I love a gothic novel, something I put down to my first reading of Jane Eyre. Being only ten years old I read it as a ghost story, full of horrors like the Red Room and the haunted ghost-like creature stalking the corridors of Thornfield Hall, setting fire to Rochester’s bed and rending Jane’s wedding veil in two. So I picked this from the NetGalley shelves, my brain already turning towards the cooler air of September and the dark nights of the autumn. As it is I read it in the middle of a heatwave, but it still managed to send the odd chill up my spine. Chloe and Sam are getting married at Small Angels, a quaint little church in a wooded area with nearby Tithe Barn for their reception. The venue is situated near to Sam’s childhood village and they are the first couple to be married there. The owner has given them a key and they have a few days up to the wedding day to clean the dusty church and decorate both buildings. They’re staying at the Albatross, the village pub, and on the first night they gather to have a drink with their guests among the locals. One local man, Brian, approaches the couple to tell them a story about Small Angels that might make them rethink their plans. Others are more reticent, they don’t want Brian to tell the tale and ruin the couple’s big day. What Sam doesn’t know is that the person best placed to tell this tale is his own sister Kate.
We’re told this story from several perspectives and to be honest I did get a little confused at first. The current perspectives are split between Chloe and Kate. However, Kate also goes back to when she was a child and started a friendship with one of the Gonne girls. The Gonnes lived on a farm, close to Small Angels and Mockbeggar – the local woodland. For years they have kept up a ritual of lighting beacons every evening and ringing the church bells once a year, followed by a candlelight vigil overnight. The rest of the village have traditionally left the Gonnes to their lonely rituals, but Kate knows that the story Brian will tell the wedding party, might not be so far fetched. The Gonnes believe they are appeasing the ghost of Harry Child, a vicious and vengeful phantom who wants to keep the wood for his own, but is also very lonely. Kate is shocked to hear that one of the sisters she knew from childhood is living at the farm. Will all the generations of secrets surrounding the village come to light on her brother’s wedding day? Kate questions her brother’s sense in agreeing to hold it at Small Angels, no matter how much Chloe fell in love with it.
Chloe takes up the narrative, as the innocent bystander thrown into this strange village with it’s spooky history. Chloe has been the driving force behind the week’s celebrations and has no idea of the story Brian tells on the Hag Night. She is amazed that Sam has never told her and has thought Kate doesn’t like her because she’s seemed disinterested in their plans. She’s surprised that Kate has committed to helping out this week, not realising that she’s coming to keep an eye on things. The tension in this section is brilliant as we see Chloe sucked in by the legend and looking for local history at the library. She’s confused by the villagers avoidance of the subject, even her own in- laws are reluctant to discuss it. Chloe start to find her sleep disturbed and with Sam called away to work she’s alone at the Albatross. She can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched after taking a walk into the woods. While cleaning the church she hears an animal scratching at the door, then again at night. Has something or someone followed her? I was intrigued as to what it might want from Chloe and whether the wedding would ever happen.
The Gonnes seem to be the key to solving this mystery so I was fascinated with Lucia’s sections of the book, especially those that go back to her childhood. She lives at the farm with her father, her grandparents and three sisters: Elphine, Helena and Ruby. One day while playing, Lucia goes into the woods and finds a small boy to play with. He becomes her secret friend and his name is Harry. With all the adults working on the vines at the farm and keeping up the family rituals, it’s easy for her to slip away unnoticed. Besides she’s the black sheep of the family, Nan calls her Lucia the Bad, so I felt sorry for her and could understand why she was looking for friends. Years later she meets another teenage girl in the woods and is happy to have a second friend, but Harry isn’t so happy. He wants Lucia to himself and she’s never seen him angry. All the rituals in the world won’t satisfy his wrath and Lucia is terrified. What will happen to the Gonne family now?
As we countdown to the wedding the stakes become greater and the author creates a real sense of fear and horror. Whatever force is in the woods, it’s growing stronger by the day. The real cost of the wedding starts to become clear and I loved how the author brought experiences from the past into the present to terrify the wedding party. I had a real sense of my old Jane Eyre fears when Chloe wakes from a nightmare to find a tear in her wedding dress and her veil fashioned into a noose. I really felt the burden of the Gonne family, ostracised by the village and left with the responsibilities of Mockbeggar. Once I’d reached a third of the way in, I was hooked on the mystery in the same way Chloe was, wanting to find out more about the malicious spirit and why he is determined to terrify her. I was also fascinated by the Gonne sisters and why Lucia is the only one left at the farm. I was also interested in how long the locals had kept their heads in the sand, merely speeding up on the road out of the village to evade the woods. You’ll be asking all the same questions and more. This is a really atmospheric, modern, Gothic tale with enough scares that I kept the bedside light on once or twice.
Published by Tinder Press 2nd August 2022
Meet The Author
Lauren Owen is the author of THE QUICK and SMALL ANGELS. She studied at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, holds an MA in Victorian Literature from Leeds University, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the Curtis Brown Prize. In 2017 she completed a PhD in English Literature with a thesis on vampires and the gothic in fiction.