the book: Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White
also published as Some Must Watch
Helen felt rather important as she went up to the red room, although she was slightly doubtful of the success of her mission. As she paused outside the door, she could hear the sounds of strangled sobbing. No notice was taken of her knock, so she entered, uninvited--to find Simone stretched, face downwards, on the bed.
"Oh, your lovely dress," she cried. "You'll ruin it."
Simone raised her head, showing a tear-streaked face.
"I hate it," she snarled.
"Then take it off. Anyway, you'll feel freer in a wrapper."
It was second nature to Simone to be waited on, so she made no protest as Helen peeled the sheath-like gown over her head.
The younger girl took rather a long time in her selection of a substitute, from the wardrobe. The sight of so many beautiful garments aroused her wistful envy.
"What loverly things you have," she said, as she returned to the bed, carrying a wisp of georgette and lace, which was less substantial than the discarded gown.
"What's the good of them?" asked Simone bitterly. "There's no man to see them."
"There's your husband," Helen reminded her.
"I said 'man.'"
"Shall I get you some aspirin for your head?" asked Helen, who was determined to keep Simone's ailments on a strictly physical basis.
"No," replied Simone. "I feel foul. But it's not that. I'm so terribly unhappy."
"But you've everything," cried Helen.
"Everything. And nothing I want. My whole life has been one of sacrifice. Whenever I want something, it's taken from me."
She coiled herself into a sitting posture, as a prelude to confidence. While her make-up was ruined, the tempest had swept harmlessly over her plastic coiffure, for her hair gleamed like unflawed black enamel.
commentary: If you come to this book from the 1946 film Spiral Staircase, whether you’ve seen it or just heard of it, there are a few surprises. For a start, the book is set in the UK, not the USA. The story is often included in the Had I But Known (HIBK) school of writing, but the heroine Helen is no fainting fluttery female: she is an excellent young woman, frank and fearless, and charmingly odd.
She’s working as ladylike help with 3 generations of a strange family: old lady, stepson, grandson and wife, bachelor student. There is also, of course, other staff – housekeeper, handyman and a strangely masculine-looking nurse. A houseful of weirdos, pretty much.
Helen likes the local doctor but:
She resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.They all live in a lonely isolated house, and there is talk of a murderer on the loose, one who likes young women. (The book sounds rather clichéd, but to be fair to White, she almost created a genre with this book, and many of its features were to be repeated in books and films forever.) During the course of one long night, everyone fights, the weather gets worse and worse, people bang on the door, people get locked in or locked out, they get drunk, they are drugged. Who will still be standing at dawn…?
It’s not the best plot ever (the cast is too small for much mystery) but the entertainment value is still high. The new nurse asks if the doctor is young and married, and on hearing the answers (yes and no) ‘opened her bag and drew out a mirror and lipstick.’ The housekeeper tells the nurse that our heroine is saucy and ‘a terror with the gentlemen’ and Helen is refreshingly delighted with this description. And she blatantly tries to compete with the femme fatale of the employing family by wearing a sexy dress.
The nurse herself is described like this:
In her white overall – her dark-red face framed in its handkerchief headgear – she looked like a gigantic block of futuristic sculpture.The plot and setting were changed for the film, and the iconic shots of the woman holding a candle on the spiral staircase, while wearing a long white nightie, don’t really seem to have much basis in the book. The staircase exists but isn’t that important.
It’s not clear if ‘loverly’ above is a typo or not, so I have left it as is.
Sergio, over at Tipping my Fedora, reviewed the book for Halloween last year, and also – it’s his forte – took an illuminating and revelatory look at the film (which I think it’s fair to say he recommends a lot more than the book).
The top photo is the luminous Lilian Gish admiring herself in a mirror.
Women/stairs/candles/nighties have been discussed on previous blog entries: this Andrea Camilleri book came into the view of Colm Redmond, the chief Guest Blogger, and he showed further expertise by also choosing the pictures for this Mary Stewart book, where the author was clearly poking fun at the conventions.
Plenty more Ethel Lina White books have been on the blog in the past year – click on the label below.