Tag Archives: Horror

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood

Jo Fletcher Books | 2019 (10 October) | 295p | Review copy | Buy the book

Mistletoe by Alison LittlewoodLeah Hamilton and her husband had a plan to escape the city and buy a farmhouse in Yorkshire. Their little boy would thrive in such a place. And Maitland Farm seemed perfect! Leah’s maiden name is Maitland, her family came from this area. It is quite possible that her ancestors lived there. But then, so quickly, Leah’s world turned upside down. She lost her family. In her grief she hastily bought Maitland Farm and now, at Christmas, her first family-less, she has moved in, bringing with her only the bare essentials. The farm is in decay. It’s unlikely anything will ever grow in its fields again. The house is without heat, the plaster falling from the walls, with hardly any furniture, and the snow is falling thick and heavy. And Leah notices something in the snow – snow has been scraped into snowballs and later a snow angel appears by her doorstep. But there are no footsteps, no tracks. The snow angel should have been left by her son but Leah feels the presence of somebody else, someone who wants to play with her, who is reaching out.

Mistletoe is a truly enchanting, frightening and gorgeous ghost story. The beautiful hardback cover, the pages with drawings of mistletoe, suggest the story will be special, the sort of book you can immerse yourself in during the long and dark evenings, and they are right. I love ghost stories, especially at this time of year, and Mistletoe is an extremely good one. The elegant prose is a pleasure to read. It’s easy to be drawn into it, especially if you read it by lamplight as I did, and Leah Hamilton is an extremely likeable and appealing main character. My heart ached for her. I loved how she was vulnerable but also strong, coping with a world no longer kind to her. She’s susceptible to whatever it is that haunts her farmhouse – it’s almost as if it were waiting for her arrival – but she’s not easy to frighten. Whatever it is, she wants to befriend it. But nothing is quite what it seems.

This is a ghost story but it is also a timeslip novel, something that doesn’t always work. It works very well here indeed. The past and the present merge lightly. It’s not laboured. I loved the portrayal of the farmhouse, and its residents, in the past. But of course this is also a ghost story and that means something very bad happened in the past, something that won’t let go, and it’s that which fills this wonderful novel with atmosphere, darkness and mystery. I was engrossed.

I read Mistletoe in one sitting. I don’t do that very often but it’s such a bewitching book that it wasn’t hard to do. I enjoyed Leah’s developing friendship with her neighbours and their natural suspicion of this new and isolated stranger. It’s a beautifully written, tender and deeply atmospheric and chilly ghost story and timeslip novel. Mysterious and sad, disturbing and enchanting – it’s the perfect read for these longer nights.

The Secret of Cold Hill by Peter James

Macmillan | 2019 (3 October) | 328p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Secret of Cold Hill by Peter JamesThe old Cold Hill House has been demolished, its tragic history consigned to the past. A new housing development of high-value modern homes, packed to the roof with state of the art gadgets, is being built and the first houses are now complete. Maurice and Claudette Penze-Weedell are the first to move in. In their fifties, they’re ready to prepare for retirement. This estate, mostly a construction site, is a lonely place and so they’re delighted when another couple moves in across the street – Jason and Emily Danes. Jason is an up and coming artist while Emily runs a successful catering business. This is their dream home and Jason in particular is inspired by it.

But it’s not long at all before both couples start to feel that they’re not alone in their new homes. Strange noises and smells are the very least of it. The local villagers in the pub don’t help matters with their stories about the past of Cold Hill. And that’s when Jason hears the disturbing rumour that nobody has ever left Cold Hill House and nobody who has lived there has survived beyond the age of 40. Jason is 39 years old.

I am such a fan of tales of ghosts and haunted houses and The House on Cold Hill is one of my favourites of recent years. I found it genuinely frightening and I was so pleased to hear that, four years on, a sequel was on the way: The Secret of Cold Hill. I was able to buy this a week before its publication date and started it straight away and gobbled it up in two sittings, reading it very late into the night by lamplight. I loved it. I think it’s every bit as good as its predecessor. It’s just as frightening and it’s just as impossible to put down.

The Secret of Cold Hill is a ghost story pure and simple, which is just what I wanted. And these are not ghosts who like to hang back and the spooky scares don’t let up from start to finish. But, despite the real sense of dread that overhangs events, this is not a dark novel. The Penze-Weedells are hysterical! These neighbours from hell really made me chuckle. As did the estate agent. It’s a great blend of horror and comedy and I can see it working well as a film. Of course, the first novel was turned into a successful play.

The Secret of Cold Hill is such an entertaining read. It’s scary without being terrifying, while providing laughs. It’s also smart and polished, as you’d expect from Peter James and I really, really hope that there will be more ghost stories from him in the future.

Other reviews
You Are Dead (Roy Grace 11)
Love You Dead (Roy Grace 12)
Dead If You Don’t (Roy Grace 14)
Dead at First Sight (Roy Grace 15)
The House on Cold Hill
Absolute Proof

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E. Harrow

Orbit | 2019 (12 September) | 384p | Bought copy | Buy the book

In the early years of the 20th century the young girl January Scaller lives in a mansion filled with a collector’s curiosities. Parentless, or so it is suspected, she is raised by the wealthy Mr Locke as his ward. But really January feels herself to be part of his collection. With her dark skin and exotic heritage, she is a prized specimen to him and to his scientific society. They almost expect to have a savage in their midst but January is a source of constant surprise and wonder to them. And so she is kept in her gilded cage.

But there comes a day when January finds a strange book in one of the mansion’s odder rooms. It is called ‘The Ten Thousand Doors: Being a Comparative Study of Passages, Portals and Entryways in World Mythology’. Its author is Yule Ian Scholar and it was written in the City of Nin in the year 6908. This peculiar book should puzzle January but instead in it she finds confirmation of something she has already discovered – that there are doors to be found, strange doors, which open into other worlds and January has the power to not only open these special doors but also to open any door. She holds the key to her freedom, if only she can find the right door to open.

I have heard so many wonderful things about The Ten Thousand Doors of January and I couldn’t wait to read it for myself. I’m not generally a reader of fantasy but there’s something about this book that really appealed to me (quite apart from its stunning cover and beautiful writing) – it feels like a mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with an Edwardian girl opening doors into worlds of other possibilities. But not just any Edwardian girl, but one who is vulnerable, regarded as different and exotic, without parental care, virtually a prisoner, in real danger of being considered mad. She is also enchanting.

This is a beautiful novel, beautifully written. The gorgeous cover hints at wonders beneath and it delivers. The book moves between January’s world and the chapters of the book she has discovered. At the beginning it all seems mysterious but the chapters soon seem to make sense to January and through them she is empowered. The descriptions of the doors and the other worlds are stunning and so inviting. You must discover them for yourself.

The novel transcends time and genre as we and January, as well as the author of the strange book, undergo a quest. It is also a love story and it’s a lovely one, painfully sad at times. But this is also a horror novel – a tale of good versus evil. It’s chilling and frightening. What January and her faithful dog Bad must endure is terrifying.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a novel full of ideas and richly layered. It is deeply symbolic and nothing is more symbolic than the door. Each brings with it so many possibilities and openings, although a door can also bring closure and imprisonment. January views these doors in a multitude of ways and it’s a privilege and joy to see them, and the life beyond, through her eyes. To step through one of these doors one must be brave and January is very brave indeed.

January is an outstanding creation. I adored her. So much of the novel is told with her voice and it is dedicated to her. This is January’s journey and, although there are monsters to be encountered along the way, there are also angels. With no doubt at all, this extraordinary novel, Alix E Harrow’s debut, is a book of the year for me and no doubt for many others who have had the pleasure of stepping inside its pages.

The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason

Zaffre | 2019 (5 September) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wayward Girls by Amanda MasonIt is the summer of 1976 and the hot sun scorches the land. The Corvino family are settling into their new home, Iron Sike Farm, in a remote and rural part of Yorkshire. All is quiet at first until the noises begin. The two girls, Loo and Bee, hear it first. Their nights and then their days are disturbed by banging behind the walls, the breeze of breath on their faces, the sudden appearance of bruises on their arms, shaped like pinching fingers. The farm attracts the attention of the local policeman and journalist and then others come – a professor and his assistant – drawn by a need to explain the inexplicable or fail in the attempt.

Years later, in the present day, Loo (now Lucy) returns to the village. Her mother is in a care home where she sees a girl standing outside her window at night, a ghost from the past. Hunters of the paranormal have returned to Iron Sike Farm, desperate for Lucy to help them discover the truth about what happened all those years ago. They sense that Lucy holds the key. And so it might not be a surprise, however much it shocks, when disturbances return to Iron Sike Farm. The past will not stay dead.

I love to read frightening tales, especially those that have a haunted house at its heart. Sadly, they rarely scare me, but The Wayward Girls, on more than one occasion, managed to do just that. It is a very creepy tale indeed, perfect for late night reading. It has all of the appeal of a ghost story. There is also something of Poltergeist about it. Iron Sike Farm is a frightening place indeed. It is irresistible.

But The Wayward Girls is also character-driven and it’s Loo and Bee who hold our attention, although we are also caught up in the lives of the investigators who visit this farm and must deal with what they find, both in the past and in the present. Lucy holds the book together, linking the chapters set in the past with those set in the present. There is a strong sense that she’s been traumatised, that she’s holding something back. We want to get to know her but how much of what happened can she explain?

The paranormal investigators bring with them their own relationships and interactions. They also have links with the past and I loved watching it all come together.

I don’t want to say too much about how these elements all pull together but I must stress that the The Wayward Girls is an atmospheric treat, creating a dark, forbidding place – albeit a family home – where there really are strange noises in the night. I really enjoyed the ways in which the story develops. There are surprises and shocks. I found I accepted it all. That’s largely, I think, because of the marvellous atmospheric mood of chills that the author so successfully evokes. I also enjoyed the movement through the years, including the changing relationship between Lucy and her mother.

I read The Wayward Girls at night by lamplight and I can certainly recommend that you do the same. Frightening ghost stories or tales of haunted houses come along all too infrequently and this one did not disappoint – strange noises, objects moving, seances, creepy voices, there’s all that and more. It haunts the reader. It frightens. It is also extremely difficult to put down. Everything I want from a ghost story, this book gives. That, I think, says it all.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Solaris | 2019 (11 July) | 800p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Wanderers by Chuck WendigOn 3 June, in the small rural town of Maker’s Bell in Pennsylvania, fifteen-year-old Nessie gets out of bed, leaves her home and starts to walk. Shana soon tracks her little sister down but nothing she does can wake Nessie up. Then their father joins them. If they try and restrain Nessie she becomes agitated and dangerously, frighteningly distressed but still she doesn’t wake. Nessie is the first of the sleepwalkers, soon she is joined by others. They stop for nothing – they don’t rest, they don’t eat, they just walk. They are the Flock, watched over by their worried friends and loved ones, the Shepherds, who walk alongside them – a growing community on the move. But where are they going? And why?

Benji Ray is just one of the scientists and doctors trying to find out the answers. He used to work for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), fighting ebola, until he was fired. But now he has been selected by Black Swan, an AI of sorts, developed by Benex-Voyager to help tackle disease by predicting its behaviour; to watch new diseases hop from species to species in a series of events that Black Swan can foresee. And it wants Benji.

Others, too, are drawn to the walkers; some see them as angels, others as demons. Society can’t cope with the walkers. It can’t understand them. Order starts to collapse. It is a time for evil men to thrive, especially those who say they are servants of God. And all the time the Flock walks resolutely on, completely unaware of the growing danger around them.

Wanderers is one of those rare novels that becomes such a part of your life when you read it that you feel different for it. It’s 800 pages long and not a page is wasted. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it and I bought and started it on the day it was published. I was lucky to find a limited signed and numbered first edition! It’s a beautiful hardback, which is also physically so easy to read – each page feels like it’s been given room to breathe. I loved it very much. I looked forward to reading it in every free moment I had and I was so sorry to finish it.

There is so much to Wanderers. It contains so many lives and their stories. Chuck Wendig is to be applauded for the sheer quality of the writing, for the complex, multi-layered plot, and for the range of characters that we meet and spend time with. Comparisons have been made to The Stand, and there are similarities but, personally, I think Wanderers is the better book. And that’s saying something because The Stand is one of my favourite books. As too now is Wanderers.

Wanderers is a sophisticated blend of genres, including horror and science fiction. It is also a literary, character-driven journey across America. It’s also an apocalyptic tale of disaster. We see people at their worst and at their best. Dark themes are explored – one scene in particular is pretty shocking. But what I take from it is the sheer wonder of its storytelling and the love I feel for so many of its characters. We see examples of different kinds of families, of loners (how I loved Marcy and Pete), the innocent and the guilty.

Wanderers has a fantastic premise that it more than lives up to from start to finish. There’s a timeliness about its story and its warning, politically, socially and environmentally. The nature of the book’s horror evolves through the novel. It changes and is genuinely frightening.

What drives it on, though, is the fantastic mystery at its heart. Where are the walkers going? What will happen when they get there? On so many levels Wanderers succeeds. It’s a significant novel. But it’s also thrilling, horrifying, emotional, engrossing and is an absolute joy to read.

Other review

The Possession by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2019 (25 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Possession by Michael RutgerNolan Moore hosts The Anomaly Files, a YouTube show that explores unsolved mysteries and allows Nolan to flounce around in a large, gaping white shirt under the scornful, sneering gaze of his cynical producer and crew. Time has passed since their last adventure, recorded in The Anomaly, and Nolan is ready for more. Although this time they’ll stick above ground and try not to die.

They arrive in the remote, small town of Birchlake in northern California to investigate the mysterious low walls that spiral their way around the town and its woodland. Noone knows who built them or why. The producer, Ken, thinks this is all rather dull, but the chances of getting killed do seem significantly reduced from their previous case. A low wall hardly seems dangerous, And then they learn about the missing teenage girl. Strange noises soon follow. Then comes the fear.

I loved The Anomaly and I was very keen to return to Nolan and his colleagues. Nolan is a personable, likeable man, interested in the strangest of things, full of endless useless facts, and he is very funny, not always intentionally. Certainly his colleagues think he’s funny, and not necessarily in a good way. But I love them all, perhaps all the more because of their griping, moaning and arguing. We get to know more about Nolan here, too, thanks to the appearance of his journalist ex-wife.

I love to be scared when I read horror and The Possession definitely gave me the heebie jeebies. I’m not sure it’s as scary as The Anomaly and the setting isn’t as terrifying as that horrible cave, but it’s nevertheless steeped in atmosphere and mist.

Once again, this is a very well-written, witty novel with glittering dialogue. There are plenty of smiles along the way to go with the thrills and the loud bumps in the night and so I gobbled up the pages. The highlight for me is most definitely Nolan Moore. He is a fantastic creation. I can’t wait to see what mystery he tackles next. But I do know I’m glad I’m not going with him. He’s a man who attracts ghouls and monsters like noone else. If only more people watched his YouTube channel…

Other review
The Anomaly

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Head of Zeus | 2019 | 359p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wakenhyrst PBIt 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.

Other reviews
Dark Matter
Thin Air

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.

Wakenhyrst blog tour banner

The Taking of Annie Thorne by C.J. Tudor

Michael Joseph | 2019 (21 February) | 346p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Taking of Annie Thorne by CJ TudorJoe Thorne has returned to the Nottinghamshire village of Arnhill years after he left it. He has an interview at the local school which he wishes to join as a teacher. His references are impeccable. He would be the perfect choice. Indeed, the Head is pleased to give him the job. But Joe has history with this school, just as he does with the village. This was where he grew up. He knows the parents of many of the children he’ll be teaching. The same behaviour can be seen. Personalities recur through the generations. It’s almost as if the past is repeating itself.

Years ago, Joe’s little sister Annie went missing. The whole village searched. Two days later she turned up again but she wasn’t the same. She wasn’t Joe’s Annie. She terrified him. And now the same thing has happened to another child. Joe has come back to make this end.

Last year’s debut novel by The Chalk Man was such a memorable, creepy and menacing read, combining mystery with horror, a winning combination in my eyes. This is now followed by another stand alone novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne, which builds on the atmosphere of what came more and, in my opinion, the result is even more successful. Once more we have the fright associated with children who in some way have strayed from what is right, even what is real. It’s almost classic Stephen King nightmare territory and you can see why he’s such a fan of C.J. Tudor’s books. As King says, if you like his books, then you’ll like this. He is right.

Joe Thorne is our narrator and he’s most certainly as unreliable as you’d expect. But it’s easy to warm to him, especially as the true horror of what happened all those years ago emerges. It all happens bit by bit. We know that Joe has arrived in Arnhill with an agenda so we’re on our guard from the outset but I love the way that so much of the story is revealed through wonderful character portraits. As Joe gets to know the children in his class, he’s reminded of their parents and this is such an effective way of introducing flashbacks to a past that Joe thought he’d escaped.

Little here can be trusted. People lie or they deny the past. But even the rules of reality can’t be relied upon. This is horror after all. But it’s almost more psychological than anything else. The powers of a child’s imagination fuels this novel but sometimes the monster might be real and it haunts them still.

The setting of Arnhill is so well created. It’s a mining community that has lost its reason for being. The mine has closed. More than that, the mine has been eradicated. There seems so little reason to stay and yet some of the children that Joe knew all those years ago seem unable to leave. What ties these people to this unhappy place?

The Taking of Annie Thorne is a wonderfully chilling tale of a village haunted by its horrible past. The atmosphere is one of menace and evil, an evil that is accompanied by such a rank and festering stench. I love this kind of horror. In settings such as this, with characters like these, it’s almost as if this horror could exist. It feels real and believable. This is a compelling novel to read, particularly, I think, by lamplight, late into the night.

Other review
The Chalk Man

Severed by Peter Laws

Allison and Busby | 2019 (24 January) | 380p | Review copy | Buy the book

Severed by Peter LawsWhen teenager Micah takes an axe to his father, a vicar, in front of his horrified congregation in church, Matt Hunter is called in to help DS Jill Bowland find out why the boy should have committed such a terrible crime. Micah’s final words to his father had been in Aramaic, there is an element of ritual about the attack, and there are rumours that Micah had been involved with a mysterious group of devil worshippers. Matt, before he lost his faith, was a reverend. Matt now makes his living as a professor exploring the sociology of religion. He knows better than most how complicated man’s relationship to God is. He’s seen it all, or so he thinks, and some of it isn’t entirely explicable.

Micah isn’t the only child to be caught up in this cult. Ever is a ten-year-old boy and he carries the weight of their world on his shoulders. Matt must confront this world one terrifying, stormy, bloody night.

Severed is the third novel in Peter Laws’ series featuring Professor Matt Hunter. These are books that always go to the top of my reading mountain, partly, I think, because of their enticing mix of crime and horror. Matt is an expert in religion and so the cases he advises on always have a touch of the unknowable about them – they depict a battle between good and evil. One suspects that demons may well exist in these shadows while angels have fled.

The action takes place over just a couple of days and this certainly adds to the intensity as Matt finds himself caught up in something that at first he didn’t recognise. The novel begins with humour – Peter Laws always knows how to make me laugh in his books and I laughed out loud with this one. There’s such absurdity and nonsense and it’s wonderful. There’s such love between Matt and his wife and daughters. They are the light, their world is humorous and caring, but over the course of these two days, they will be immersed in blackness.

Severed is especially sinister and menacing. I found it truly frightening at times. There is a hint of horror about it and that’s frightening in itself but, even without that, the cult’s beliefs are terrifying and the damage being done to the children is horrendous. The murders are brutal and shocking. There was one section I wasn’t able to read, it was too graphic for me. But I can see why the evil is presented like this. It can’t be allowed to hide. But there were times when I had to look away.

The characters here are brilliantly created, whether they’re good or evil. We only have two days but they are developed so fully within this short period of time. Matt as ever is a fantastic character. He has seen some dreadful things in his time, they haunt him, but he deals with it by loving his family. I liked that. The darkness is mostly without, not within, for Matt. As for the baddies here, they are truly nasty! Although one’s heart weeps for Ever.

Severed is dark but it is enthralling and once again demonstrates why Peter Laws is an author to follow. His books are thrilling and action-packed but they’re also clever and interesting, with an unusual perspective. They affirm the joy of life, despite the horrors that can lie in ambush, and this is most memorably displayed here in a chase involving a certain giant duck. You do not want to miss that!

Other reviews

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