RogerBW's Blog

The Third Eye, Ethel Lina White 04 June 2018

1937 thriller. Caroline Watts, not wanting to be a burden on her married sister, takes up a post as games mistress at a minor school for girls, but soon runs up against the horrid Matron Miss Yaxley-Moore, who seems to have the Head under her thumb. Was the previous games mistress's death really misadventure?

Well, this isn't a mystery book. The main business seems to be to ladle on the atmosphere, and White does an excellent job here; Creepy School has been done many times before and since, but rarely as well, and with particular attention paid to the toxic atmosphere produced by the people. Yaxley-Moore runs séances (thus the title), and predicts Doom so effectively that Caroline starts to think she might be helping it come to pass.

But then there's a clear bit of dereliction of duty, and a vital piece of evidence that has to be delivered to the right people… except that Caroline is going away on holiday first and will sort it all out when she gets back. It's all carefully set up (she has spent all her money on the holiday, and only found out about the evidence at the last moment), but it's a bit sad and modern compared with what one feels a thriller heroine ought to do.

The result, though, is one of the most atmospheric sequences I've read for a while, as Caroline takes a cross-country bus back to the school to make everything right… but Yaxley-Moore is not her only enemy, and she has no idea who else on the bus might be opposition. Each stop brings a crucial decision: get out and risk being lost and delayed? Or be one of the few to stay on board, perhaps alone with one of the Ungodly? As fog brews up and everything gets slower, Caroline is trapped in a nightmare with no idea whom she can trust.

At the same time, there's rather too much heavy-handed foreboding, which often takes the form of Had She But Known. There's a remarkable amount of coincidence. But this is a book to wallow in (though there's a remarkably accurate description of sleep paralysis in an early chapter), and one which happily indulges in its gothicness without being a blatantly supernatural story.

And there's a character called Miss Bat of Bat House. How can you go wrong with that?

She realised that she loathed this girl with a direct personal hatred which had no connection with her half-sister. She abominated her for all that she was and did; for her mauve silk trousers and her safety razor—for the spilt ash on the carpet—for her derision of the priceless heritage of ancestry.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg Australia.

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