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‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed.  My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago.  I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of  Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could. 9780349007649

Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising.  Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’

House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request.  The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook.  When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house.  Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’  The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’

The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta.  It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right.  By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place…  My skeleton is frail.  I creak with any transference of weight.  In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads.  She is imperfect, they said.’  In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing.  Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit.  I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way.  I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself.  The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced. 

Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued.  She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away.  She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London.  On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew.  This was a name I knew.  For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas.  I’d read of them in books.’  Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’.  Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her.  She enters, and ‘left February behind.  England, too, was gone.  For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed…  Now I wanted to be nowhere else.  I was done with crowds and London’s streets.  Here was a new beginning.’  This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world.  In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.

When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone.  Clematis grew on its walls.  Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice.  Two storeys to it, no more.  A small right-angled wing.’  At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences.  The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement.  As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it.  It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat.  It was an unsettling notion.  I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges.  On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’

Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of.  After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost.  The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so.  It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us…  A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word.  It had no place in diagrams.’

In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters.  My experience with her newest book was much the same.  I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily.  Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters.  She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory.  Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone.  She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.

Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass.  Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning.  Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk.  There was, too, a globe.  A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride.  And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed.  Tales of how the river had looked at twilight.  How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’  The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss.  But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil.  The green of a tiny jungle frog.’

Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass.  Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.  

At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out.  The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original.  I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been.  Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.

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The Book Trail: From Mary Stewart to Barbara Michaels

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with a Mary Stewart novel which I read and very much enjoyed in October last year.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to collate this list.  (Reader, beware; trashy covers abound in this post.)

 

89499301. My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
‘Camilla Haven is on holiday alone, and wishes for some excitement. No sooner has she written to her friend Elizabeth in England, than her life suddenly begins to take off and she finds herself in the midst of an exciting, intriguing, yet dangerous adventure as she sets out on a mysterious car journey to Delphi

 

2. Kirkland Revels by Victoria Holt
‘Kirkland Revels loomed high above the wild and eerie Yorkshire moors like a brooding stone fortress. To some there was an atmosphere of evil about the place, but to innocent young bride Catherine Rockwell, the mansion seemed magnificently romantic. She did not know then of the terrible secrets imprisoned behind its massive walls. Or that at the moment she had entered her new home, she had crossed the threshold of terror . . .’

 

3. Thunder Heights by Phyllis A. Whitney 278670
‘When Camilla King’s grandfather leaves her the family estate in his will, she is shocked. Before her summons to his deathbed, she had never met any of her late mother’s relatives. Although the rest of the family clearly does not want her there, Camilla honors her grandfather’s wish and becomes the mistress of the magnificent Thunder Heights.  But along with the grand house, Camilla has inherited a legacy of hatred and secrets. Not knowing who, if anyone, she can trust, Camilla searches for the truth about her mother’s death. Soon she begins to suspect that it was no accident, but rather murder.’

 

4. Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
‘Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.  Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements of her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams–dreams that seem to hold an eerie and menancing prophecy of the future.  Here is all the grandeur and excitement of the ageless glory of Venice and the handsome beauty of the English countryside combined in the romantic and suspenseful story of a young girl’s confrontation with the past.’

 

34216975. Moura by Virginia Coffman
‘Anne Wicklow left her post as housekeeper at a girls school to look after the safety of one of her charges, who was suddenly taken to gloomy Chateau Moura by her strange guardian. Once there, Anne found herself fascinated by Edmond, the brooding surly master of Moura.’

 

6. Greygallows by Barbara Michaels
‘Lucy Cartwright placed her life and future into the hands of the dashing Baron Clare, despite the rumors of his dark, unsavory past. Trusting his kind words and gentle manner, she agreed to be his wife and followed the enigmatic lord to Greygallows, his sprawling country estate. But mystery, deception, betrayal, and danger surround the magnificent manor—a ghostly secret charges the atmosphere and terror reigns in its shadowed hallways. Lucy entered Greygallows willingly . . . and now she may never leave.’

 

7. Devil May Care by Elizabeth Peters 6623335
‘Ellie is young, rich, engaged and in love. These are the carefree days before marriage and new responsibility, and anything goes — including house-sitting at eccentric Aunt Kate’s palatial estate in Burton, Virginia. Ellie feels right at home here with the nearly invisible housekeepers and the plethora of pets, but she soon realizes that there are disturbing secrets about the local aristocracy buried in a dusty old book she has carried into the mansion. And her sudden interest in the past is attracting a slew of unwelcome guests — some of them living and some, perhaps not. And the terrible vegeance that Ellie and her friends seem to have aroused — now aimed at them — surely cannot be…satanic.’

 

8. Vanish with the Rose by Barbara Michaels
‘Fearing for the safety of her missing brother, lawyer Diana Reed will do anything to get to the truth. Taking a job as a landscape architect at the last place Brad was seen—the sprawling estate where he worked as a caretaker—she prowls the strange old house determined to unlock its secrets. But each mystery Diana uncovers is more unsettling than the last, as odd visions, scents, and sounds pervade an atmosphere of dread and barely suppressed violence. And in her zealous search for answers, she may have inadvertently opened a door to something frightening and deadly that can never be closed again.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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One From the Archive: ‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry **

The intriguing premise of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood is as follows: ‘What if you walked out of your life only to find another one was already waiting for you?’ 9781781253649  Heralded ‘elegant, gently sinister and psychologically complex’, the novel holds instant appeal for fans of books like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and of authors such as Sarah Waters.

The protagonist of the piece is John Cole, a lonely man who decides to leave his life behind him and join his brother at his secluded house in rural Norfolk.  Whilst driving away from the neglected bookshop which he owns in London, his car – rather predictably, one may think – breaks down, and he finds himself lost.  Searching for help, he stumbles upon a grand house: ‘It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat’.  John is soon welcomed with opened arms by the odd community of people within, who seem to have been expecting him all along: ‘I ought really to have been afraid of the strangeness and the dark and the insistent child, and those appalling meat hooks hanging from their chains, but instead it all seemed so absurd, and so like something in a novel, that I began to laugh’.

Throughout, Perry uses two differing voices – the first person perspective of John, who is writing an account of his time in his house, and an omniscient third person narrative.  John’s voice drawns one in from the outset: ‘I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair at an old school desk.  The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still’.  He goes on to say, ‘I wish I could use some other voice to write this story down.  I wish I could take all the books that I’ve loved best and borrow better words than these, but I’ve got to make do with an empty notebook and a man who never had a tale to tell and doesn’t know how to begin except for the beginning’.

Perry manages to set the oppressive tone of the book almost as soon as it begins: ‘I’ve been listening for footsteps on the stairs or voices in the garden, but there’s only the sound of a household keeping quiet.  They gave me too much drink – there’s a kind of buzzing in my ears and if I close my eyes they sting’.  On the whole, After Me Came the Flood is very well written, and the descriptions which Perry gives of her characters are particularly striking.  Hester, for example, the woman who appears to be in charge of the house, ‘seemed poorly assembled, as though she’d been put together from leftover pieces – her eyes set under a deeply lined forehead, her nose crooked like a child’s drawing of a witch, her skin thick and coarse’.

After Me Came the Flood becomes unsettling rather quickly, and at times it takes quite unexpected turns.  A real sense of place is built, and the first half of the multi-layered novel is very engrossing indeed.  At around this point, however, the religious elements which have previously been touched upon serve only to saturate the entire plot, and cause the whole to become rather plodding in its pace.  The suspense is lost altogether, and it never really picks up again.  The denouement is also rather predictable.  All of these elements sadly add an unfortunate stain to what would otherwise be an intriguing and well driven novel.

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One From The Archive: ‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980, has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

9780099583271The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

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One from the Archive: ‘Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling’ by Michael Boccacino **

First published in July 2012.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling, billed as ‘a Victorian Gothic tale’, is American author Michael Boccacino’s debut novel. The story takes place in a country home named Everton on the edge of an English village named Blackfield.

The story opens with ‘the dance of the dead’, in which we are introduced to the protagonist’s late husband and parents. Echoes of the Victorian Gothic genre are apparent from the first page, and it feels from the outset as though something rather dark is lurking beneath the surface of the novel. The book’s opening line – ‘Every night I dreamt of the dead’ – is gripping and sinister in equal measure. Indeed, the ever-present fear of death death is personified and the very threat of it is treated as a character in itself. The line between the living and the dead is blurred in the novel: ‘Death made himself known to me as he took the souls of my loved ones to the Other Side’.


At the outset of the novel, Nanny Prum, ‘a woman of some physical substance’, is entrusted with the care of the two Darrow boys, Paul and James. She is soon found brutally murdered by one of Charlotte’s friends – it was ‘Nanny Prum… all in pieces. Like she’d come apart from the inside’. The boys, though only a young teenager and a five year old respectively, have already had to deal with loss and grief in their lives. Their mother, Lily, passed away the year before Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling begins. Charlotte soon takes up position as the nanny of the boys, leaving her post as governess more or less behind. In Mr Darrow, the master of the house, she finds a ‘nocturnal confidant’. The two grow closer as they try to ward off the ‘comfortable melancholy’ which has settled itself around them.

One morning, Charlotte takes the boys on a spontaneous morning trip, and this is where the more fantastical events of the novel begin to occur. Whilst in the forest, they find themselves ‘in a strange land with shadows that crawled and pieces of fruit that walked’. They come across a ‘great house’ and ‘a woman, tall and regal, even at a distance… She descended the steps leading up to the house with slow deliberation, almost gliding to the ground, a beautiful phantom’. This woman turns out to be the late Lily Darrow, and the mansion the magical House of Darkling. Here, time passes at a different speed, and everything is not quite as it seems. The boys are sworn to secrecy and promise not to tell about meeting her mother after Lily says: ‘It’s almost like a spell that’s keeping me from leaving you forever, and if you tell your father, it will be broken’.

The descriptions throughout the novel work well, and are rather evocative. Ballroom guests during the dance of the dead are ‘dressed in moldering finery’, and the large country house in which the Darrow family live has ‘fallen into a comfortable state of disrepair’. Charlotte sees in it, however, ‘a warmth… a kind of intimacy that only comes with age, like the creases around the mouth that appear after years of excessive smiling, or a favorite blanket worn down from friendly use’. The names of the chapter titles are intriguing and darkly magical, ranging from ‘A Lesson in Dreaming’ and ‘Interrupted Moonlight’ to ‘The Stolen Sun’ and ‘The Unraveling of Nanny Prum’.

Despite the novel’s promising beginning, interest in the story does wane around a third of the way through. The book holds many historical inaccuracies and countless phrases which would not have been uttered by English people during the Victorian era. The village of Blackfield is described as a ‘small, wholesome sort of place’, James Darrow says ‘I dunno’ – language which would not be used by a privileged boy who has been brought up with wealth and the best of intentions – and Charlotte ‘read for a bit’ to pass the time. References are made to ‘taffy’, and ‘cookie’ is used instead of ‘biscuit’. It stands to reason that an American author would use vocabulary which he is comfortable with, but such language would not have been used in England during the period. Such historical mistakes really do let the book down.

The novel uses the first person perspective of Charlotte Markham. At first her narrative voice is captivating and feels relatively authentic, working very well with the unfolding story, but it soon becomes evident that her voice is perhaps a little too modern to work with her character. Charlotte’s character, too, is not an altogether likeable aspect of the book. Whilst she is sympathetic to a point about the boys losing their mother, she often comes across as self-important, believing that her own status as a widow is far more important than two young children growing up without a parent.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling is rather an intriguing read, but one which seems to have not been checked for even the most basic of historical facts. It does not seem like a consistent novel in terms of its storyline or characters, and many elements fall flat in terms of their overall execution.

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Mini Reviews: ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, ‘Girl Number One’, and ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’

The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty ****
‘Legendary figures of Mississippi s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful.’ 9780156768078

There is nothing quite like a Southern Gothic fairytale, and there is also nothing quite like Eudora Welty’s writing. After reading the fabulous correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, I sought out a couple of her volumes from my personal collection, and spent a morning with The Robber Bridegroom. From the beginning, there are elements of the Brothers Grimm – as one might expect, I suppose, given its title. In fact, the novel (novella?) begins almost like a bedtime story, in that it is set in a place far, far away some centuries past, and the narrative voice is lilting and lovely. Welty’s writing is sometimes simple but always intelligent, and her story builds marvellously. Her character descriptions also ensure that vivid beings spring to life from the page.

The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most inventive and original novels which I believe I have ever read. Welty has such a hold over her characters and settings, and everything is beautifully evoked.

 

Girl Number One by Jane Holland *
9781503938212As a young child, Eleanor Blackwood witnessed her mother’s murder in woods near their farm. The killer was never found.  Now an adult, Eleanor discovers a woman’s body in the same spot in the Cornish woods where her mother was strangled eighteen years before. But when the police get there, the body has disappeared.  Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?’

I am getting more and more into thrillers of late, and downloaded this from Netgalley as the premise sounded interesting. Alas and lackaday. I found it cliched from the very beginning. It had the usual girl-with-traumatic-past-goes-running-excessively-in-order-to-try-to-put-said-traumatic-past-behind-her. It doesn’t work, obviously. The ‘thrilling’ part of the book ensues once excessive running and whiny narrative voice has been established (which takes far longer than it should, let’s be honest), which is predictable enough to not be thrilling at all. Not that well written, and honestly, if you’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, you probably don’t ever need to pick this up. It seems to follow the same style, just without the wedding party in the woods thing, and is a lot less enjoyable to boot.

 

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley *** 9781408802762
‘Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague’s tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.’

Chris Priestley’s work appeals to me, even though I’m a grownup and should probably have left the realm of children’s books behind me when I left my teens. Saying that, children’s literature is magical and wondrous and unpredictable, and I don’t want to lose those qualities; they are just as important for grownups, in my opinion. If I therefore want to read a children’s book I will do so, and I will do so proudly; hence my wish to pick up Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.

I love Gothic fiction, and from the beginning I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series. The scope of the tales here is broad; I admired the way in which one could not quite guess where the story was going. It perhaps goes without saying that these stories are beautifully illustrated too.

My three-star rating is the result of two things; firstly, that some of the stories were better than others, but I expected as much to be the case when I began; and secondly, that it lost quite a bit of momentum as it progressed. Even though the stories were different, and contained different people, the characters had shared attributes on the whole, and were presented in quite similar ways. Perhaps due to the format of the novel, the sections featuring Edgar and Uncle Montague seemed very samey too. A good book, but perhaps a little long; not a series I will be continuing with, I’m afraid.

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‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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One From the Archive: ‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville **

‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville

In Gretel and the Dark, two stories run parallel with one another.  The first begins in Vienna in 1899, where a ‘celebrated psychoanalyst’ named Joseph Breuer is ‘about to encounter his strangest case yet.  Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings – to be, in fact, not even human’.  The second story takes place years later.  Protagonist Krysta’s father works in the infirmary, so she is forced to play alone, ‘lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel [and] The Pied Piper of Hamelin‘.

The prologue begins in an interesting manner, which one thinks is about to build a haunting story.  Its beginning line intrigues, as well as building up a sense of rather stifling foreboding: ‘It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children’.  Just that one sentence and the prologue which hinges upon it is enough to send chills down the spine.  The way in which Granville makes even nature seem sinister within the prologue works marvellously – ‘Cabbages swell like lines of green heads’, for example.   Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?  I was expecting, particularly after reading the prologue, to find an atmospheric and creepy novel.  Why, then, does the rest of the novel not follow suit?

The prologue, as I have said, is deftly crafted, but I felt that the writing from the first chapter onwards detracted from its more enigmatic qualities, making it seem like part of a different book entirely.  If the novel had continued in the same way, I would imagine that the novel would be spellbinding.  Granville has used a first person perspective in the prologue and then switches to the third person when the novel proper begins.  It became lacklustre quite quickly, and whilst I loved the sound of the book, it did not at all live up to my expectations.  I did not like it enough to read it to its end.

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7

Gothic Novels

There is little that I enjoy better in winter than curling up with a startling Gothic novel.  Below are five of my favourites.

1. Florence and Giles by John Harding
‘In a remote and crumbling New England mansion, 12-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from reading. Left to her own devices she devours books in secret and talks to herself – and narrates this, her story – in a unique language of her own invention. By night, she sleepwalks the corridors like one of the old house’s many ghosts and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to threaten her younger brother Giles. Sometimes Florence doesn’t sleepwalk at all, but simply pretends to so she can roam at will and search the house for clues to her own baffling past. After the sudden violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is a vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against this powerful supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her intelligence and ingenuity to both protect her little brother and preserve her private world. Inspired by and in the tradition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Florence & Giles is a gripping gothic page-turner told in a startlingly different and wonderfully captivating narrative voice.’

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker 9780141199337
‘A chilling masterpiece of the horror genre, “Dracula” also illuminated dark corners of Victorian sexuality. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on a London home, he makes a horrifying discovery. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the arrival of his ‘Master’, while a determined group of adversaries prepares to face the terrifying Count.’

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
‘”I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” Bronte’s infamous Gothic novel tells the story of orphan Jane, a child of unfortunate circumstances. Raised and treated badly by her aunt and cousins and eventually sent away to a cruel boarding school, it is not until Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield that she finds happiness. Meek, measured, but determined, Jane soon falls in love with her brooding and stormy master, Mr Rochester, but it is not long before strange and unnerving events occur in the house and Jane is forced to leave Thornfield to pursue her future.’

97818440887994. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
‘Working as a lady’s companion, our heroine’s outlook is bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise. She accepts but, whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is for ever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers… An international bestseller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young woman consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.’

5. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
‘For lucidity and compactness of style, James’s short novels, or novelles, are shining examples of his genius. Few other writings of the century have so captured the American imagination. When “Daisy Miller,” the tale of the girl from Schenectady, first appeared in 1878, it was an extraordinary success. James had discovered nothing less than “the American girl”–free spirited, flirtatious, an innocent abroad determined to defy European convention even if it meant scandal . . . or tragedy. But the subtle danger lurking beneath the surface in “Daisy Miller” evolves into a classic tale of terror and obsession in “The Turn Of The Screw.” “The imagination, ” Henry James said to Bernard Shaw, “has a life if its own.” In this blood-curdling story, that imagination weaves the lives of two children, a governess in love with her employer, and a sprawling country house into a flawless story, still unsurpassed as the prototype of modern horror fiction.” “The Turn Of The Screw” seems to have proved more fascinating to the general reading public than anything else of James’s except “Daisy Miller.”‘

Which are your favourite Gothic novels?  Are there any which you would recommend to me?

6

Classics Club #49: ‘A Sicilian Romance’ by Ann Radcliffe ***

I am sure that the eagle-eyed amongst you are noticing a theme here, but I have wanted to read Radcliffe’s work for such a long time, and thought that placing A Sicilian Romance onto my Classics Club list would be a nudge in the right direction.  First published in 1790, the novel is firmly implanted within the Gothic tradition and veers toward the melodramatic almost from its beginning.

9780199537396As is often the case with my Classics Club reviews, the following blurb of the Oxford World Classics edition illustrates the story perfectly, without giving too much away: ‘This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and covents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live secluded in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. After their father’s return to the island a neglected part of the house is haunted by a series of mysterious sights and sounds. The origin of these hauntings is only discovered after a series of breathless pursuits through dreamlike pastoral landscapes. When revelation finally comes, it forces the heroines to challenge the united forces of religious and patriarchal authority.’

A Sicilian Romance is most engaging from the first.  I found myself immediately spellbound, drawn as I was into the Sicilian setting.  Radcliffe moves the plot along beautifully, and the whole has been so tenderly written.  Much emphasis has been placed upon the senses and the general feel of the whole.  Radcliffe’s descriptions are often sumptuous, and the way in which she weaves in the imagined history of the castle and the Mazzinis who inhabit it is a definite strength, adding another layer to the whole.  It certainly has shades of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (review here) about it.

As one might expect from a Gothic novel, particularly one at the relative beginning of the canon, A Sicilian Romance is rather dramatic, even to Shakespearean heights in places; characters are taken prisoner and confined to dungeons, ‘cruel fate’ awaits, there are elopements, and strange goings on prevail.  The story is rather predictable in places, particularly as it nears its climax, and it certainly relies heavily upon melodramatic incidents.  A lot of opposites manifest themselves within the plot, from bravery and cowardice to the disparities between rich and poor, and from a social perspective, I found this fascinating.

A Sicilian Romance is rich and well-paced.  The third person perspective and use of the past tense which Radcliffe has made use of both work well; it is so over the top in places that the two together do not really act as distancing devices.  Whilst I was not too enamoured with the convenient ending of this moral novel, I am most looking forward to reading more of her work in future.  Ann Radcliffe’s work is a wonderful choice for existing fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; her writing is just as rich and descriptive, and I feel that she should certainly be more widely read.

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