Category Archives: Gothic

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

Virago | 2018 (1 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

House of Glass by Susan FletcherIt is June 1914 and Clara Waterfield, a young botanist of independent means, is summoned to the large house of Shadowbrook in the Cotswolds. The house had been owned by the Pettigrews, a family feared and loathed among the local community, but with the last of the line having died, the decaying house is now owned by Mr Fox. Clara’s task is to fill a glasshouse with exotic plants from Kew Gardens. It shall be a haven for Mr Fox. But the strange thing is that Mr Fox refuses to be seen. The housekeeper explains that he is usually away on business but, when he is around, he keeps to his rooms on the first floor and he is not to be disturbed. His house is left unloved.

But Mr Fox isn’t the only unusual presence at Shadowbrook. Clara hears footsteps at night; flowers brought into the house are dead within hours; paintings on the walls fall to the ground. The housekeeper and maids have no doubt what is causing the disturbance – Shadowbrooks is haunted. Clara is determined to find out what is going on in the house, what it is that worries the villagers. As the country heads towards a war that will change everything, Clara becomes immersed in this Gothic house of secrets.

I love a creepy Gothic tale, especially one that is focused upon a large decaying and unloved country house. There are so many closed doors, creaky floors and dark, forbidden passageways, rumours of ghosts – we have all of that and more in House of Glass. By contrast, the world outside Shadowbrook is enjoying a fine summer, although the fact that it is 1914 casts a shadow over even the sunniest days. There is a sense that for many, there will be no more summers. The setting is enticing. The fact that it’s set in the beautiful Cotswolds, which is my own part of the world, made me enjoy it even more.

Clara is a fascinating and unusual heroine. She has what we would know as brittle bone disease. Just a touch can cause an agonising break. Her body is distorted by old and recent breaks, and vividly coloured with bruises. After years spent indoors as her poor bones grew and developed, she is now free to venture outside and this is the world that captivates her. She must always be careful but she is happiest when her fingers are immersed in soil, caring for plants. There is something very no-nonsense about Clara Waterfield. She wears her hair down and unpinned, she speaks bluntly, she has turned her back on religion, and she is a strong supporter of the movement to win female suffrage. Clara stands on the edge of a new world for women. She is ready to enter it.

There are other characters in House of Glass that I really enjoyed, especially Hollis the gardener and Kit the neighbouring landowner, but the novel’s heart belongs to Clara Waterfield. The story is told in Clara’s own words and Susan Fletcher brings her to life beautifully.

House of Glass is gorgeously written as Clara endeavours to make sense of this strange, potentially very frightening world around her. I especially enjoyed the first half of the novel during which time is spent evoking the world of Shadowbrook and its surroundings. There is such a mood of foreboding and menace, offset by the beauty of the weather and the garden. Dark and light contrast so well. I’m not so sure that I fell entirely for the way in which the plot developed in the latter stages of the book but my overriding impression of House of Glass is how beautifully its world and characters are portrayed. I loved the sense that a new modern world is on the horizon, on the other side of the horror that will be the Great War. There is a strong feeling of uncertainty and unhappiness due to the war but for Clara and women like her new possibilities and freedoms beckon while old attitudes to women, especially concerning female morality and their role in the workplace, may be about to start changing.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2018 (20 September) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Corset by Laura PurcellDorothea Truelove, a young and beautiful heiress, feels that she has little control over her own life, that she is in danger of just sitting around while her father arranges a marriage to a suitably grand personage she will be tied to for the rest of her life. She finds an escape in charitable work, particularly visiting women in prisons that she herself helps to fund. This also gives her the chance to practice her passion – phrenology. Dorothea believes that the disposition of a character to commit crimes can be seen in the shape of the perpetrator’s skull and that their moral improvement will be reflected in the skull’s changing shape. She now has another young woman on which to test her theories – the teenage seamstress Ruth Butterham, imprisoned and awaiting trial for murder.

Ruth couldn’t be any more different from Dorothea. Having begun her life in gentile poverty, tragic, terrible circumstances forced Ruth and her mother to the very depths of what they can survive. Ruth has much to feel bitter about but she also feels guilt – not because she murdered anyone but because she believes that she inadvertently killed with her needle and thread, that some supernatural power had turned every stitch into a weapon, driven by Ruth’s grief and fury.

The Corset tells the story of these two young women, one barely more than a child, in alternate sections as Ruth tells her life to Dorothea who then reflects on what she has learned and how this must affect her own beliefs and life. Ruth’s story challenges everything Dorothea believes, that crime can be explained rationally by the dimensions of a skull. There is little that is rational in what Ruth describes. Can she be believed? Can this murderous supernatural power really be true? But, whether it’s true or not, the brutality and cruelty that Ruth has suffered has much to teach Dorothea about the nature of evil and much of it is very much the work of real men and women.

Ruth’s tale is extraordinary and I was engrossed by it. Laura Purcell demonstrated her fine storytelling powers in The Silent Companions, a truly frightening and chilly ghost story. These are on show again although now the dark powers are much more ambiguous while the evil of man is thrown much more into the light. As a result, this isn’t so much a frightening story as a disturbing one. Ruth’s experiences are horrific and they are explored in detail from the very beginning. There is a shocking scene early on that I must admit was too much for me and it proved to be a stumbling block that I had to overcome. I’m glad that I did overcome it because the rest of the novel kept me in its grip. But this is undoubtedly a very dark tale for much of the time and Ruth’s words, as she describes what has happened, are powerfully descriptive.

Ruth forms the heart of the novel and it’s her sections which I enjoyed the most. Dorothea did little to win me over at the beginning, not least because of her dubious preoccupation with phrenology. She is also privileged and aware that she is. Money is important to her, as is her status. And, although she fancies herself in love with a lowly policeman, one can’t help wondering if that is all a childlike romantic dream. But as her story progresses and she becomes more self-aware, as well as more aware of the horror that society is inflicting on its poorest members, I warmed to her a little more. And Dorothea’s story does develop in a quite surprising if possibly not entirely unexpected way. But the Ruth sections are superb.

The mood of the novel, its menace and evil force, loom so large over the novel, making it such an appropriate read during these long dark evenings. This is the perfect time of year for a Gothic novel and The Corset hits the spot so well. I love Laura Purcell’s writing as well as her eye for historical detail. The Corset isn’t fixed to a particular time, it’s set in a past in which evil flourishes. There’s a kind of dark fairy tale feel to it, an unreal world in which the relationship between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters can take on a frightening, shadowy quality. Dorothea’s surname of Truelove contributes to the symbolism as she worries before the looming possibility of an evil stepmother. There are demons and angels in this novel, whether or not the supernatural haunts Ruth’s stitches.

Other review
The Silent Companions

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Tinder Press | 2018, Pb 2019 | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Story Keeper by Anna MazzolaIt is 1857 and Audrey Hart has left her father’s house in London to return to the place of her birth, the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Audrey has a deep fascination for this beautiful and remote place, it calls to her and it feels like home. She has found the perfect position. She will assist Miss Buchanan, the sister of Lord Buchanan, the lord of the manor, in her project to gather together the island’s folklore. Miss Buchanan isn’t able to travel around Skye herself and so that will be Audrey’s job – she must win the confidence of the islanders so that they will share with her their stories. It won’t be easy because some of these stories are as brutal and cruel as the conditions in which these near-destitute islanders live. For this is the time of the Clearances, when whole communities were cast out by their landowners. Many left for Canada but those who remain are barely hanging on.

When Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach, it is the start of a nightmare as the crofters reveal that it has happened before. Audrey is determined to discover the truth about the fate of these young women who, the islanders insist, were carried off by spirits in the guise of birds. And Audrey finds it increasingly hard to shake of the shadow of her past.

Anna Mazzola is such a fine writer, gifted in bringing the awful darkness that underpinned so much of 19th-century society into the light. In the marvellous The Unseeing, the author’s attention was on London during the 1830s, especially the hellhole that was Newgate Prison, and the unkind fate that poor women in particular could face. In The Story Keeper we are taken to the Scottish islands and an entirely different type of landscape, one that is relatively empty (or has been emptied), where life is influenced by the elements, by the surrounding stormy seas, by the dramatic scenery – and by the spirits that are believed to inhabit them. It isn’t surprising that folklore should play such a significant role in such a place and Anna Mazzola weaves these stories and themes through her Gothic tale.

It’s a compelling story and Audrey is at its heart. She occupies a strange position. She is both an insider (as she spent her childhood on Skye) but to most she is an outsider, a foreigner, an English person. Audrey bridges two worlds and so she is well placed to comment on both. The other characters are perceived as she sees them. Many fascinate her while some frighten her and others elude her. But so many have stories to tell about their lives and island.

Skye is described so vividly. The beauty of it contrasts with its bleakness. Audrey spends much of her time walking great distances over such rough ground. The reader might almost be there with her. But we can be under no false pretences – the life these islanders face is hard and unjust. We are made to understand the cruelty of the Clearances. We also witness cruelty by the crofters as they seek to appease the spirits, sometimes in the worst of ways.

But there are other injustices here, too, and not all of them on Skye. As Audrey’s past catches up with her we learn something of what it must have been like for a woman such as Audrey in this judgemental, oppressive and predatory male society.

I love Gothic reads, especially at this time of year, and The Story Keeper is perfect. It’s moody and creepy, steeped in atmosphere and dark mysteries. And yet reality is shown to be every bit as menacing and sinister on Skye as the fairies, demons and bird spirits that torment and tease its people.

Other review
The Unseeing