Originally entitled Some Must Watch when published in 1933, Ethel Lina White’s book was renamed The Spiral Staircase after the film was released in 1946 under that title. It would be three more years before her most famous book was published, The Wheel Spins (retitled The Lady Vanishes).
Both book and film have similarities, but the film diverges in important respects, notably in character relationships. Though the book was set in England, the film transposed the setting to New England. In the book, the heroine Helen Capel is an unskilled diminutive woman, a so-called ‘lady-help’ employed by Professor Warren to attend his sick mother, Lady Warren, in their country house, The Summit. In the film, Helen is a mute, having lost her voice due to extreme trauma when young. Bearing in mind that this was written at a time when it was commonplace for eugenics to be espoused for improving the human gene pool towards 'purity', the film’s version is perhaps more pertinent to the plot.
Other characters are Mrs Oates, the cook and housekeeper, Mr Oates, driver and handyman, Nurse Barker to attend to the ailing Lady Warren, the professor’s son and daughter-in-law (Simone) and a resident pupil (Stephen Rice) the professor was coaching for the Indian Civil Service. And Dr Parry, ‘clever, young and unconventional’, and lastly the mysterious Lady Warren herself: ‘The household was waiting for her to die, but she still called the tune. Every morning, Death knocked politely n the door of the blue room and Lady Warren saluted him in her customary fashion with a thumb to her nose.’ (p162)
Mrs Oates exhibits mood changes. ‘For no apparent reason, she was swaying to and fro, like a weathercock. Whence came the mysterious wind which was blowing on her?’ (p221)
Simone fancies Stephen, but he isn’t interested: ‘He did not run from her pursuit, he merely shoved her away... he was in the kitchen, helping Mrs Oates. He had been offered romance – and he chose onions.’ (p197)
As can be seen above, there’s humour, too. Take also, for example, p200: ‘Is it still raining heavily?’ asked Helen.
‘Not near so much,’ interposed Mrs Oates bitterly. ‘Oates brought most of it in with him.’
Recently, in the area there had been four women murdered, all seemingly committed by a maniac. And we first encounter Helen amidst her thoughts walking back to the country house as night closes in: ‘… the place was suggestive of evil. Tattered leaves still clung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering from a gibbet.’ (p165) White has a knack of creating atmosphere, and it was captured well in the black-and-white film. ‘Every now and again a twig tapped the window, like a bony finger giving a signal. The clock ticked, like a leaking tap, and the wind blew down the funnel of the chimney.’ (p317)
It seems as though the murderer is getting closer to the house. Dr Parry was called out to the latest tragic case. He warns everyone to stay inside. A wet dark night stretched ahead. And gradually, on one pretext or another, individuals left the house, or were incapacitated – or vanished. Leaving Helen and Lady Warren to face the early hours by themselves… ‘(Helen) … dreaded the night which divided her from the dawn.’ (p244)
This is one of those early examples of a psychological melodrama. Some chapter headings offer warnings: 2, The First Cracks; 12, The First Gap; 13, Murder; 16, The Second Gap; 18, The Defence Weakens; 30, The Walls Fall Down. Aided by lousy weather, almost a character in itself: ‘Only the wind shrieked, as though a flock of witches sailed overhead, racing the moon, which glided through the torn clouds…’ (p321)
Helen may be small in stature, but she is nevertheless brave. When she spotted the figure of a man merge with the silhouette of a tree, she went to investigate! By which time, he was gone – if he had existed… Finally, ‘Helen knew. The acid of terror cleared the scum from her mind…’ (p331)
White employs a good turn of phrase from time to time: ‘She believed that, even as shadows on the sea betray the presence of rocks, so trifles indicate character.’ (p263) And: ‘She must not think of the horror which had actually taken place within these walls, or wonder if the girl still lingered somewhere in the atmosphere, the dust or the stones.’ (p290) And: ‘She remembered how the bushes had writhed, like knotted fingers tapping the glass, and how the tentacles of the undergrowth had swayed in mimicry of subaqueous life.’ (p293)
A fascinating period piece; certainly worth reading.
It may be of no significance, but this book pre-dates Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), where characters in an isolated home ‘leave’…
[The page numbers for excerpts relate to the double volume, cover depicted.]
A strong tendency to repeat words close together, and also to head-hop from one character to another in the same scene, but these traits do not affect the pace of the story.
A commendable abrupt (but fitting) ending; no lingering about.