House of the Past (1976)



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Publication: 24 April 1976 – 5 June 1976
Artist: Ken Houghton
Writer: Unknown

Anna Bentley has just moved from an orphanage to a girls’ hostel. At the hostel she is very surprised to come across a scrap of newspaper clipping which shows a photograph of a girl who looks exactly like her. The girl drowned over 43 years ago, on 16 April 1933, at Thunderham, Norfolk.

At a job hunting-agency, a Mrs Morris looks unusually interested in Anna and hired her as a live-in secretary at a large house in the country…in Thunderham. Anna is further surprised and alarmed to find herself staying in the same room as the drowned girl, whose name she discovers was Helen Fairley. It gets more mysterious when a photograph of Helen and her mother turns up in Anna’s room without explanation.

Things get even scarier when the house seems to be reverting to the year 1933. When Anna goes to sleep, she has dreams where she sees strange lights and hears voices saying she is Helen Fairley and the year is 1933. Mr and Mrs Morris turn up dressed in 1930s clothes, the morning paper says 1933 (the headline says Hitler has just been elected Chancellor of Germany), the clothes in Anna’s wardrobe change into 1930s ones, and her pop records change into 1920s music. And a strange woman turns up in her room while Mrs Morris feeds Anna drugs and she has more of those same dreams.

When Anna tries to escape, she finds there is no way out – everything is locked. She has to wait to find a ladder or some other means of escaping. And by now she is losing her sense of identity and beginning to think she is Helen Fairley. Seeing this, the Morrises are confident they can go on to the next step, which entails convincing Anna of one more thing and then she “goes to her doom.”

Meanwhile, Anna regains her sense of identity and discovers the mysterious woman is Mrs Fairley, Helen’s mother. She is a confused, grieving mother who has never accepted her daughter’s death and still waits for her. And this is apparently the reason the house is stuck in 1933. So says Mrs Morris, and there is only one way to break the spell. Anna plays along at being Helen to please Mrs Fairley.

Anna finds a full version of the newspaper report and discovers the Morrises were the only witnesses to Helen’s death. And then she realises the only way to break the spell is to die the same way as Helen. She tries to escape, but is stopped by Mrs Fairley and still obliged to go along with the charade of pretending to be Helen to humour Mrs Fairley. Later, Mrs Morris makes doubly sure of no escape by drugging Anna.

Next day the Morrises take Anna out on the boat while Mrs Fairley watches on the shore. The Morrises then attempt to drown Anna in a bid to force Mrs Fairley to accept her death. Anna successfully fools them into thinking they succeeded.

The motive is revealed when the Morrises try to get Mrs Fairley to sign everything over to them. She had never done so because she refused to accept Helen’s death, but now they think they have finally got her to accept it. However, Mrs Fairley’s confused head clears and she figures everything out. Then Anna arrives with the police and the Morrises are arrested. It is never established as to whether they really did murder Helen to inherit Mrs Fairley’s fortune, although the story did strongly imply it.

Anna stays on at the house – now living in the present – as Mrs Fairley’s new daughter.

From the moment Anna finds the newspaper cutting we know the direction where this story is heading. So the reversion to the 1930s pattern at the house is frightening, confusing and mysterious, but it does not surprise us. The mystery is how and why it is all happening. Is there really some supernatural force or perhaps even time travel mechanism at work? Or is it some sort of charade? And why does Anna look exactly like Helen? Is it a coincidence or is there something more? Could Anna be a long-lost relative of Helen or could the resemblance be due to some supernatural element, such as reincarnation? Above all, just what are the circumstances surrounding Helen’s death – and how will this bear out on what happens to Anna at the climax of the story?

The story does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing. Those dreams and flashing lights that Anna experiences do hint at some sort of charade. But then we hear the house is under a spell, and we begin to wonder again. And we sympathise with Anna, who is beginning to doubt her sanity and sense of identity because everything is saying 1933 and it looks like something or someone is trying to brainwash her. Even worse, the fate of Helen suggests that Anna’s life is in danger, a fact borne out by what the Morrises are hinting at.

On the other hand, Anna happening to come across that same newspaper clipping at the hostel, and then Mrs Morris just happening to be at the job agency and seeing Anna’s resemblance to Helen do stretch credibility a bit too far. And it does seem incredulous that the Morrises would spend 43 years trying to get hold of Mrs Fairley’s fortune or, we presume, finding a girl who looks exactly like Helen. Surely they would have come up with other ways in that time, such as hiring an actress to fool Mrs Fairley or forging her will. Or maybe they did some scheme or other before Anna came along – we don’t know. At any rate, it might have been better for a genuine supernatural element to be at work rather than just a fraud, attempted murder, and, we suspect, the murder of Helen, though this is never established. If so, it backfired on the Morrises for the simple reason that Mrs Fairley would not accept Helen’s death. And in the end, after 43 years of waiting and scheming, they ended up with nothing because they underestimated their would-be victim who was luckier than Helen.

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