Head of Zeus | 2019 | 359p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1966 and Maud Stearne has lived a reclusive life for over fifty years, living alone but for her cook in Wake’s End, her large house in the tiny hamlet of Wakenhyrst in the Suffolk fens. The outside world has left Maud in peace for many of those years but now that might be about to change, thanks to the recent discovery of her father’s remarkable paintings. These portray a tortured mind, reminding the world what happened sixty years before during the Edwardian period. Maud’s father murdered somebody in a terrible fashion and Maud was the only witness. She’s never talked about it, or indeed talked about much, to anybody since. But now, in need of funds to restore this dilapidated, rotting house, Maud is prepared to reveal the horrible truth, to disclose the contents of her father’s journals, to wake up the demons.
Michelle Paver is a master of historical horror. Both Dark Matter and Thin Air, ghostly tales set in the 1930s, are must-reads and I couldn’t wait to read Wakenhyrst. This time, we travel back to the Edwardian period and, whereas before we were taken to the Arctic Winter and then into the Himalayas, we now find ourselves in the Suffolk fens, a remote swampland, disconnected from the rest of England. It is another of those places in which anything can happen, hidden from the outside world, and where superstition and fear of the dark can conquer reason.
The novel is book-ended by the 1960s but otherwise events take place in the first years of the 20th century and is divided between Maud’s own story and extracts from her father Edmund’s journal. It’s a structure that works so well as the personality of Edmund, and of Maud, develops before us. The contrast between Edmund’s words and his view of himself with the way in which Maud sees him and history judges him is striking. Wakenhyrst is, in fact, not so much of a horror tale, although it describes horrible things, but a psychological thriller set in a time and place when the unexpected or the unusual could be blamed on demons, witches and spirits that lurk in the fens. Edmund Stearne, an intellectual (in his eyes) with a fascination for medieval superstition, is an easy victim. There’s also another voice in the novel which adds to its mood, that of a medieval mystic, with whom Edmund becomes obsessed.
But alongside the horror of what Edmund perceives in the fens around him, that fills his house with a smell he hates as well as creatures that wriggle and scurry, there is Maud’s own nightmare and that has resulted from the reality of life in a remote house with a father such as Edmund Stearne. The themes resonate. The fate of unhappy wives doomed to bear child upon child, never given a rest by their lecherous, foul husbands, the disrespect and lack of care given to girl-children who are left uneducated and little more than servants. Then there are the servants themselves, especially the young women who become prey. Maud lives in a house of monsters very different from those that haunt Edmund and it’s to Maud’s story that we’re drawn. And we’re aware that so much of it would be typical through so much of history. Michelle Paver tells a compelling story and Maud is its worthy heroine.
I loved the sense of place that is created in Wakenhyrst. The fens are a character in their own right. Some hate them and others love them and almost become part of them. The descriptions are beautiful and the characters who live within them are brilliantly brought to life, dialect and all. Maud very much belongs to the fens and I loved the way in which her relationship to it, as well as to its animals and people, is portrayed. I visit the fens frequently myself, it’s a place I love to be, and I really enjoyed their place in this wonderful novel.
In Wakenhyrst, Michelle Paver has moved away from ghostly tales and instead placed us firmly in the Gothic. This book is steeped in atmosphere as well as the stench and slime of the fen itself, a place barely touched by the outside world, and it is beautifully written and deliciously, gorgeously creepy.
With this review, I’m delighted to start off the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication of Wakenhyrst on 4 April. Please take a look at the poster below for other stops on the tour.