Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…
😀 😀 😀 😀
Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.
The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?
I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.
The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.
The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?
Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.
After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.