Her face was that of a dead woman, as she drew from her bag a bit of crumpled paper, covered with printed letters.
Someone knew. The years of false security and happiness were over. She groped her way up the stairs through the dense blackness of fear.
“I can’t face it,” she whispered. “Never. Never. I’ll die first… I’ll—die.”
The village is perfect. The Tudor cottages, the gardens in full bloom, the cozy kitchen windows throwing squares of yellow light into the dusk. When Joan Brook first came there as Lady D’Arcy’s secretary, she couldn’t believe that any town could really be as happy and peaceful as this one appeared. Soon enough, however, she was caught up in its spell, just like everyone else. That is, almost everyone else.
First one anonymous letter, and then another shatters the calm of the village, turning neighbor against neighbor and husband against wife. Social life stops abruptly, while reputations and careers are destroyed by rumors. Others will lose even more than that…
Fear Stalks the Village lets the reader have it both ways, offering all the idyllic summertime pleasures of an English village only to gleefully tear it apart. It stands to reason that such a picture-perfect town must be hiding something dark. After all, if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. What Ethel Lina White suggests is that the anonymous letters may be creating the rot beneath the surface rather than merely revealing it. While there is more than one troubled soul in the village, White’s incisive character portraits seem to imply that most of them would be living reasonably contented lives if not for the letters, which bring to a boil conflicts that would never have reached such a pitch without that unnatural stimulation. Under conditions of absolute truth, society doesn’t improve—it falls apart.
None of the lives we see in the beginning are truly perfect, of course, but the villagers believe themselves happy. Joan Brook is eager to show off her new home to her London friend, only to become slightly defensive of its well-scrubbed appearance. Joan’s friend is a creature of the city, painted, powdered, and hard as nails. Such earnestness is a natural target for her cynicism. She concocts a wildly satirical account of the villagers’ secret vices, only to find to find the place getting under her skin. “Do people ever try to get away from here?” the friend asks. “They don’t want to,” Joan replies.
As the two women emerged from the gloom of the avenue they saw the village with its ancient cottages and choked flower-gardens, all steeped in the carnation glow of sunset. At each step they seemed to turn a fresh page of a fairy-tale, with illuminated borders jumbled with box-edging, sage, damson-trees, beehives and a patchwork quilt of peonies, pinks and pansies. Golden girls and boys skipped in the street, while cats were growing mysterious as they awaited the herald—twilight. Soon their real life would begin.
It is not only the cats who wait patiently for darkness. Soon the Rector is summoned by the last person he would expect to need spiritual counsel, the saintly Miss Decima Asprey. The anonymous letters have begun.
Tension builds slowly and deliberately, without a moment’s let-up. Small incidents add up. Even something as simple as a country walk reveals the bewildering dynamics at work in the village. Joan impulsively invites Miss Asprey’s companion, Miss Mack, to join her because she feels sorry for the timid, mousy woman. Instead, she watches in horror as Miss Asprey seems, through force of sheer will, to manipulate her companion into staying behind so that Miss Asprey herself can take her place, uninvited. What began as a relaxing walk becomes akin to a death march. “Joan gazed resentfully at the ivory profile against the burning blue sky. It was so bleak, so purged of human passion—that she was reminded of the mental detachment of the Inquisition, when it tortured bodies to gain souls.”
The Rector brings in his friend Ignatius Brown, a keen amateur sleuth, to investigate the letters. Still, he finds it difficult to believe there could be anything really wrong.
“There’s no immorality in the village. And no class-hatred or modern unrest. They reflect the general tone of kindness and good breeding. I’ve never known a place with so little scandal. And the charity almost overlaps. No wretched slums, no leaky roofs or insanitary conditions.”
“I agree,” said the doctor in his tired voice. “But this fact remains. None of the local ladies use makeup, not even my own civilized wife, because Mrs. Scudamore has decreed that paint is an outrage on good taste. Yet, do you ever see cracked lips, or damaged skins?”
“What are you driving at?” asked the Rector.
“Merely that they must use vanishing-cream and colorless lip-salve…The moral is, padre, that human nature remains the same, everywhere, and dark places exist in every mind.”
The doctor is quite right. The village runs on little deceits. When it comes to their library subscriptions, which are fairly public, the residents ask for biographies and history books. In the privacy of their homes, however, they pore over glossy magazines that are passed around among neighbors, as few are bold enough to openly subscribe. The perfection of the village has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If matters are rather different behind closed doors, that is no one else’s concern.
Fear Stalks the Village is a true ensemble piece, easily juggling a large cast of complex and often contradictory human beings. Joan is perhaps the closest thing to a heroine, but even she has spiteful moments when the course of true love fails to run smooth. Dr. Perry, the harried GP, is both amused and exhausted by the intensity of life with his wife Marianne. Despite her pretense of being fashionably indifferent to their offspring, Marianne is obsessed with her babies and spoils them extravagantly, far beyond what Dr. Perry can afford. Plump, jolly Julia Corner is a successful children’s author, perhaps due to her own slightly juvenile mindset. Watching over them all are the Scudamores. Moral and social arbiters of the village, they are perfectly correct in all things. Though the villagers sometimes chafe under Mrs. Scudamore’s authority, they are secretly relieved to have someone to tell them the right thing to do.
Ethel Lina White sketches her characters in bold, true strokes, adding more revealing and ominous details as the novel progresses. Anyone can find danger in the dark. It takes a truly gifted author to make tea parties, brightly-lit drawing rooms, and shiny copper kettles even more sinister.
Crime fiction often presents poison pen letters as a form of cleansing. With no more secrets, the survivors are free to find a better way forward. That is not the case in Fear Stalks the Village. This is perfectly realistic—isn’t that the only thing any of us want right now, to get back to normal and resume the old lives we sometimes used to grumble about? Yet one wonders how long this peace will last. The letters may have stopped, but fear is still there, waiting for its next opportunity.
I was quite surprised really by how intricate and yet how plausible the final solution is, especially given the poison pen focus. I would rate this as one of White’s best novels, which makes it a shame that it is much less well known, a timely reprint is definitely called for.
I found it tense and intriguing: we are introduced to a village that seems picture perfect, with lovely happy inhabitants. So that can’t be true, can it? Once the letters start coming, everything falls apart. White has a very melodramatic way of personifying the Fear (as in the title) which got a bit much, but she was very good at building an atmosphere, and showing apparently calm characters, then slowly revealing the neuroses and worries below. It’s all a bit like the Mapp and Lucia books gone disastrously, criminally wrong.
There are some cleverly executed little twists in this novel, which meant I kept changing my mind about what was what. There isn’t an enormous amount of action in this novel – which I don’t mind in the least – action is never important to me. I loved the sense of place; many of the descriptions are lovely, coupled with the depiction of an idealised society, which put under a very slight pressure begins to break down.
While good in parts, this novel was overall a drag. Too many descriptive passage took away the tautness needed in a mystery novel. And the village began to irritate me with its very complacency. Nevertheless, White remains a favourite and I am keen to read more of her works.
I don’t think the book drags particularly. It is knowingly cosy and the descriptive passages add to this. Nor would I say the villagers are complacent. The threat to village life seems somehow more serious than the threat to the lives of individual villagers, so their initial reaction is to keep things going, and then retreat into their cottages to keep their heads down.
Fear Stalks the Village is widely available in inexpensive ebook editions. A free ebook is also available for Australian readers from Project Gutenberg Australia.