Headline Review | 2018 (8 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1674 and the earliest signs of spring are creeping across the frozen Yorkshire moors. A ewe is labouring to give birth to the first lamb of the season but it’s in need of help from Mercy Booth who farms the hills and slopes for her elderly father. Scarcross Hall is their home and Mercy is never more alive than when she strides across the moors. But this year all is not well. Her father is increasingly unwell, his behaviour erratic, and little things are going missing from the house, most notably three ancient coins. And now, when the mist comes in, Mercy feels a malignance in it that she’s never felt before. But she refuses to be frightened. Especially now when the farming year is coming back to life. With the lambing season about to begin, followed by the summer’s harvest, men are returning to Scarcross once more to help with the annual labour. But with them comes a stranger looking for work and nothing will ever be the same again.
The Civil War and the years that followed it is one of my favourite periods for historical fiction and few authors bring it to life with such atmosphere and feeling as Katherine Clements. She also finds an unusual perspective, focusing on the overlooked role of women in such male domains as war (The Crimson Ribbon) and highway robbery (The Silvered Heart). In The Coffin Path, Katherine Clements portrays another woman who has to live independently in a male world (farming and stewardship), coming to terms with the suspicion and abuse that this independence arouses in a superstitious society. We have been removed in this novel from the centre of political or social affairs. We’re now in a remote and challenging, albeit beautiful, part of England where some of the old ways survive. The coffin path, the ancient path along which coffins are carried from the moors down to the church, passes by the White Ladies, a prehistoric stone circle that continues to exert an influence on those who behold it. Nature is harsh up here on the moors. Life struggles. Death is common – and it might not always be the end.
Scarcross Hall is Mercy’s home and she loves it but it is the perfect setting for a haunted tale. It was once grand but has now fallen into disrepair, its larger rooms difficult to heat. Its walls and floorboards creak. It’s not a silent house and its history holds secrets.
I love a historical spooky tale and The Coffin’s Path is one of the most atmospheric and chilling that I’ve read. This is mostly due to Katherine Clements’ beautiful, rich and elegant prose but it has also much to do with the spirit of its setting on the moors which is so perfectly painted. It is both stunning and frightening and the author captures this so well, and personifies these conflicting moods in the character of Mercy Booth. Mercy couldn’t fit better into the landscape and the fact that she’s so hard to frighten – if she hears a noise in another room she’ll fling the door open, or stare out of the shutters into the dark night – makes her a more unusual figure in a ghostly tale.
The story is split between Mercy’s perspective and that of the stranger. They dance around each other. They complement one another and add another level to the novel. There are some wonderful characters here, quite apart from Mercy and the stranger, and my favourites were the boy Sam and his mother. We are also taken from the wild world of the moors into the so-called civilised places of the church and local town but what we see there is every bit as superstitious and threatening as the worst of weathers that fall and freeze on the moors.
I read Most of The Coffin Path late at night, perfect for its chilling and creepy mood. There’s something otherworldly about the moors (and I was reminded of Wuthering Heights) and Katherine Clements captures it so well while also providing such a fascinating depiction of rural society and beliefs in the 1670s.