Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

You may have heard of Sarah Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from South West Africa who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe under the name the Hottentot Venus. She was even exhibited after her death, with one showman dissecting her body and keeping her genitalia and skull. Another museum displayed her skeleton and a body cast, which were still exhibited up till the 1970’s. She was exhibited for her steatopygic body type, where body fat is concentrated on the bottom and thighs. This body type wasn’t seen in Europe and was perceived as a curiosity. She was also a subject of scientific interest, but through the gaze of racial bias and erotic projection. In the 19th Century her body could be viewed for two shillings and for a bit extra you could poke her with a stick. Her genitalia were of specific interest as they were said to show her sexual primitivism, although this was more about the men’s erotic projection than Sarah’s own sexuality or libido. Recently, black women in academia and culture have been using her story and reframing it as a source of empowerment, rejecting the ideals of white mainstream beauty, and embracing more curvaceous figures as a source of female beauty. This is the historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment.

Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways.

First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public, as he yet again cancels plans to take her to Richmond for the day. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who is campaigning in the street. He addresses her in Swahili, with a suggestion this may be the native language of her ancestors, and he places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? In fact she is representing her ancestors through the gaze of a white audience. The sense that this is wrong, has always been on the edge of her conscience, but Lucien gives her doubts a voice and opens a door towards embracing both sides of her identity. While she dismisses him at first, the thought of him seeing her as Amazonia seems to fill her with shame. Lucien is working on a campaign to relocate black and mixed race Londoners to Africa and the first site is in Sierra Leonne. Meanwhile, Crillick has returned from a trip abroad with shipping containers that suggest he’s been gathering props and it seems he’s been finding new acts too. He taunts Zillah with the suggestion he has found an act that may even eclipse her and one night at his house she sees a new act unveiled to a small group of people. She is horrified to see him parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’, with strange white patches all over her dark skin. The men in the party are fascinated, drawing near and touching her skin, even roughly scratching it to see if it comes off. When Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. There’s a freedom Zillah has compared to a lot of Victorian heroines we might remember, due to her station in life there are certain rules and etiquette of dress and behaviour that don’t apply. Although that freedom does come at a cost – poverty, not belonging anywhere, and the way she is viewed in more polite society. She knows that if she could be with someone like Lucien then she’d be settled in a place society expects of her, still in poverty but at least belonging to a community. Her feelings for Vincent can never come to anything, because his society would never accept her and they would always be a secret.

Through Zillah’s search for the Leopard Lady, we see the truth of a man wiling to make his money treating human beings as objects for display. Whereas before Zillah’s act has at least had the sheen of the theatre world, the Leopard Lady will not be afforded that excitement and sense of performance. This is because Zillah was acting a part, whereas this poor woman is being shown as she is because due to how she looks and where’s she’s from. Zillah chooses to put on her Amazonia costume and take to a stage, if living hand to mouth is ever a choice. Crillick’s plans revolve around his ‘Odditorium’, but in the meantime he plans to show his new acquisition privately to small groups of men. I could imagine these sordid gatherings taking place, with men enjoying an after dinner viewing where the woman is both viewed, potentially sexually assaulted and experimented on. It made me feel sick. I was willing Zillah on in her efforts to find and free the lady, and I found her quest tense and gripping. I thought Zillah’s awakening was handled really well, but I was in two minds about where I wanted her to story to end. Of course there’s an opportunity of relocation to a new life in Sierra Leone, but here I felt strangely similar feelings to those I had about another 19th Century heroine Jane Eyre. We know that Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall, and the man she loves, is the right move for her. Yet despite the space and time it’s given her to process Rochester’s attempt at bigamy, I never warm to St John Rivers. Although he rescues her from the moors and gives her life purpose again, when he proposes, I can’t be the only reader who’s screaming ‘No’ in her head. As for Zillah, I though Lucien was a good, honest and intelligent man, but to me he feels like the wrong choice. The contrast between him and the passionate relationship she has with Vincent is rather like the two sides of her identity battling against each other. I was hoping that, for a while at least, she could find a way for herself, separate from them both.

This was an exciting and fascinating tale, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest. I found the settings of the theatre, and Crillick’s home, beautifully rich. Whereas the St Giles area is brought to life with descriptions of sights, smells, many bodies sharing rented rooms and even beds in an attempt to keep costs down. The author has backed up her tale with solid research into freak shows, the many layers of Victorian society and details of food, fashion and leisure time. Through her main character we get an insight into women’s lives, the realities of being bi-racial and the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the themes of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation when weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or should any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies be unacceptable? This is a question that still needs debate in light of television shows that exhibit overweight and disabled bodies in a prurient way. I really liked Zillah‘s quest to rescue another woman in danger and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will definitely be putting a finished copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again and again. I just know I’ll find more and more detail in this brilliantly atmospheric exploration of the dark corners of Victorian London.

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

Lianne Dillsworth has MAs in Creative Writing and Victorian Studies and won a place on the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She was first runner up in the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize for Black and Asian Women Writers in the UK. Lianne lives in London where she works on growing inclusion within the Civil Service. Theatre of Marvels is her debut novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The House at Helygan by Victoria Hawthorne

An atmospheric historical suspense novel rich with familial secrets. The House at Helygen is a twisted tale of dark pasts, murderous presents and uncertain futures.

2019

When Henry Fox is found dead in his ancestral home in Cornwall, the police rule it a suicide, but his pregnant wife, Josie, believes it was murder. Desperate to make sense of Henry’s death she embarks on a quest to learn the truth, all under the watchful eyes of Henry’s overbearing mother. Josie soon finds herself wrestling against the dark history of Helygen House and ghosts from the past that refuse to stay buried.

1881

Eliza is the new bride who arrives at Helygen House with excitement at the new life she’s embarked upon. Yet when she meets her new mother-in-law, an icy and forbidding woman, her dreams of a new life are dashed. And when Eliza starts to hear voices in the walls of the house, she begins to fear for her sanity and her life.

Can Josie piece together the past to make sense of her present, or will the secrets of Helygen House and its inhabitants forever remain a mystery?

1881. Harriet and Edmund Fox were the first owners of Helygen House, a country retreat that, as is the usual in moneyed families, has ever since passed down the to the eldest male heir. From the original owners in 1847, it then passed to Eliza and Cassius Fox in 1881. Eliza has to spend a lot of time alone, because Cassius is away looking after his business interests. Eliza starts to feel lonely and misses her family. Not only that, there’s an eerie feeling in the house and Eliza’s is sure she’s heard voices at night and a baby is crying. Eliza daren’t tell anyone as she thinks she might be going mad.

2019: Henry Fox is found dead at his ancestral home in Cornwall. The police are quick to rule out foul play, because it looks to them like suicide. His wife Josie, who is pregnant, won’t believe Henry has killed himself. Yet his mother Alice is satisfied with the suicide verdict. Josie finds it difficult to deal with this woman, who has always held herself above Josie, as if she wasn’t good enough to be part of the family. She knows how excited Henry was about becoming a father, they had spent so much time getting their apartment renovated and even had plans to start a business together at the house. Something isn’t right and even through her grief Josie is absolutely determined to find the truth. As far as she’s concerned there’s a murderer somewhere at Helygen. Her mother-in-law’s attitude hasn’t helped Josie settle, but she has to admit the atmosphere has always been strange. There’s a strange feeling she can’t place, a haunting perhaps?

I enjoy dual timelines and this is a triple as we alternate between the 1840’s, the 1880’s and the present. It’s important that each timeline is equally interesting so it doesn’t just feel like a narrative device. Here I think they work. It feels as if Eliza and Josie are working together, even though they’re separated by centuries. Both are convinced that Helygen House has a dark past, that still lingers within the walls. The many tragic deaths over the years are starting to look sinister, even if it is just the eerie sensation and the voices driving occupants towards madness. There are enough family secrets to keep the tale moving forward and there is a continuous feeling of suspense to keep the reader wanting one more chapter. I loved the added theme of motherhood and how it might feel to be a new mum in a house like this one, where it really can’t help when sleeplessness and night feeds are brought into the mix. The place feels suitably Gothic whichever timeline you’re in and from the start I believed in this world completely. It does keep the reader guessing and I found myself wanting to know if the storyline resolved itself for both women. It was also interesting to add in the question of women’s rights in past centuries and compare it to the present day. A great, suspenseful and spooky novel with the gorgeous backdrop of Cornwall.

Published 14th April 2022 Quercus

Meet The Author


Victoria Hawthorne is a pseudonym of bestselling psychological suspense author Vikki Patis. She writes atmospheric historical suspense rich with familial secrets and strong female protagonists. THE HOUSE AT HELYGEN will be published in April 2022 by Quercus.

Posted in Back of the Shelf

Back of the Shelf! The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall.

A modern Gothic tale of a woman obsessed with her lover’s taxidermy creatures and haunted by her past.

One stormy Christmas, Scarlett recalls the ebb and flow of a yearlong love affair with Henry, a renowned taxidermist. Obsessed with his taxidermy creatures, she pushes him to outdo his colleague and world-famous rival in a crescendo of species-blending creativity. Scarlett will not be able to avoid a reckoning with her own past as Henry’s inventions creep into her own thoughts, dreams, and desires.

Drenched in the torrential rains of the Somerset moorland and the sensual pleasures of the characters, The Taxidermist’s Lover lures you ever deeper into Scarlett’s delightfully eerie world.

Bram Stoker Award Shortlist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel • IPPY Awards 2021 Gold Medal Winner

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have a weird penchant for antique taxidermy, so I jumped at the chance to read this. This was an eerie story of obsession from a writer I’ve not come across before, but will look out for in the future. I expected the feel of a historical novel, with something a little spooky about it and I wasn’t disappointed. Dipping in and out of the past, Scarlett addresses her lover Henry, who is hoping to my find a foothold in this niche world of taxidermy. I loved these forays into the past, as it allows us to witness a developing tale of obsession and the macabre, in the tradition of gothic fiction – one of my favourite genres. There’s a strange sensation that you are reading a Victorian novel instead of a contemporary story. Hall’s writing is haunting and sensual, and sets a dark, forbidding tone. Although it’s a second person narration it feels very personal.There’s a sense of foreboding and I kept wondering about the veracity of Scarlett’s story. Would Henry tell us a different tale? Despite it’s potential unreliability, I felt drawn in and I simply couldn’t guess how all this would play out. I think it is so compelling because of that personal feel; writer is echoing that feel of obsession by deliberately keeping her focus narrow.

Scarlett and Henry’s relationship was very fast moving, with them moving in almost immediately and getting married very soon after. She becomes involved in his career and suggests he try something different; chopping and changing animal parts to create totally new creatures, rather like the jackalope. To say Scarlett is obsessed would be an understatement really, not with Henry, but with his taxidermy. It seems very unhealthy, but when we hear about Scarlett’s twin brother Rhett and the death of her parents, this obsession with body parts starts to make sense. However, it’s sense of a very disturbed kind. There’s a Frankenstein element to the tale, both in the jumbled creatures and the sense we get that the process of making them might be more satisfying than the finished product. It’s become more about the ability of the creator than the actual creature. Some readers might feel sorry for Scarlett and I did understand how life events might have overwhelmed and damaged her psyche. I found it satisfying to delve so deeply under a character’s skin, because we don’t often get the chance to really analyse someone this way in fiction.

This is a slow story so if you’re looking for fast thrill rides this isn’t the book for you, but that said it’s strangely satisfying. If you like character, quirkiness and having all your senses engaged, then this is your book. The menace builds inexorably until you’re desperate for the worst to happen, just for it to be over. The twists come thick and fast, until you’re finally faced with the horror ending. This is dark, twisted and very unique, with an atmosphere that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

Published by Camcat Books 8th December 2020.

Meet The Author

Hall’s writing is lush, filled with startling conclusions about the nature of art and love and death. . . [A] shudder-inducing debut.” ~ The New York Times

Polly Hall is author of The Taxidermist’s Lover, conceived while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Her flash fiction, poetry and stories have been included in national and international anthologies and collaborative arts projects. 

You can find her @PollyHallWriter on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Praise for The Taxidermist’s Lover:

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Posted in Throwback Thursday

Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

I’ll own up to the fact that this beautiful book remained on my shelves for about five years before I read it. I’d bought it while doing my degree in literature, so I was already reading five books a week and although I loved the blurb I just couldn’t get into such a weighty book. I remember picking it up and reading the opening paragraph, then slotting it back on the shelf a few times too. When I finally did read it I was absolutely enchanted and amazed by the incredibly detailed world the author had created.

The year is 1806. centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell hoards books of magic for his library and can perform incredible and unexpected feats of magic. He is approached by Sir Walter Pole whose wife has died and he begs Norrell to revive her. Despite his scruples about old magic he knows this might be the only way to bring this beautiful young woman back to life. So, he is tempted by a richly dressed gentleman fairy, who agrees to help Norrell on two conditions. First he would like a keepsake of the lady and takes a finger which he keeps in a jewellery box. Secondly, if he is to give life back to her, it seems only fair that he should have half of it. Norrell does a quick calculation and decides it will not matter to have a few years shaved off her life. However, as Mr Norrell himself knows, fairies can be tricky, deceptive little creatures and this one may have ulterior motives. After this amazing feat of magic MrNorrell becomes the talk of London and finds himself working for the government, conjuring illusions to aid England in their war with the French. However, Norrell would still like to keep magic controlled, only performed by serious and studious men. Constantly, at the back of his mind, is the bargain he’s made with the fairy creature. Can he be trusted and will the magic that brought Lady Pole back to life work as planned?

Marc Warren and Eddie Marsan in the BBC adaptation.

Norrell becomes challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. He only begins to study magic because he is in love and she loves him back, but there is a very stern father in the way, who does not like Jonathon. He thinks he’s an idle layabout with a rich father, but no real prospects. Unless he commits himself to a profession, he will not give permission for Jonathon to marry his daughter. Jonathon Strange finds he is surprisingly good at magic and he’s certainly a showman, enjoying the performance element of magic. As word spreads of this new magician on the block, Mr Norrell becomes concerned. In a bid to contain the situation he asks to meet Jonathon Strange and offers him an apprenticeship. This will control Jonathon’s wild exhibitions of magical power. He sets him to studying, but Jonathon is increasingly frustrated by Norrell’s unwillingness to perform magic. A row erupts and so begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the war between England and France. Each man’s obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine, while all the time Norrell’s dabble with the fairy gentleman and old magic is coming back to haunt him.

It’s really hard to explain the richness of the detail in this beautifully written novel. There’s the amazing historical background with 18th Century society vividly brought to life and the rural home of Jonathon Strange contrasting sharply with London society. There’s the city of York, where an incredible scene in the Minster involves Mr Norrell bringing all the statues to life in front of a terrified magician’s society. Of course the illusions are spectacular, but so is the fashion and just wait until you enter the dreams of our poor resurrected Lady Pole! The characterisation is playful and humorous, with both magicians thought of as great men but each ridiculously comical in their own way. Mr Strange is like an overexcited puppy who has just found a tennis ball and might trample the whole garden in his exuberance. Mr Norrell on the other hand, is like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter, collecting all the magic and storing it in a safe place where no one else will find it. He is fussy and persnickety in his manner, but can also be rude and abrupt with people. This is where Mr Strange excels, he is handsome and charming, making his magic appear to be an innate talent rather than the result of studying dusty books. We go from rural England, to London, to France and Venice with every setting evocative and rich. I loved incidental characters like the street magician who plies his trade in a rather tongue in cheek way, using props that Mr Norrell finds deplorable. Mr Norrell’s servant is also a fascinating puzzle. I was truly sucked in by the story of Stephen, a servant in the household where Mr Norrell dabbles in fairy magic. The way he is slowly sucked into something he doesn’t understand is incredibly well done, from the bell ringing that only he can hear and the mysterious guest upstairs who he didn’t see arrive. Stephen serves with pride and is proud of the place he has reached in life as a black man in 18th Century society, but promises of greatness from the new guest appeal to his need to be respected. Why is he offering these opportunities and why is Stephen so incredibly tired all the time? It’s as if he hasn’t slept at all.

TV Tie-In Edition showing Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell

The novel explores the 18th Century preoccupations with reason and madness, but also with classification and includes long academic style footnotes referencing an entire fictional body of literature on magic. Last year Collins released her second novel Piranesi, a full seventeen years after Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. It had taken her almost ten years in her spare time to write this debut novel, which isn’t surprising given the level of detail. It was revealed recently that she struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome and having experienced this level of fatigue for many years as part of my MS, I can only marvel that she managed to write such a substantial debut. However, if Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell had been the only novel she wrote in her lifetime, I would still think of her as a genius, because this novel is an absolute masterpiece.

Showing the original editions of the novel

Meet The Author

Susanna Clarke

Susanna Mary Clarke was born 1 November 1959 in Nottingham and is an English author known for her debut novel Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), a Hugo award winning historical novel. Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked on it during her spare time. For the next decade, she published short stories from the Strange universe, but it was not until 2003 that Bloomsbury bought her manuscript and began work on its publication. The novel became a best-seller.

Two years later, she published a collection of her short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006). Both Clarke’s debut novel and her short stories are set in a magical England and are written in a pastiche of the styles of 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. While Strange focuses on the relationship of two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, the stories in Ladies focus on the power women gain through magic.

Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi was published in September 2020, winning the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Susan Hill.

Many readers, especially those who love crime fiction, will know Susan Hill from her Simon Serrailler series of novels. I collect those too, but the first of her novels I read was actually at school. At the age of 12 we were told to read I’m The King of the Castle and then write the second chapter, developing the story as we thought it might go. I wrote a sinister piece suggesting that the main character might be on a path to becoming a serial killer. From there I was hooked on her ghost stories, they were sinister, dark and mysterious. They’re also very short, (novellas really) so they’re perfect for hospital and train journeys. They have a very interesting way of creeping up on the reader. Sometimes, I’ve been half way through a story, thinking it doesn’t feel spooky at all, only to be terrified two pages later. I’m sharing with you my thoughts on four of her books that had an effect on me and might leave you listening for a creak on the stairs.

Edmund is an 11 year old boy who lives alone with his father after his mother’s death. Worried that Edmund is lonely, his father arranges for a live-in housekeeper who has a boy around the same age as Edmund. He hoped Charles would be a companion for Edmund, but Edmund isn’t thrilled and Charles is greeted with a note that says ‘I didn’t want you to come here’. There is an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia in the novel and not just because of the remote location. I started to dread every moment the boys were left alone together, because I knew that Charles would be subjected to Edmund’s bullying. I felt Charles’s fear and despair that this would go on forever. I wanted their parents to notice what was happening, but the boys are alone a lot of the time. The parents are making eyes at each other, wrapped up in their own emotions. His mother admits to making a decision and to ignore Charles’s complaints that Edmund really doesn’t like him. She decides he’s being silly with this talk about them not being friends. Boys do this. It’s just a phase. Everyone remembers a time when they weren’t listened to and I could sense Charles’s anger and frustration at his impossible situation. The ending is a shock, but I think if it had ended any other way I’d have been disappointed. Sometimes things like this don’t blow over. This isn’t for people who like uplifting, happy, endings. It isn’t really horror, in that it’s very realistic. That realism is what makes Edmund and Charles’s story so chilling.

This is probably the most well known of Hill’s ghostly tales, especially since it’s other incarnations as a long running West End play and a successful film starring Daniel Radcliffe. This book was the one that really crept up on me. Since childhood I’ve had a recurring dream, where I’m standing in a corridor and I get an overwhelming sense of evil. Then a creeping blackness starts coming towards me, completely enveloping everything in it’s path. That’s exactly how I felt reading this. At first I was just interested in the story and despite the obvious signs that something is wrong with this house, I didn’t feel scared. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a little bit scared about going to the loo. For some reason I kept thinking someone would be sat on the rocking chair. For some reason this book gets in your head. Even when you think it isn’t. This is the archetypal Gothic novel with an opening reminiscent of Dracula as Arthur Kipps is sent to sort out the estate of a very reclusive woman who died at Eel Marsh House. None of the locals are keen on travelling there and Kipps is too rational to listen to their warnings. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. So we feel his fear, as slowly this rational belief is called into question by every noise or movement, especially the ones that come from the resident poltergeist. Soon after his arrival he sees a mysterious woman, dressed all in black, who seems to be staring directly at him. Who is she and what does she want from Arthur? Hill builds the tension up perfectly, it’s a slow boil until you’re suddenly terrified, but never felt it creeping up on you.

When I was in Venice with my mum, we managed to lose our way back to the hotel one evening. As we stumbled down darkened streets and into complete dead ends, we realised we’d come away from the tourist trail and into a more residential area. This was the book that kept coming to mind and I was waiting to be bundled into a gondola by plague masked men. This is one of those stories that begins with two people warming themselves by a fire on a dark evening. Oliver is at Cambridge University and on this particular night he is in the rooms of his professor, when he notices a painting on the wall. It is a beautifully painted scene of the carnival in Venice and Oliver stops to study it for a while. There is so much to take in, especially the beautiful masks and costumes. Yet this beautiful surface is itself a mask, because the painting has a very dark history. We have all been ‘caught’ by a picture, the one in the gallery window that makes us stop for a moment, but have you ever been captured? This story has a lot of detail in its 150-ish pages and so much atmosphere. Whether it’s Venice’s labyrinthine pathways and dead ends, or the eerie mist of the Cambridge Fens.

This book grabbed me straightaway because my mum had a visit from the small hand once. When in the house babysitting her younger sisters, she saw a small hand holding the open bedroom door, just as if a small child was going to peep round it. Neither sister was the right age for the mystery hand and alongside other strange sightings in the house it was put down to some sort of haunting. Even fifty years on she hasn’t forgotten it. There’s nothing scarier than a little child ghost (except a clown *shudder*). In this story, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow is returning from a client visit one late evening when he takes a wrong turn. He stumbles across a derelict Edwardian house, and compelled by curiosity, approaches the door. Standing before the entrance, he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small cold hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. At first he is puzzled by the odd incident, but then begins to suffer attacks of fear and panic, and is visited by nightmares. He is determined to learn more ‘about the house and its once-magnificent, now overgrown garden but when he does so, he receives further, increasingly sinister, visits from the small hand. This is a classic ghost story, narrated by Adam as he tries to unravel the mystery. This one really feels like a period novel due to the linear storytelling, sole narrator and the slow drip feed of information so we can put the clues together. Maybe not as atmospheric as her usual stories, but a great read all the same.

One of the creepiest parts of the film version of The Woman in Black is when the toys in the nursery move – I think it’s a monkey with cymbals or is that just my fertile imagination? We’re back on the misty fens for this story, Two cousins are sent to stay with their Aunt in her isolated ancestral home for the summer. Edward and Lenora are the children of Aunt Kestrel’s warring siblings and their narrative is split into two time frames – the events of that childhood summer and the two cousins returning to Iyot House after their Aunt’s death. Hill manages to create a fairly forbidding atmosphere for the two children with constant rain, falling across a gloomy flat landscape where mist can stay over the fields all day. The house is very like Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black, with an atmosphere of damp and decay. The two are quite different. Edward is the more stoic of the two, he is shy and polite and probably wouldn’t dream of opening his mouth if something is wrong. Leonora is a different prospect- she comes across as self-centred and spiteful. This could be down to a lifestyle drifting from hotel to stepfather for many years, she’s been awash with material things but hasn’t really been loved.

However, at Iyot House she starts to throw huge tantrums. Are they normal for her or is something at Iyot causing this? Housekeeper Mrs Mullen observes the tantrums are worsening and warns that she has the devil in her. Aunt Kestrel sets out to buy Leonora a birthday present she’s never had, a doll. Yet the doll has an effect no one expected. The opening to this story is really creepy and the atmosphere is incredible, perhaps more so than the actual story in parts. However creepy antique dolls really are terrifying so a haunted one is right up my street and this doll’s powers extend all the way through to Leonora and Edward’s adulthood. Scary and sure to make you avoid antique centres for a while.

Meet The Author.


Susan Hill‘s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread Book, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewellyn Rhys Awards and the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost novel, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End since 1989. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Melmoth by Sarah Perry.

‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand – I’ve been so lonely!’

This week for Throwback Thursday – which has rolled onto Friday since I’m in a remote part of Wales with poor internet access – I’m going to take a spooky turn and tell you about one of the most terrifying and gloriously gothic novels I have ever read. Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering.

Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen who finds a manuscript. It tells of a winter in Prague, with all the darkly gothic details of cobbled streets, shadowy corners, and jackdaws patrolling the city walls. One winter night in Prague, Helen Franklin meets her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies that take them from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.

This is based on an 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin called Melmoth the Wanderer, that very few people will have read. I studied a wonderful module at university entitled The Gothic, Grotesque and the Monstrous and I know from experience that early gothic novels can be long winded and difficult to read. What was found terrifying in 1820 does not necessarily translate today. In the original novel, Melmoth is a man who makes an almost Faustian pact, in this version she is one of the women who visits Christ’s tomb. She could have borne witness to the resurrection, but lied and is now damned to wander the world forever. She’s like a Sybil, heralding evil and disastrous events, but never listened to and doomed to witness the worst humans can do to each other over and over. I love the ambiguity of her pleas to ‘take her hand and follow her’ because she’s lonely, is she friend or foe? Her pleas are all the more tempting because she’s a woman and we associate that with gentleness, nurturing and perhaps even needing protection. There’s also the element of seduction and persuasion that might make a gentleman take her lonely hand. I think Sarah Perry made this choice because of those qualities. How much more effective could a woman be in gathering souls?

I love how Prague is turned into a haunted city and it’s history certainly might have drawn the wanderer to it’s cobbles. The city is the book’s second biggest character, dark and mysterious with magical landmarks like the astronomical clock. Perry’s descriptions of night in the city are haunting, and if I ever visit the capital I might well look over my shoulder when out in the evening in the same way I do in Venice. It is the perfect backdrop for the modern section of the novel, with every inch of the city steeped in history and the endless pull between light and darkness. Perry brings to life fears we have all had, as Helen draws the curtains at night, because she fears looking up at the window and seeing that lonely, beseeching face. The most terrifying thought is that Melmoth bears witness to anything we have ever done, including those awful things we hope no one witnessed or found out about.

I think an important aspect of the novel for me is something any sort of ‘listener’ has to think about. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book is brief compared to the original novel, but still takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Fragile by Sarah Hilary.

There’s a lot packed into this complex thriller about human relationships, traumatic childhoods, damaged adults, social justice, and the differences between those who are deemed to be respectable and those society deems outcasts. It’s an addicting and sometimes uncomfortable read, but it’s themes pour scorn on those who dismiss genre fiction as having nothing important to say. Across two timelines, one current and one a year in the past, we follow our main character Nell. Currently she’s homeless and her lover, Joe, has disappeared into the night with a well- groomed older woman. Nell tracks them to a tiny house, almost impossibly narrow, and invisible from certain points in the street. It’s a three storey, possibly Victorian town house and must be worth a fortune. Waiting impatiently for Joe to emerge she spends her last handful of change on a cup of tea in order to sit in the warmth of a cafe. The only person who comes out is a young girl with a blonde plait hanging over her shoulder. As she comes in for a drink Nell makes a choice to go over and talk to her and finds out she’s been interviewed for a position as assistant to the house owner – a man. In her desperation to find Joe, Nell decides she needs to get inside that house and comes up with a plan.

In her past, Nell has been in the care system, ending up in a group home in Wales with a foster carer called Megan Flack. She is a career rather than a vocational carer, collecting the money but rarely doing the job. She is neglectful at best, but there’s much more going on under the surface. Nell has learned to look after a home because she was always picking up the slack with housework, cooking and mothering the younger children, particularly the cute 6year old Rosie who clings to Nell. When Joe first arrives at the home Nell is knocked sideways by how beautiful he is. Two teenagers under one roof, with plenty of time to themselves creates the perfect opportunity and they are soon joined at the hip. In the heat of the summer they go bathing at a nearby pool, but Joe doesn’t always want the younger kids there and Nell is having to make hard choices. What has happened to cause the pair to flee their foster home? They end up in London, sleeping on the streets, until one night Joe disappears into Starling Villas.

The book’s structure is clever and works really well to pace the action and build tension. We learn a little bit more about the present, then go back into the past; a past that constantly updates and informs the present again. There was a growing sense of unease, as I got further into the book. I was never sure who was truly playing who. Caroline was unnerving and hard to like, because she never seemed to show any vulnerability. Megan was worse though; cold,manipulative and completely without empathy. The thought that there are people like this looking after children who are already traumatised and suffering from attachment issues. There was a social conscience here. The fact that a magistrate, a man who decides the fate of children like this, can be licentious and exploitative behind closed doors shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it was. There was something about Robin that I trusted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We all know that status is conveyed according to how people appear and what they own. We might automatically assume that the well-read man living at Starling Villas is a fine, upstanding citizen. We also might assume that those brought up in the care system, the homeless and the hopeless, are capable of just about anything. What did drive Nell and Joe to pack and leave Wales, so suddenly? Why is Megan still seeking them out?

Nell is a wonderful character, all tough exterior but marshmallow inside. Her vulnerability is evident in her interactions with Robin, her new employer. She’s a hard worker, trained by a foster mother who seems to have hated some of her charges as much as doing anything that made her break a sweat. Nell’s been a mother figure at an age when she still needed one herself. She’s used to making a home too, making the best of the meagre things she can find to enhance her surroundings and lift her spirits. She’s tough enough to survive most things, even a winter on the streets in the capital, but the things that have happened to her still haunt her mentally. She’s been let down so many times it shouldn’t hurt anymore, but it does, especially when she’s let her guard down and softened slightly. Even though some of her behaviour is morally questionable, she’s so young and has had so few chances in life, I found myself rooting for her. The author’s knowledge about a childhood spent in care and what it can do to the rest of your life shows research, listening to personal accounts and experience. Not everybody survives, some will be institutionalised for the rest of their lives, while those who do survive the system don’t always leave unscathed. I think this was represented so well through the characters in this novel. Thankfully, not all foster parents are like Megan Flack.

This was a great read, compelling and difficult to put down once you’re hooked by the story. Every character has nuance and flaws, meaning in both the past and current narrative, you’re never quite sure who to trust or what to believe. I was haunted by little Rosie, just like Nell is. The author has created an addictive thriller, but given it heart and poignancy too. I was completely drawn in until the very last page and the ending was beautifully written.

Meet The Author

Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Posted in Netgalley, Uncategorized

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Publisher: Quercus (18 Feb. 2021) ISBN: 978-1529408720

Why is it always so hard to write a review when the book is so good? It’s as if I have to wrestle with it for ages, in the hope of doing it justice! All I can do is try and put across all of the reasons I liked it. In fact, I loved everything about this feminist gothic novel from start to finish. First the setting – the eerie, almost otherworldly atmosphere around Caldonbrae School, the strange weather conditions suggesting it’s own micro-climate, and the school’s position as an English outpost (or invader) in Scotland. It’s appearance is like a hulking beast on the coastline, something that shouldn’t be disturbed lest it swallow you up. Secondly, there’s our main character Rose, addressed at all times as ‘Madam’ and finally the dark secret her predecessor tried to uncover at the heart of Caldonbrae, before it was Rose’s turn to fight it’s terrible tradition.

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own imposter syndrome. When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor – a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss – she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. As she uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety.

This novel was incredible from start to finish. I loved it. Straight away I noticed echoes of two of my favourite books; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The younger girls school uniforms reminded me of the aprons of Lowood School. The constant references to the previous classics teacher, and the mystery surrounding what happened to her had definite echoes of Rochester’s wife – hidden from view in the attic for being other than the perfect, meek and gentle wife he wanted. What exactly does this school expect of the teachers and how did Madam fall from grace so spectacularly? The training at the school starts to feel more sinister as time goes on. It begins to feel as if they’re trying to shape young women in a very old fashioned image; teaching them how to stay it in their place and be the 19th Century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’. Although there’s something a lot more knowing about these girls, they put on this ideal as if its a disguise, designed to please but very aware it’s a conceit sure to reap the rewards of wealth and privilege. The previous ‘Madam’, whose name is Jane, is like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, still holding sway over the girls – especially Bethany who seems to have developed an obsession with her teacher. Jane seems to be everywhere Rose turns, but tantalisingly just out of reach. The author creates an edgy and eerie atmosphere where you feel she might be just ahead of Rose, her gown swishing round the corner.

Rose tries to understand the place she’s come to teach. There is a sense in which this school is a complete culture shock – like a child affected by poverty or a tough inner city environment being expected to thrive at Oxford or Cambridge where there’s an etiquette and language that’s alien to most outsiders. She has to muddle through this aspect of life at Caldonbrae and it makes sense to her if the purpose is to educate and prepare the girls for further education and professions like the law and politics. Yet, alongside this traditional, classical education there are hints of the old ‘finishing school’ where attributes like poise, social etiquette and deportment are deemed equally important. What exactly is she preparing these girls for?

As the secret starts to come to the surface so the tension of the novel rises. Is Rose being trained too? An outsider brought in to see if new teachers can be moulded to the school’s purpose. As Bethany’s attachment to Madam becomes clearer she seems to stalk Rose. and the reader isn’t sure whether she resents Rose being in the place of her former favourite or whether she has simply transferred her affections. When she makes allegations about Rose she threatens her whole future at the school, but is Bethany trying to harm her or warn her? A strange hierarchy operates amongst the girls who know themselves to be the elite performers and those who don’t make the grade are offered inducements to improve, but these inducements can be threats as well as rewards. The horror of a young woman having her head shaved for performing badly is enshrined in patriarchal systems and is designed both to shame the woman and act as a warning to others. Rose guesses what might be happening, before the secret is fully revealed but it’s such an alien and deviant concept in modern society that she can’t believe it could be true. Could she ever be complicit in such a scheme? I found myself wondering how far the girls are ‘groomed’ into accepting this future or how many are knowingly acquiescing to it for the rewards of wealth, status and family honour. Rose is backed into a corner, by fear of what may have happened to her predecessor certainly, but also the knowledge that the school can reward her far beyond what she’s imagined. Her mother, severely disabled by multiple sclerosis, is placed within a state of the art care facility. Can Rose be bought, or will she try and walk away? However, does anyone walk away from Caldonbrae unscathed? Could Rose, as quiet as she seems, finds a way to walk away, but also bring down the whole system in her wake. This was an incredible, unputdownable, novel full of gothic atmosphere, and dark, patriarchal, purpose. However, there is also a feminist heroine ready to shine a light on long held secrets, even at the risk of that light becoming a burning flame.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Halloween Reads: The Gothic Romances of the Brontes and Du Maurier

When we talk about classic Halloween reads we tend to think of M.R. James, Dracula or Frankenstein and they’re all brilliant. Most people don’t automatically reach for the Brontes, but for me they were my first scary reads. I was ten when I first read an abridged version of Jane Eyre, closely followed by watching the BBC series with Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester. In my ten year old mind this wasn’t a love story, or a feminist manifesto but a really spooky ghost story. My abridged version included the supernatural experience Jane has when her guardian Mrs Reed has her locked in the Red Room. Aware of stories about orbs of light fitting around the graveyard at night, Jane bangs on the door desperate to escape. In her state of fear and passion Jane sees a light and feels the presence of her dead Uncle Reed. She tries to beat down the door before falling into a faint.

Thornfield Hall is remote, dark and brooding rather like its owner. Every hint leans towards something spooky going on. Rochester’s first appearance is preceded by a huge black dog appearing from the fog, and Jane thinks it is a supernatural being. Rochester appears on a black horse and soon on his return things start to go bump in the night. Jane hears strange laughter in the night, banging from the door to the attic and one night, smoke is billowing from Rochester’s room. The blame for this attempt to burn Rochester in his bed is laid at the door of Grace Poole, a strange servant who seems to have no purpose in the house. I remember my ten year old self being scared but thrilled by this mystery of who or what exactly occupies upstairs. The scene of the night before Jane and Rochester’s wedding really spooked me. Jane wakes to see a tall, dark haired, woman wearing her wedding veil. She’s looking at her own reflection which is ghastly white. She then slowly moves round to look at Jane in the bed and my heart is speeding up at this moment. I was scared stiff but couldn’t stop reading. Jane recalls a ghastly visage, darkened circles round the eyes, reddened lips. There is definitely something vampiric about her, rather than ghostly. Rochester tries to gaslight Jane into thinking it’s a dream, but she has proof it was something more human than spectre. Her wedding veil is rent in two. Now Rochester says it must have been Grace, but Jane is unsure. This looked like someone completely different and why would Grace tear her wedding veil?

At ten I only thought about the ghostly aspects of this and when the truth was revealed I saw a monster and not a person. Bertha Mason was simply a madwoman foisted upon Rochester, because my focus was on Jane and her love story. Of course with re-readings and a feminist awakening in my teens I could see that this was an awful tragedy for Bertha too. I also loved The Wide Sargasso Sea and understood that in another reading of the story Bertha was born Antoinette and sent into a marriage with Rochester. Due to being passionate and wild natured she is rejected by Rochester who expected a more measured, obedient bride, sexually shy and generally calm and quiet. For being herself she has her name taken away, is removed from the Jamaica she loves and is imprisoned in an attic with only a servant for company. No wonder she’s angry!

Charlotte’s sister Emily is also adept at creating a gothic atmosphere and there are parts of her novel Wuthering Heights that are downright terrifying. Of course Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship is dark, dangerous and obsessional. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy with the bleak moors, driving winds and lowering skies. The house is old and remote, containing many years of unhappiness by the time our first narrator happens upon it in a storm. He desperately needs shelter and although the people of the house seem odd and the master unnecessarily brusque and harsh towards the younger residents, he is grateful of a room for the night. The room he is given contains books with the name Catherine Earnshaw inscribed inside the cover and he wonders idly who she might have been. The wind is wild outside the window and he settles into his bed grateful he has found the place. He is woken by what sounds like tapping at the window and he thinks it must be branches. He opens the sash to grasp the branch and snap it off but the window breaks and he finds himself holding a freezing cold child’s hand. I remember being so scared by the thought of this ghostly child, floating at the window, desperate to be let in. She pleads with Lockwood to let her in. She is so cold. Yet when he tries to let to go, she grasps on tightly. In fear, Lockwood forces the wrist down into the jagged edge of glass left in the window frame. He then pulls it back and forth until blood runs from the white cold wrist. This is pure horror. If we imagine this scene being filmed as it’s written, it really would be scary.

Most adaptations tend to focus on the love story, but this could be a really tense story of ghostly horror. There are ghosts aplenty in this house. Hindley drinks himself to death haunted by the loss of his wife. Heathcliff is so haunted by Cathy he pushes Lockwood aside and tries to call her back from the moors. When she dies he dashes his head violently against a tree till he’s bleeding. He then goes to her grave and tries to dig her up with his bare hands. I watched an enjoyable adaptation, again with Timothy Dalton, where Cathy’s ghost lures him back to Wuthering Heights. Her ghost floats across the moor calling to him and he follows all the way back to the farm where he is shot as an intruder. Then he and Cathy flit out onto the moors together as wandering spirits, reliving their childhood wild days exploring and hiding from the adults. It’s not true to the book, but I loved that it embodies those gothic origins to the tale.

I love that these quiet sisters, living together in a Yorkshire vicarage, came up with these dark obsessional characters and horrific scenes of gothic horror. I believe my early reading choices are what shaped my love of writers like Laura Purcell, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and last year’s The Lost Ones by Anita Frank. As soon as I start a book like this I smile to myself and I feel something of that magical excitement I used to get when reading a chapter of Wuthering Heights before bed or settling down at Saturday teatime to watch an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Both these Victorian tales create a similar feeling in the reader. It’s the confusing mix of excitement and terror that every good horror story needs, it’s what keeps us reading – as well as being too scared to turn the light off.

Another writer strongly influenced by Jane Eyre in particular is Daphne Du Maurier. Most readers have come across her short stories thanks to the film versions of The Birds and the brilliantly creepy Don’t Look Now. However, the book in my list of all time favourite reads is a Rebecca. This book is up there with the best psychological thrillers of all time and takes that theme of ‘madwoman in the attic’ and brings it into the 20th Century. It also has one of the scariest gothic creations in housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still hopelessly devoted to her dead mistress, the first Mrs de Winter. In a great first line – ‘ last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ – we are introduced to the gothic mansion, the ancestral seat of the de Winter family. Large, foreboding, and clinging to the edge of a cliff in Cornwall. When master of the house, Maxim de Winter brings a young bride home from Europe they are both assailed by memories of his beautiful and brilliant late wife Rebecca, who drowned while out sailing. This haunting is a psychological one and the attic is the mind. The unnamed second wife is plain, young, inexperienced and gauche. She has no idea how to run a house like Manderley and everywhere are signs of her predecessor: the west wing, the embroidered R de W everywhere, her correspondence in the morning room. The staff continue to run the house as before and instead of taking charge she tries to fit in. She lives under the impression that she’s second best and will never measure up.

Many of her qualities echo those of Jane Eyre and there’s a lot to be said about older men wanting more acquiescence and a chance to mould a younger, second wife. While this young woman tortures herself about how much her husband must have loved this brilliant woman, Mrs Danvers starts to turn the screw. Cadaverous in appearance and very severe when communicating, she does everything she can to intimidate her new mistress. She even shows her Rebecca’s lingerie, totally sheer and embroidered with R they conjure up an image of sexual experience, something else this woman doesn’t have. Worst of all, she suggests that copying a portrait of Maxim’s ancestor Lady Caroline de Winter might be a good costume for the ball they’re holding. On the night she appears at the top of the stairs to gasps from the guests and unchecked anger from her husband. Totally bewildered and distraught, her sister in law informs her that Rebecca had done the same thing for the last ball. It was like a ghost appearing at the top of the stairs. Mrs Danvers lures her to the west wing and almost talks her into jumping from the window in a scene of heart-stopping tension. When the truth about Rebecca emerges what will it mean for everyone at Manderley? This book is a romance, but with strong gothic overtones in its setting and although Rebecca does not physically appear as a ghost, she is often more present in this house than anyone else. It is most definitely within the Bronte’s genre of gothic romances and delivers good, old-fashioned, creepiness. Look out for a new adaptation of Rebecca coming soon to Netflix.