Richmal Crompton’s adventurous, scruffy and rumbustious schoolboy William Brown remains a celebrated and immortal creation in children’s literature after almost a century, widely recognised as one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. The author’s many adult novels and short story collections have always been relatively overshadowed, although they once achieved a wide and appreciative readership. Several of these stories have a macabre and ‘secret world’ quality, and richly deserve to be rediscovered. Crompton’s only supernatural novel is The House (1926), which achieved a much more suitable title – Dread Dwelling – in the US edition. This features a fine old Tudor mansion which is the setting of a long succession of suicides and great unhappiness over the centuries. Presaging later classics like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the mansion proves to be the chief monstrous occult creation itself, detailing the almost total destruction of the newest inhabitants, the Crofton family. Crompton even brought ‘ghostly’ situations into her Just William stories, inevitably resulting from William’s skulduggery and crazy schemes. He is even mistaken on one occasion for an evil spirit, and becomes the subject of an improvised exorcism!
Richmal Lamburn was born in 1890 on the outskirts of Bury in Lancashire. ‘Crompton’ was her mother’s maiden name, and her unusual first name came from her aunt. She quickly became a voracious reader, with a special love of stories of fantasy and imagination, and started to ‘scribble’ her own strange tales, often in the spacious attic at home – her ‘secret place’. She followed her elder sister Gwen as a boarder at St Elphin’s (the Clergy Daughter’s School) in Warrington. She later recalled: “The place was supposed to be haunted by a nun and the more imaginative of the pupils swore that they had seen her at the end of some dim-lit corridor or flitting through a dormitory at night.” The school was a vast, rambling gothic-style former convent, a great inspiration for Crompton’s very active imagination. “After I went to the school, ghosts began to figure in my stories, particularly as my sister and I shared a dormitory cubicle that had a mysterious door high in the wall far beyond our reach with no means of getting up to it…” In 1904 the school was closed after an outbreak of scarlet fever, and all the girls and staff were transferred to another imposing mansion in Barley Dale, near Matlock. Here Crompton wrote several pieces for the school magazine, including in 1906 a ghost story featuring the spectres of girls and mistresses who, one hundred years later, revisit the school on the centenary of an event when each St Elphinite had planted “her own particular tree… on the stretch of waste-land outside the playing-field.” Her fixation with atmospheric grand old houses, trees and gardens formed the background of many later short stories.
A similar theme also featured in her first adult novel, The Innermost Room (1923), which has numerous macabre touches. This story is focused on Bridget, who is haunted throughout her life by nameless fears. They surface in childhood when she and her sister encounter a man wheeling a hand-cart: “They saw something dangling down the side of it under the covering. It was a man’s hand. They could see the hand – white and wet – and part of the shirt-sleeve dripping, dripping as it went along… And over Bridget’s soul had come a sudden horror – a sickening realisation of nightmare depths beneath the clear calm surface of life, beneath the violets and primroses, and wonders and games, and people who laughed and talked.” There was a strong sense of these nightmare depths in all her later supernatural fiction. All her ghost stories were collected in Mist, which was first published in 1928 and is now a very rare and virtually unobtainable first edition. The theme of malignant old houses recurs here, especially in tales like Marlowes, but with a happier twist ending than Dread Dwelling. Several concentrate on someone’s oppressive fascination with an old house or garden, usually with dire results. The happiness of different couples is frequently disrupted by a third person, alive or dead, bringing tangles of love and dependence and terrible jealousy. Crompton remained interested in the occult, mysticism and reincarnation all her life. In the 1960s she regularly attended meetings of a ‘Meditation Group for the New Age’ and similar societies. She died on 11 January 1969 at the age of 78.