J. B. PRIESTLEY – The Old Dark House. Harper, hardcover, 1928. Published in the UK as Benighted (Heinemann, hardcover, 1927). Films: Universal, 1932; Hammer, 1963.

   It’s been a season for reading some Old Chestnuts, the first of which was J.B. Priestley’s The Old Dark House,  which turned out to be a neatly – perhaps too neatly — constructed variation on the … well, on the Old Dark House theme, with a group of disparate travelers stuck on a dark and stormy night in a remote mansion inhabited by an equally disparate household of lunatics, criminals and potential killers.

   This was hoary stuff even in the 20s, and Priestley’s stated intent was to use the shuddery conventions as a showcase for his talents with Character and Dialogue, which he does — a little too clearly. One is sometimes reminded a bit forcefully that these are all supposed to be Honest-To-Gawd Characters, and their lines intended to be Highly Dramatic and Very Important.

   Still, as a writer J.B. was no slouch, and The Old Dark House does offer its share of clever talk and sho’ ’nuff thrills; indeed, the Chills are cunningly crafted to appear in ascending order, with effective foreshadowing and a resolution that is entirely too pat, but handled rather well.

   There is a very fine scene late in the book, with the surviving characters, exhausted by their Night of Horrors but too wrought-up to sleep, slumped exhausted in musty armchairs, trying to find some meaning in all this as they prepare to face a gray and uncompromising dawn. And if the preceding pages aren’t all up to that level of writing, well, at least they aren’t a chore to get through.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #78, July 1996.