As we turn into autumn, there’s less lounging in the garden with my book and a cold flask of squash and more snuggling by the log burner with a hot chocolate and a book. For some reason, that cosiness and the darker evenings draw me towards haunted or magical stories. So I was keen to read this time slip story full of ghostly goings on. In 1903 we visit All Hallows’ Asylum on Dartmoor and Nurse Emma Everdene has a new charge to look after, away from the usual inmates in an attic room. A mother and young daughter are found by a fisherman, the woman completely unconscious from a blow to the head. While she is transferred to one of the best private rooms and remains in a coma, her traumatised daughter is left in the care of Nurse Everdene. The little girl is clearly shocked and exhausted, so a room is made up with a single bed and a rocking chair near the fire so she can be monitored. She is completely mute, so the nurse doesn’t pressure her but makes sure she is warm, dry and fed. For comfort she gives her a small toy rabbit that once belonged to her son Herbert, who died when he was small.
In 1993 we meet two boys sent to All Hallows’, which is now a boarding school. Lewis is coping with grief after losing his mother and in an attempt to express himself has started dressing as a Goth. His Dad has quickly married again, and his stepmother clearly wants Lewis out of the way. She reports on how difficult he is and manipulates his father into thinking boarding school is his best option. Once there, Lewis is shorn of his Goth persona and is feeling very vulnerable, especially when he has to share room just under the attic with another boy, Isak. Isak, he finds out, is also an outcast and he gives Lewis some tips on surviving the school. They also share an interest in a nurse who was buried outside the consecrated ground of the churchyard ninety years before. What does this have to do with the abandoned room above them on the attic floor, containing only a rocking chair and a single bed? A rocking chair that the two boys can hear rocking in the middle of the night, thumping against the floorboard, as if someone is sitting in it.
It’s hard not to feel for Lewis, as he ends up with all his armour taken away from him. Without his Goth gear he’s just a boy with ears that stick out a bit too much. Luckily he finds another outsider to be with in Isak, although at first we don’t know why he is so ostracised. Emma Everdene is also fascinating and because I hate the practice of burying people outside of consecrated ground I really wanted to keep reading to find out why. The journey she takes in life is incredible, elevating herself to becoming a nurse, from very little in monetary and status terms. I also found her very resilient, having come through the deaths of both her husband and her son. I liked how her nursing manual showed working women supporting other women in their journey. When it is found in the library in 1993 the dedications show that it was passed from woman to woman, possibly because books were out of reach for women in poverty. The author also makes the point that many women were in the asylum for little more than thinking differently, or being in the way of their husband’s next conquest. Thalia is an example of a woman who has pushed the boundaries for someone of her class and gender. Staff talk about her cutting her hair short like a man and habitually wearing trousers, not to mention being a suffragette.
Emma sniffed. ‘And why shouldn’t she do those things if that’s what she wants to do? Because by doing so she causes embarrassment to her family? Because they’re hoping to marry her off to some chinless wonder with more money than manhood, some… some milksop who would be humiliated to stand beside a woman who shone more brightly than he?’
I found her father’s request that she be punished severely much more chilling than whatever was going on in the room upstairs. Emma talks about the asylum as a last resort for men who want to control and silence their women. The thought of all these people falling victim to early 20th Century asylum ‘treatments’ is terrible. It really hits home when Lewis finds iron fitments on the floor and wall in one of the classrooms in 1993. The manacles may be gone, but it still paints a picture of human misery. When Emma talks to the girl who brings their food, they talk about the treatments that are commonplace in the asylum such as the ice cold baths. Then there’s the less commonplace. When a new doctor arrives and is given the case of Mrs March, mother of Emma’s charge, he wants to try new European treatments. The staff gossip about the time he spends touching her, moving all of her limbs in turn and bending her spine in order to keep the flexibility while she’s in a coma. Emma can see that it would make sense to keep her supple, but when he moves his desk into her room so he can work there and spend more time in her company it starts to feel strangely voyeuristic. Her complete vulnerability becomes worrying.
The supernatural goings on are genuinely scary, Lewis finds the creaking rocking chair a bit unnerving but is able to be in the room and stop it moving. At first he thinks of obvious explanations like a draft setting it off, but after a few weeks he can’t brush it off any longer. The dark presence felt by both Lewis, and Emma ninety years earlier, seems to fill the room with its power. Lewis feels as if something huge is in the room and Emma feels it’s malevolence. The jumpier scares are unexpected and add to the mystery unfolding before the boys. The surrounding isolation creates a claustrophobic atmosphere and as Emma starts to feel more unnerved and more attached to the little girl we now know is called Harriet, I felt I was being rushed towards some terrible event. I thought the way both the asylum and the school were painted as places to dump inconvenient people was very apt. Even some of the techniques they used were the same, such as taking away the patient or pupil’s identity through removing their own clothing and shearing their hair off. There’s a strong feeling of trying to break individuals and make them conform. The author has created an interesting and unnerving tale, that has the tension of a thriller and creates a need to keep reading to find out all the building’s secrets. It has also reignited a childhood terror of looking into the bathroom mirror!
Published by Boldwood Books 12th October 2021.
Meet The Author
Louise Douglas lives in Somerset in South West England & writes contemporary Gothic mysteries mostly set in the countryside close to her home. She has won the RNA Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller award 2021 for The House by the Sea.
When She’s not writing, she loves to spend time with family, friends, and animals – especially dogs, birds and whales. She’s passionate about nature, being outside, drawing wildlife, walking, beaches, fictional drama and books. If you’d like to connect with Louise you can find her on Facebook Louise Amy Douglas or @LouiseDouglas3 on Twitter.