interwebs search would reveal, but I urge you not to do so. I wish that I had gone in blind before turning to this book’s first page, and so, as they say, mum’s the word. Indeed, this is a book that is a bit difficult to report on in general without touching on any of its manifold surprises. Suffice it to say that the novel is beautifully – indeed, elegantly – written, and the reader is increasingly impressed that this was the work of a first-time author. Hansom turns out to have a marvelous command of well-rendered, realistic-sounding dialogue, and the author’s characters, both male and female, are nicely depicted and fully fleshed out. The novel is tight and taut, with no flab; it’s fast moving, wholly ingenious, atmospheric, increasingly paranoid, and at times even a little scary. Several sequences manage to stand out from the rest, including Martin’s shocked reactions to his friend’s and cousin’s deaths; a wonderfully disorienting nightmare that Martin suffers through; the remarkably tense scene in which Martin lies awake in his bed at night, waiting for the avenging spirit to show itself; and the beautifully accomplished denouement, set in Bolton Towers. Fans of Gothic literature will be pleased to learn that that ancient pile, with its high turrets and hidden stairways, makes for a perfect backdrop for the novel’s final scenes. And as to those final scenes, although readers may have their suspicions as to what is going on in this book, we don’t find out for sure until practically the very last page, as Hansom keeps us breathlessly expectant till the very end.

The Shadow on the House is a compulsively readable book, and my guess is that you will feel the need to finish it in two or three sittings. What a terrific film it might have made, for a director on the order of Alfred Hitchcock or William Castle, say! And what a terrible shame that a novel of this high quality should have languished in obscurity for ¾ of a century! As Pelan so rightly says in his introduction, “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…” But fortunately, thanks to Karl Edward Wagner, who first brought it back into the public light, and now Ramble House, which has made this once-unobtainable obscurity a snap to purchase, the book is widely available to impress a new generation of readers.

For a change, I have no nitpicking quibbles to raise here. Hansom’s first novel is a stunning display of craft and talent, and to read this first effort is to want to read everything else the author produced. Those six other novels, then, are The Ghost of Gaston Revere (1935), The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey (1935), Master of Souls (1937), The Beasts of Brahm (1937), Sorcerer’s Chessmen (1939) and The Madman (1939), all of which (with the exception of The Beasts of Brahm) are happily available today on the Ramble House website. I look forward to purchasing and reading them all over the next few years. And that is the effect of reading a single work by Mark Hansom … whoever he or she may have been!

Published in 1934. A young man falls in love, and in so doing suddenly finds his world turned upside-down - in the most terrifying way. The events that come to pass will engage the reader to the very end. First published in 1934, ‘The Shadow on the House’ was the first novel by the mysterious Mark Hansom, who went on to write some of the darkest, and rarest supernatural thrillers in the genre. This is the third book under the Dancing Tuatara imprint to be published by Ramble House, and includes an introduction by John Pelan.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....