I was terrified by A.M. Shine’s first horror novel The Watchers last year and I have been looking forward to his new novel The Creeper. It has such an interesting premise. Academic Dr. Alec Sparling lives a very regimented existence in a remote Manor House in Ireland. His house is set back, covered and disguised with vegetation. There are shutters for the windows and and bolts for the doors. What is he hiding from? He has advertised for two academics to undertake field research and chooses Ben and Chloe. She is an archaeologist and he is an historical researcher with a wealth of experience in interviewing people. They must hike out to a remote Irish village and interview the residents about their life and their minimal contact with the outside world. This is a forgotten place, wary of strangers and as they stumble through a forest, tripwires attached to church bells ring out their presence, giving the villagers plenty of warning. As Chloe and Ben finally meet the people they are shocked by their physical appearance. Poverty and hardship has marked their faces, but it’s the lack of new residents that explains the deformities they observe, years of in-breeding has clearly had it’s effect. These people are not pleased to see them and like Dr Sparling, they are nervous about dusk creeping up on them. Chloe observes the shutters at their windows, less high tech than the wealthy doctor’s, but for exactly the same purpose. Are they to stop people looking out after dark, or are they to stop someone looking in?
As the pair start to interview villagers, they get the sense they’re being fed stock answers. There is something very wrong here, but no one is willing to talk about it, except for one little girl who repeats a piece of folklore:
Three times you see him. Each night he comes closer…
As darkness starts to fall and the villagers start itching to close themselves away for the night, Ben and Chloe realise they will not be able to get back to the car before nightfall. So they set up camp in the driest grass field they can find. As they organise themselves and darkness falls, Ben gets the sense they are not alone. Towards the back of the field, there’s a shape in the darkness. Could it be a person or something worse? This is The Creeper, kept alive by the villager’s superstitions and stories, he is the nameless fear in the night and tomorrow night, he’ll be even closer.
A.M. Shine is a horror genius. His clash of old Irish folklore and modern life is irresistible. I had only read Ben and Chloe’s first day at the village when I had a nightmare! I’m very suggestible. He’s brilliant at creating a sense of foreboding in the reader and here it’s heightened by never fully describing The Creeper till part way through the book. The author knows that our own imaginations are adequate enough to scare us and there’s nothing worse than not knowing or fully seeing the thing you fear. On the first night it’s so far away, covered in raggedy clothing, that we never see it’s face. The villager’s deformed appearances also feed the imagination, leaving the suggestion that the Creeper may be even more disfigured. The doctor’s preparations are also ominous, suggesting that the Creeper isn’t just restricted to the village, but can appear anywhere. We can explain away a superstition held by an isolated settlement, who still live like it’s the Dark Ages! However, if a respected academic who lives in the ‘normal’ world is scared, then we should be too. The author also drops little clues that are easy to dismiss at first, such as the unearthly cry Ben hears as they approach the village. Is it just a child crying out or something much much worse?
The whole atmosphere of this novel is dark, damp and dreary. The waterlogged fields that surround the village create mist. So it feels like everything is obscured and shrouded in mystery. The weather is constantly damp and miserable, so Ben and Chloe’s quest feels grounded and based in reality. Their discomfort as they set up camp for the night is something I remember well from my camping days, that awful feeling that you’ll never be dry again. The contrast between what is familiar and what is very, very wrong, adds to the horror of the situation. The author leaves us suspicious about everyone; I doubted the doctor’s motives in giving the academics this mission and I doubted the villagers too. I found them furtive and secretive, I wondered what they were withholding and whether they were really as downtrodden as they seemed to be. There was the hint that previous academics had come this way and if they had, where were they and where was their research? By the time something terrifying happened my nerves were as taught as bow strings. The final confrontations and the horrifying conclusion were both expected and at the same time shocking. I kept thinking about the author and asking myself ‘he’s not really going to do this is he?’ He really did. I won’t be divulging any of the final chapters, but it really was heart-stopping. This book cemented the feeling I had after reading his first novel The Watchers, Shine has become one of the best horror writers around.
Published by Head of Zeus 15th September 2022
Meet The Author
A. M. Shine is an author of Literary Horror from the west of Ireland. It was there that at a young age he discovered a passion for classic horror stories, and where he received his Masters in history, before ultimately sharpening his quill to pursue a life devoted to all things literary and macabre. His writing is inspired by the trinity of horror, history, and superstition, and he has tormented, toyed with, and tortured more characters than he will ever confess to.
Owing to a fascination with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and his ilk, A. M. Shine’s earlier writings were Gothic in their style and imagination. When his focus turned to novels he refined his craft as an author of Irish horror – stories influenced by his country’s culture, landscape, and language, but which draw their dark atmosphere and eloquence from the Gothic canon of his past.
When thinking about reads for Halloween I started thinking about books that genuinely scared me. The ones I couldn’t stop thinking about and made me look over my shoulder as I popped to the loo in the middle of the night. I blame the Brontë’s for my love of the gothic, from the terrible creature who visits Jane Eyre’s room in the night and tears her wedding veil, to the icy cold hand of a child that reaches into Mr Lockwood’s bedroom window in Wuthering Heights. I even studied gothic literature at university, that’s how much I love the genre. What scares us doesn’t always mean the traditional ghosts, vampires and witches we’re used to. It can be a really tense thriller, a mystery or even novels that defy genre. Here are a few books that genuinely gave me the creeps!
A.M.Shine was a completely new writer to me when I picked up this novel, so I had no expectations. Since reading this I’ve been so creeped out by his second novel, The Creeper, I had to stop reading it! The Watchers was an incredible read and such an unnatural situation for the characters to be in. Lost in a deep forest in rural Ireland, Mina feels unnerved, when she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As the door slams shut behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. They’re in a concrete bunker and as Mina’s eyes adjust to the light, she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass. A younger man and woman are huddled together, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? I have to say that just when I thought my nerves were calm, this author found a way to leave me with a creeping sense of dread.
The Beresford is my favourite Will Carver novel, because it really does get under your skin without a single ghost in sight!
Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?
The Beresford is an apartment building with a difference. It has a certain atmosphere and it’s not long before you dread the door bell ringing. Mrs May is the landlady, an incredibly sweet old lady who has a daily routine from her eggs and cold coffee first thing, to her rose pruning every afternoon. As anyone who has watched The Ladykillers knows, little old ladies should not be underestimated. Does she know more about what’s going on in her building than we think? Even worse, this is only one side of the building, and what’s going on next door is even more unsettling. I’ve been waiting for Carver to elaborate on the other side of the Beresford and I’m told I will only have to wait till next summer. I know one thing for sure – I’m definitely going to be reading it in the daylight.
This is the copy of William Blatty’s book that I would sneak off the bookshelves when my parents went out. I would read as much as possible, then as soon as I heard the gravel crunching on the drive, I’d pop it back and wonder how I was going to sleep that night. When I was about 13, this book had the combination of being both terrifying and taboo – a teenage bibliophile’s holy grail. My parents had joined an evangelical church and became very restrictive in my teens, so the fact this book was even on our shelves felt transgressive. The book works because of atmosphere and tension the author creates. This is a child, so that innocence contrasts sharply with the creature Regan becomes. At first her mother Chris thinks Regan is ill. While Chris has been shooting a movie in Georgetown, there has been poltergeist activity in their rented house, but as time goes on Regan has been refusing to eat, unable to sleep and aggressive in her behaviour. Could it be psychological? The deterioration in Regan is horrific and the sense of horror that starts to come over Chris as she prepares to enter her daughter’s room can be felt. The icy cold, the smell and the violent expletives really hit home and when even a priest is struggling to contain the evil inside the girl, it’s power is still terrifying over fifty years later.
When people ask me if I believe in ghosts I always say no, not in the traditional sense of apparitions, but I do believe in energy and how a building’s past can be felt within it’s walls. Events leave an imprint behind, the emotional equivalent of muscle memory, and perhaps sensitive people can tap into those emotions. That’s the feel of this novel from Diane Setterfield and for me it conjures up dark winter afternoons and the warm fireside but outside of that cozy circle there may be something lurking and waiting to surprise you with it’s presence. Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten, but is full of atmosphere. It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…
Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…? Prepare to read this with a sense of unease, but a need to unravel the story.
Laura Purcell’s debut was so good it made her my ‘go to’ author immediately! It taps directly into those Brontë themes of atmospheric houses with creepy nighttime visitations. It builds beautifully, from a young woman who is bereaved and pregnant to the huge ancestral home, this is one of those tales that slowly and imperceptibly creates unease in the reader. When newly married Elsie Bainbridge finds herself a widow. and pregnant she is dependent on the kindness of his family. Once she reaches her husband’s family estate, she is disappointed, because far from being awed by the house, the villagers fear it and believe the Bainbridge family are cursed. Elsie pays no mind to servants talk, but maid Sarah seems intent on scouring the creepy house. in order to learn more of her family history. Then strange sounds disturb their sleep, leading Elsie and Sarah to discover a life size wooden figure. It’s like the prop for a play, but yet it has an uncanny similarity to Elsie. They decide to move it to the Great Hall, rather than leaving it hidden in the attic. They’ve also found two notebooks which turn out to be the diaries of Anne Bainbridge beginning in 1635.
Anne has written about her hope to charm King Charles I and his Queen on a forthcoming visit and support her husband, Josiah who wants to make connections. The royal couple’s daughter Henrietta Maria was supposedly conceived using white magic. Anne writes about a shop of curiosities and the Dutch heritage of the ‘silent companions’ she purchased ahead of their visit, subsequently discovered in the attic by Sarah. The figures slowly started to resemble their real life counterparts. Elsie starts to fear she is losing her mind as more figures appear and the mystifying question of what’s going starts to consumer her. This is such an original idea and much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, anything that starts to magically resemble it’s owner is downright creepy! I love Purcell’s ability to create an eerie atmosphere and a very uneasy reader.
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 and 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 taken 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.
I think what scared me would have scared any ‘listener’. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book 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. By the end of this novel so did I.
Who doesn’t love a witchy novel at this time of year? In fact, the only thing better than a witch novel is a whole series of them. Here I’m recommending series and one-offs that really fit the bill on these cold autumn afternoons. They’re exactly what I want on a Sunday afternoon, snuggled on the chaise langue with the log burner lit and preferably a pack of M&S Belgian Chocolate Toffee Popcorn. Bliss. There are golden oldies and a few new books to bring a sprinkle of magic into your Halloween.
Joanne Harris’s Chocolat Series
Whenever I pick up Chocolat I immediately feel enclosed by this sumptuous and magical world that Joanne Harris has created. It is the book equivalent of sitting in a candlelit room, Christmas tree sparkling magically in the corner, a warm fire and some real hot chocolate. It’s as if Vianne Rocher is enchanting me from between the pages. From the moment the changing wind blows her into the village of Lansquenet she begins to work her magic on the villagers, much to the disgust of parish priest Father Reynaud. She establishes a chocolate shop directly opposite the church and so begins a struggle for power. Her magic is subtle, but she is an amazing chocolatier and she has the ability to discern which one of her chocolates will be someone’s favourite. With her chocolate pot always simmering and ready with a listening ear, her shop soon becomes the regular haunt of some of the villagers. However, the priest is preaching against Vianne Rocher. He doubts her morals, dislikes the sense of indulgence she’s creating, and is suspicious that she may be a witch. Maybe he’s seen Pantoufle, the imaginary friend of Vianne’s little girl Anouk. This push and pull between church and chocolate is left behind in her second novel The Lollipop Shoes where we follow Vianne to Paris where they live above her chocolate shop. Then Zozie De L’Alba sweeps into their lives, the woman with the lollipop shoes, but she isn’t all she seems. Seductive and charming on the surface, she can also be ruthless and devious. Again, Vianne finds herself with a powerful enemy. Should she do what she’s always done before and run?
Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé takes us back to Lansquenet and feels like a lighter novel, more suited as a sequel to Chocolat. It’s a letter from an old friend that brings her back to the village, but this is an unusual letter, because Vianne’s friend is dead. She finds the village changed since her last visit, with a new community blown in with the wind. Where once the river gypsies were the village has grown, there’s now a hint of spices, veiled faces and a minaret as North African migrants have settled. So Reynaud could have a new enemy. However, Vianne finds that he’s in trouble, could this possibly be the reason she’s been drawn back to the village? I loved the feel of this novel, with old characters popping up and old adversaries seeking change. It really felt like the story had come full circle so I was surprised when I heard there was another part to the series. The Strawberry Thief is every bit as atmospheric as Chocolat and all seems settled in Lansquenet. Vianne and her youngest daughter Rosette have settled in the chocolate shop. Even her relationship with Reynaud has settled into a friendship. It’s when the florist Narcisse dies that the wind changes. His will is cause for gossip and then someone opens a shop in the square, opposite Vianne, The strange pull it exerts seems familiar, but what could this mean for Vianne. This series is so warm and the settings are absolutely enchanting. The magic is sprinkled throughout, but Vianne is not just an enchantress. She’s a catalyst. A force for change. She inspires people to cast off rules and do what makes them happy. She gives women who are unhappy and even abused, the strength to leave. She frees people and that is an incredibly powerful gift to have.
A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.
I’m relatively new to the work of Constance Sayers, but I’ve certainly made up for the oversight since. A Witch in Time is high on my TBR for the end of this year, but it sounds just up my street. We go to four different time zones, into the lives of four different women, but between them there’s just one star-crossed love. In 1895, sixteen-year-old girl called Juliet begins a passionate, doomed romance with a married artist. Next we’re in 1932, with aspiring actress Nora as she escapes New York for the bright lights of Hollywood and a new chance at love. Then it’s 1970 and we meet Sandra who lives in California, it’s perfect for her music career but she’s threatening to tear her band apart with a secret love affair. Finally, we reach the 21st Century and a confused Helen who has strange memories of lives that she hasn’t lived. These are tragic lives, cursed with doomed love, because Helen was bound to her lover in 1895, and trapped by his side ever since. She’s lived multiple lifetimes, under different names, never escaping her tragic endings. Only this time, she might finally have the power to break the cycle.
I was determined to have an early copy of The Ladies of the Secret Circus as soon as I saw a trailer for it on Twitter.
The surest way to get a ticket to Le Cirque Secret is to wish for it . . .
As a huge fan of The Night Circus I knew this was for me and thankfully I managed to get a copy on NetGalley. This time Sayer’s takes us back to Paris in 1925 where to enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder. See women weave illusions, let carousels take you back in time, and see trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything. In the 21st Century, Lara Barnes is getting married and feels on top of the world, but when her fiancé disappears on their wedding day every plan she has for the future comes crashing down. Desperate, Lara’s search for answers unexpectedly lead to her great-grandmother’s journals and is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love. There are secrets about the women in Lara’s family history, which need to come to light. They reveal a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious fate. Both of these tales are full of spells, magic and ancient curses, but they’re also colourful, romantic and full of wonder.
The Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman.
I write about these four books every Halloween and I should perhaps look for some new material, but I can’t stop because I love this author and these four books are a brilliant witch series. Although Practical Magic was the first book in the series, followed a very successful film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, it’s actually the third instalment of this story following the Owens family try to juggle life with their witchy heritage. Hoffman went on to write two prequels and a sequel to Practical Magic where we meet a different generation of the Owens family, both as teenagers and then as elderly ladies, hoping to change change the curse that’s been controlling their lives ever since the witch trials. We start in Magic Lessons when baby Maria is left abandoned in a snowy field near the home of Hannah Owens. Hannah is a healer who lives in isolation, but the women of the town manage to make their way to her door for the remedies they sorely need usually due to the pains and consequences of love. When men feel threatened they do terrible things and when Hannah is set upon by the men of the village, Maria escapes and makes her way down to the Caribbean as a servant. However, when the man she loves betrays her, Maria follows him back to Massachusetts and begins a war against the Puritan settlers. Will her quest for revenge blind her to real love and curse her family for a generation? Then we jump to the 20th Century and the Owens sisters Franny and Jet, with their brother Vincent. Their mother knew they were special because they each have their own talent: Franny with the blood red hair can talk to birds, Jet is so beautiful and incredibly shy but in the quiet she can read what people are thinking. As the teenagers start to interact more with the outside world, it seems that Vincent’s charisma may get him into trouble. Yet it’s Jet’s world that may be turned upside down by the curse of the Owen family.
Practical Magic is actually the third in the series and we’re one generation on, in the same house in Massachusetts. Gillian and Sally live with their aunts Franny and Jet, they keep themselves to themselves mostly, but the girls know that if the porch light is left on at night, women who wouldn’t give them a glance by day seem to find their way at night. Gillian is the wilder one of the sisters, roaming from state to state and attracting all the wrong men. When she returns to Massachusetts, homebody Sally knows that she’s brought trouble home with her. Even their magic might not cover her tracks as a handsome investigator arrives in town asking questions. Since her husband died Sally has lived quietly, avoiding her magical skills and men. Now her sister’s return might jeopardise the stability she’s created for her girls. They may need help from the aunties for this. Hoffman’s fourth in the series, published last year, is The Book of Magic. The three generations of Owens women who all live in the same small town in Massachusetts, have found a way to accommodate their family curse and their magic skills. Until Sally’s youngest daughter Kylie falls in love with her best friend. As the curse does it’s worst the family must find a book of magic, the only one with the knowledge that might break the family curse and allow the younger generation to love without limits or fear of tragedy, Sally will have to embrace the skills she’s avoided for so long and as the family fight to save their youngest member, one of the oldest gets wind of a change coming. A fitting end to a brilliant series,
The Waverley Sisters Series by Sarah Addison Allen.
This is a lovely and light two part series set in Bascom, North Carolina. They’re warm books that focus on family first and spells second, plus it’s full of food and charm so it wins me over straight away. It seems everyone in Bascom has a story to tell about the Waverley women. They live in a house that’s been in the family for generations, have a walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and then those rumours of dangerous love and tragic passion that surround them. Every Waverley woman is somehow touched by magic, but Claire has always clung to the Waverleys’ roots. She stays grounded by tending the enchanted soil in the family garden and makes her sought-after delicacies – famed and feared in town for their curious effects. She has everything she thinks she needs – until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden . . . Is Claire’s carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.
In the second book we see more of Claire’s sister Sydney and her daughter Bay. It’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are also made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree…and the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. She makes handcrafted confections with specific intentions, like rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds. Her remedies are effective, but the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and maybe even her belief in her own precious gifts.
Sydney Waverley, too, seems to be losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby — a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?
When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost. This is a real happy ever after story, filled with magic and warmth.
I must admit there are witchy books that are still on my TBR. I’m so surprised, but I’ve never read A Discovery of Witches and would love to read them after seeing a couple of episodes of the TV series. I love the mix of historical fiction and the gothic, and the addition of other magical beings such as demons and vampires. It also has incredible settings from Cambridge UK, to Venice and Elizabethan England. I must make time for them. Also on my pile is Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart, a YA fantasy that’s based in a Jamaican tradition. I love reading about witches and magic from such different parts of the world and this is nearly at the top of my stack. I love that this is marketed as a more thrilling, fiery and powerful tale. Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot are sworn enemies, but come together to carry out their revenge on a woman who threatens them both. This is an uneasy alliance and nothing is certain, except the lengths these women will go to for vengeance.
The Ex-Hex is a brand new rom-com that has apparently been a huge hit on TikTok. Vivienne was broken-hearted when she and Rhys broke up nine years ago. She tried bubble baths, then vodka and in the end she cursed him. Now Rhys is back to adjust the town’s ley lines, but everything he touches goes wrong and the village of Graves Glen seems out of balance. What if Vivienne’s hex wasn’t as harmless as she’d thought? Finally there’s The Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Mangu Sandanna, a book recommended to me buy one of my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod. As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn’t mind it . . . mostly. But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life. However, as this new life might be threatened, Mika must decide whether to risk everything to protect her found family. You’ll be the first to hear how I get on.
I’m always a real sucker for historical, gothic novels with strong female characters and this is up there with the best. The Lost Ones centres on Miss Stella Marcham and her new lady’s maid Annie Burrows. Stella is still in mourning for her fiancé Gerald who she lost in World War One. She keeps the locket he gave her close to her chest still. When she is invited to stay with her pregnant sister Madeline at her in-laws family home, Greyswick, she looks forward to a change of scenery. She sets out with Annie, who is a new addition to the household staff. Stella is unsure of Annie, but her family’s loyalty to the Burrows is long held and she resolves to get to know the unusual young woman.
Greyswick is a country estate, with formal gardens and ostentatious decor. Madeline is married to the heir of Greyswick, Hector Brightwood, who is away on business in London. At home are his mother Lady Brightwood and her companion Miss Scott, plus their staff, housekeeper Mrs Henge and ‘Cook’ whose name no one uses. However, Stella soon learns that they are not the only residents of her sister’s new home. Madeline confides that she can hear crying in the night and soon Stella finds a toy soldier in her bed. It’s not long before Stella is woken by the crying and follows the sound up the nursery stairs. On the stairs is a vivid portrait of a little boy with a hoop and in the background Stella sees a pile of toy soldiers. The portrait is of Lucien Brightwell, the original heir from Lord Brightwood’s first marriage, who died in a fall down the nursery stairs. This is only one of many secrets being kept by the Brightwood family and Stella senses a mystery to be solved. The creaks, bumps and cries in the night are her only clues.
This book sits in a long tradition and I had thought of Marian from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White even before Anita Frank mentions the book, as a reading recommendation from one character to another. When Hector returns home, bringing with him Mr Shears, I could sense tension between that old Victorian ideal of men who are ruled by reason and the women who use emotion, instinct and intuition even more. Frank’s book is set post-WW1 and the tensions of this changeable time are apparent. Women’s roles have evolved and Stella represents this change. She expected to be a married woman by now, but has instead chalked up experience nursing wounded soldiers and like most of the country is mourning a terrible loss. She is intelligent and restless after moving back into her ‘normal’ middle class role. She has also undergone psychiatric treatment following her bereavement, complicated by the fact that her severely wounded fiancé was brought to her hospital and care. She fears being thought of as mad or hysterical, so feels a constant pressure to be measured and rational. Other women in the novel are equally complex and class is another tension. Stella’s family are indebted to the Burrows family after Annie’s father died trying to save the younger sister, Lydia, from a house fire. Annie is acting as lady’s maid, a job beyond her experience, but is also trying to remain under the radar due to her own incredible gift that could mark her out as mad. Since the family lost their main bread winner Annie needs the job and doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, but Stella has her concerns. She has seen Annie talking to empty rooms and knows she saw something on the nursery stairs. Lady Brightwood’s companion Miss Scott lives in a very precarious position too, living with the family but being from a lower class than them. She was once a servant in the house, so how did she become so close to her mistress and does her devotion go beyond that of a companion? Also, what is her relationship with Mrs Henge and why is their contact so secretive?
Finally, the paranormal elements of the book are genuinely scary. The tension ratchets up from small events like the nighttime crying or the marble rolling across the room, both things that could possibly be explained away. Mr Shears tries to find a rational explanation for all of it and I did find myself thinking Annie’s presence was a potential cause. Then slowly, as people start to identify the poltergeist, the ante is upped and more characters experience events that seem impossible. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling, reminiscent of Susan Hill or Laura Purcell. It also works as a female led detective story and builds to a denouement that doesn’t disappoint. Anyone who loves historical or gothic fiction will enjoy this novel. It’s a great Halloween read that sits beautifully in a genre the Victorians called sensation fiction. Perfectly pitched, beautifully written and full of interesting and complex female characters.
Meet The Author
Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children. Since The Lost Ones Anita has written a second novel, based during and after WW2. Her third novel The Good Liars is another work of historical fiction due out 8th June 2023.
There are so many great books this autumn, but I’ve narrowed it down to those I have and I’m looking forward to reading the most. It’s all here, from spooky Halloween reads to feel-good fiction, thrillers to historical fiction and a splash of horror. Here’s a little preview of these great books.
In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall. This place is shrouded in folklore – old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. Now the woods are creeping closer, and something has been unleashed.
Pearl Gorham arrives in 1965, one of a string of young women sent to Lichen Hall to give birth. And she soon suspects the proprietors are hiding something. Then she meets the mysterious mother and young boy who live in the grounds – and together they begin to unpick the secrets of this place. As the truth comes to the surface and the darkness moves in, Pearl must rethink everything she knew – and risk what she holds most dear. I loved this author’s previous book The Lighthouse Witches and I can’t wait to get stuck into this one.
Published on 13th October 2022 by HarperCollins
I loved Caroline’s first two novels, both set in the aftermath of WW1 and full of historical detail, characters to empathise with and that chaos that seems to thrive in war’s aftermath. Between the two World Wars the country was in a state of flux, with huge changes in class structure, gender and the finances, both public and personal. This book is set in England, 1932, when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. To lift the spirits of the nation, Stella Douglas is tasked with writing a history of food in England. It’s to be quintessentially English and will remind English housewives of the old ways, and English men of the glory of their country. The only problem is –much of English food is really from, well, elsewhere and can one cookbook really manoeuvre people back into those pre-war roles?
Stella sets about unearthing recipes from all corners of the country, in the hope of finding a hidden culinary gem. But what she discovers is rissoles, gravy, stewed prunes and lots of oatcakes. Longing for something more thrilling, she heads off to speak to the nation’s housewives. But when her car breaks down and the dashing and charismatic Freddie springs to her rescue, she is led in a very different direction . . . Full of wit and vim, Good Taste is a story of discovery, of English nostalgia, change and challenge, and one woman’s desire to make her own way as a modern woman.
Published on 13th October 2022 by Simon and Schuster U.K.
Rachel Joyce is one of those authors I’ve had lick to meet twice, at book signings, where I’ve been one of the last people to queue with my old books under my arm and her latest in my hand. Her last book Miss Benson’s Beetle was an incredible read about extraordinary women. Now she reverts to a series of books that have celebrated very ordinary people doing extraordinary things and Mrs Fry is no exception. Ten years ago, Harold Fry set off on his epic journey on foot to save a friend. But the story doesn’t end there. Now his wife, Maureen, has her own pilgrimage to make.
Maureen Fry has settled into the quiet life she now shares with her husband Harold after his iconic walk across England. Now, ten years later, an unexpected message from the North disturbs her equilibrium again, and this time it is Maureen’s turn to make her own journey. But Maureen is not like Harold. She struggles to bond with strangers, and the landscape she crosses has changed radically. She has little sense of what she’ll find at the end of the road. All she knows is that she must get there. Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North is a deeply felt, lyrical and powerful novel, full of warmth and kindness, about love, loss, and how we come to terms with the past in order to understand ourselves and our lives a little better. Short, exquisite, while it stands in its own right, it is also the moving finale to a trilogy that began with the phenomenal bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and continued with The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
This is a slender book but it has all the power and weight of a classic.
Published by Doubleday 20th Oct 2022. Kindle Edition available from 5th October.
I have already started this book and had a nightmare of epic proportions the very first night. I’m suggestible and have a wild imagination, but I think the opening to this book is strangely unsettling. I felt uneasy, even though the chapters I read didn’t have any particularly terrifying events. It’s the strangeness that creeps up on you.
Superstitions only survive if people believe in them… Renowned academic Dr Sparling seeks help with his project on a remote Irish village. Historical researchers Ben and Chloe are thrilled to be chosen – until they arrive. The village is isolated and forgotten. There is no record of its history, its stories. There is no friendliness from the locals, only wary looks and whispers. The villagers lock down their homes at sundown. It seems a nameless fear stalks the streets, but nobody will talk – nobody except one little girl. Her words strike dread into the hearts of the newcomers. Three times you see him. Each night he comes closer… That night, Ben and Chloe see a sinister figure watching them. He is the Creeper. He is the nameless fear in the night. Stories keep him alive. And nothing will keep him away..
Published by Head of Zeus/ Aries 15th September 2022.
I’m a sucker for historical fiction with a gothic edge, so this really captured my imagination as soon as I read the blurb. Obviously my counsellor brain is always ready for tales of supposed madness and hysteria too.
I must pull myself together. I had to find Dr Rastrick and demand my immediate release. My stomach knotted at the prospect, but I knew I was perfectly sane and that he must see reason.
In 1886, a respectable young woman must acquire a husband. But Violet Pring does not want to marry. She longs to be a professional artist and live on her own terms. When her scheming mother secures a desirable marriage proposal from an eligible Brighton gentleman for her, Violet protests. Her family believes she is deranged and deluded, so she is locked away in Hillwood Grange Lunatic Asylum against her will.In her new cage, Violet faces an even greater challenge: she must escape the clutches of a sinister and formidable doctor and set herself free. This tantalizing Gothic novel from Noel O’Reilly tells a thrilling story of duty and desire, madness and sanity, truth and delusion from within a Victorian asylum.
Published by HQ 8th December 2022
Spring 1937: Teresa is evacuated to London in the wake of the Guernica bombing. She thinks she’s found safety in the soothing arms of Mary Davidson and the lofty halls of Rochester Place, but trouble pursues her wherever she goes.
Autumn 2020: Corrine, an emergency dispatcher, receives a call from a distressed woman named Mary. But when the ambulance arrives at the address, Mary is nowhere to be found. Intrigued, Corinne investigates and, in doing so, disturbs secrets that have long-dwelt in Rochester Place’s crumbling walls. Secrets that, once revealed, will change her life for ever . . .
Who is Mary Davidson? And what happened at Rochester Place all those years ago? Set between the dusty halls of Rochester Place and the bustling streets of modern-day Tooting, this emotive, intricately layered mystery tells the spellbinding story of two people, separated by time, yet mysteriously connected through an enchanting Georgian house and the secrets within its walls.
Published by Penguin 8th Dec 2022
I always look forward to an Orenda book, because I know I’m going to great a fantastic and often thought provoking read. I’m on the blog tour for this in November and I’m looking forward to this one. James Garrett was critically injured when he was shot following his parents’ execution, and no one expected him to waken from a deep, traumatic coma. When he does, nine years later, Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is tasked with closing the case that her now retired colleague, Theodore Tate, failed to solve all those years ago.
But between that, and hunting for Copy Joe – a murderer on a spree, who’s imitating Christchurch’s most notorious serial killer – she’s going to need Tate’s help … especially when they learn that James has lived out another life in his nine-year coma, and there are things he couldn’t possibly know, including the fact that Copy Joe isn’t the only serial killer in town…
Published by Orenda Books Nov 10th 2022
In between the serial killers, ghostly apparitions and terrifying ‘creepers’ I need some light relief. I was looking for something warm and uplifting and this could be it. Newly installed at All Souls Lutheran, Mallory “Pastor Pete” Peterson soon realizes that her church isn’t merely going through turbulent waters, but is a sinking ship. With the help of five loyal members of the Naomi Circle, the young, bold minister brainstorms fundraising ideas. They all agree that the usual recipe book won’t add much to the parish coffers, but maybe one with all the ingredients on how to heat up relationships rather than casseroles will…
Pastor Pete has her doubts about the project, but it turns out the group of postmenopausal women has a lot to say on the subject of romance. While Charlene, the youngest member at fifty-two, struggles with the assignment, baker-extraordinaire Marlys, elegantly bohemian Bunny, I’m-always-right Velda, and ebullient Edie take up their contributions enthusiastically. After all, their book is really about cooking up love in all its forms. But not everyone in the congregation is on board with this “scandalous” project. As the voices of opposition grow louder, Pastor Pete and these intrepid women will have to decide how hard they’re willing to fight for this book and the powerful stories within—stories of discovery, softened hearts, and changed lives.
Published by Lake Union 6th December 2022
Although this book is already out I’m saving it for the autumn, because it’s one of my Squad Pod’s Book Club reads. I loved Quinn’s debut novel The Smallest Man so I’ve had my eye on this for a while. I also love unusually named heroines, ever since Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, and Endurance Proudfoot is a brilliant invention. It’s usual, they say, for a young person coming to London for the first time to arrive with a head full of dreams. Well, Endurance Proudfoot did not. When she stepped off the coach from Sussex, on a warm and sticky afternoon in the summer of 1757, it never occurred to her that the city would be the place where she’d make her fortune; she was just very annoyed to be arriving there at all.
Meet Endurance Proudfoot, the bonesetter’s daughter: clumsy as a carthorse, with a tactless tongue and a face she’s sure only a mother could love. Durie only wants one thing in life – to follow her father and grandfather into the family business of bonesetting. It’s a physically demanding job, requiring strength, nerves of steel and discretion – and not the job for a woman. But Durie isn’t like other women. She’s strong and stubborn and determined to get her own way. And she finds that she has a talent at bonesetting – her big hands and lack of grace have finally found their natural calling. So, when she is banished to London with her sister, who is pretty, delicate and exactly the opposite to Durie in every way, Durie will not let it stop her realising her dreams. And while her sister will become one of the first ever Georgian celebrities, Durie will become England’s first and most celebrated female bonesetter. But what goes up must come down, and Durie’s elevated status may well become her undoing…
Published by Simon and Schuster 21st July 2022.
There are a few formidable women in my autumn reading and this is another brilliant historical fiction novel for the list. This is billed as a ‘rich and atmospheric’ new novel from prize-winning author Sally Gardner, set in the 18th century between the two great Frost Fairs. Neva Friezland is born into a world of trickery and illusion, where fortunes can be won and lost on the turn of a card. She is also born with an extraordinary gift. She can predict the weather. In Regency England, where the proper goal for a gentlewoman is marriage and only God knows the weather, this is dangerous. It is also potentially very lucrative.
In order to debate with the men of science and move about freely, Neva adopts a sophisticated male disguise. She foretells the weather from inside an automaton created by her brilliant clockmaker father. But what will happen when the disguised Neva falls in love with a charismatic young man?
It can be very dangerous to be ahead of your time. Especially as a woman.
Published by Apollo 10th November 2022.
Will Carver is an incredible writer and his imagination knows no bounds. His books are always so completely original.
Eli Hagin can’t finish anything. He hates his job, but can’t seem to quit. He doesn’t want to be with his girlfriend, but doesn’t know how end things with her, either. Eli wants to write a novel, but he’s never taken a story beyond the first chapter. Eli also has trouble separating reality from fiction.
When his best friend kills himself, Eli is motivated, for the first time in his life, to finally end something himself, just as Mike did… Except sessions with his therapist suggest that Eli’s most recent ‘first chapters’ are not as fictitious as he had intended … and a series of text messages that Mike received before his death point to something much, much darker…
Published by Orenda Books 24th November 2022.
This book sounds like a very dark fairy tale and aren’t they the best ones? An ancient, mercurial spirit is trapped inside Elspeth Spindle’s head – she calls him the Nightmare. He protects her. He keeps her secrets. But nothing comes for free, especially magic.
When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, she is thrust into a world of shadow and deception. Together, they embark on a dangerous quest to cure the town of Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. As the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to fight it. This is a gothic fantasy romance about a maiden who must unleash the monster within to save her kingdom.
Published by Orbit 29th September
Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact. This sounds absolutely epic and I’m so excited to have been granted a copy on NetGalley, so I’ll keep you all informed.
Published 4th October 2022 by Penguin Press
1643: A small group of Parliamentarian soldiers are ambushed in an isolated part of Northern England. Their only hope for survival is to flee into the nearby Moresby Wood… unwise though that may seem. For Moresby Wood is known to be an unnatural place, the realm of witchcraft and shadows, where the devil is said to go walking by moonlight. Seventeen men enter the wood. Only two are ever seen again, and the stories they tell of what happened make no sense. Stories of shifting landscapes, of trees that appear and disappear at will… and of something else. Something dark. Something hungry.
Today, five women are headed into Moresby Wood to discover, once and for all, what happened to that unfortunate group of soldiers. Led by Dr Alice Christopher, an historian who has devoted her entire academic career to uncovering the secrets of Moresby Wood. Armed with metal detectors, GPS units, mobile phones and the most recent map of the area (which is nearly 50 years old), Dr Christopher’s group enters the wood ready for anything. Or so they think. I love the mix of historical fiction and a touch of the supernatural so this one is a definite title for the TBR.
Published on 13th October by S
If someone says gothic, paranormal, romance to me, I’m there with bells on! As a lifelong fan of Wuthering Heights it’s very much my sort of thing. 1813. Lizzie’s beloved older sister Esme is sold in marriage to the aging Lord Blountford to settle their father’s debts. One year later, Esme is dead, and Lizzie is sent to take her place as Lord Blountford’s next wife.
Arriving at Ambletye Manor, Lizzie uncovers a twisted web of secrets, not least that she is to be the fifth mistress of this house. Marisa. Anne. Pansy. Esme. What happened to the four wives who came before her? In possession of a unique gift, only Lizzie can hear their stories, and try to find a way to save herself from sharing the same fate. This sounds to me like a Bluebeard type tale and perfect for a cozy autumn afternoon in front of the log burner.
Published 24th November 2022 by Penguin.
Three women Three eras One extraordinary mystery…
1899, Belle Époque Paris. Lucienne’s two daughters are believed dead when her mansion burns to the ground, but she is certain that her girls are still alive and embarks on a journey into the depths of the spiritualist community to find them.
1949, Post-War Québec. Teenager Lina’s father has died in the French Resistance, and as she struggles to fit in at school, her mother introduces her to an elderly woman at the asylum where she works, changing Lina’s life in the darkest way imaginable.
2002, Quebec. A former schoolteacher is accused of brutally stabbing her husband – a famous university professor – to death. Detective Maxine Grant, who has recently lost her own husband and is parenting a teenager and a new baby single-handedly, takes on the investigation.
Under enormous personal pressure, Maxine makes a series of macabre discoveries that link directly to historical cases involving black magic and murder, secret societies and spiritism … and women at breaking point, who will stop at nothing to protect the ones they love. I’m so excited about this one I’ve ordered a special copy from Goldsboro Books it’s simply stunning and I’m dying to read it.
Published by Orenda Book on 15th September 2022
Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths
Another stunning cover here. From the author of the Ruth Galloway crime series this is a propulsive new thriller set in London featuring Detective Harbinder Kaur. A murderer hides in plain sight – in the police. DS Cassie Fitzherbert has a secret – but it’s one she’s deleted from her memory. In the 1990s when she was at school, she and her friends killed a fellow pupil. Thirty years later, Cassie is happily married and loves her job as a police officer.
One day her husband persuades her to go to a school reunion and another ex-pupil, Garfield Rice, is found dead, supposedly from a drug overdose. As Garfield was an eminent MP and the investigation is high profile, it’s headed by Cassie’s new boss, DI Harbinder Kaur. The trouble is, Cassie can’t shake the feeling that one of her old friends has killed again. Is Cassie right, or was Garfield murdered by one of his political cronies? It’s in Cassie’s interest to skew the investigation so that it looks like the latter and she seems to be succeeding.
Until someone else is killed…
Published on 29th September 2022 by Quercus
And I can’t believe I forgot…..
I possibly forgot this one because I’ve already read and reviewed it for NetGalley and it really is a cracker. After going in a slightly different direction with her last two novels, Jodi Picoult is back in her usual territory here. After teaming up with author Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a Twitter conversation, Picoult is back to tackling a controversial issue with a tense legal case at the centre of the drama.
Olivia fled her abusive marriage to return to her hometown and take over the family beekeeping business when her son Asher was six. Now, impossibly, her baby is six feet tall and in his last year of high school, a kind, good-looking, popular ice hockey star with a tiny sprite of a new girlfriend. Lily also knows what it feels like to start over – when she and her mother relocated to New Hampshire it was all about a fresh start. She and Asher couldn’t help falling for each other, and Lily feels happy for the first time. But can she trust him completely? Then Olivia gets a phone call – Lily is dead, and Asher is arrested on a charge of murder. As the case against him unfolds, she realises he has hidden more than he’s shared with her. And Olivia knows firsthand that the secrets we keep reflect the past we want to leave behind - and that we rarely know the people we love well as we think we do. Each author has written the story from a different character’s perspective, sometimes taking us back in time to understand their experiences. I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment so I won’t give you any more of the plot, but I will say it’s a belter of a novel that will make you question your own prejudices.
Published on 15th November 2022 by Hodder & Stoughton
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Meet The Author
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 shortstories 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.