Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

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?

Michelle Paver

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.

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35 thoughts on “Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

  1. This sounds as much like a fascinating study of psychology as anything else, FictionFan. It sounds decidedly creepy, too, which adds to the atmosphere, I’m sure. And you’re right: the question of what people are capable of can be at least as unsettling as the question of supernatural elements. This does sound absorbing.

    • Yes, I definitely thought it was more about madness than demons, and that works fine for me! It took a while to get going, but she used the fenland setting and all the folklore very effectively. And it’s always good when an author tries something different rather than simply trying to replicate her previous successful novel. 😀

  2. I never read horror, but as it’s dealt with ambiguously in this, I’m surprisingly tempted.I also love Margery Kempe, although I suspect I’m in a minority – everyone else in my undergrad medieval tutorial group thought she was awful!

    • This one definitely falls more into Gothic suspense than true horror, I’d say, despite the demons. Ah, interesting! I was briefly tempted to add Margery Kempe to my TBR while reading the book, but I suspect I’d probably fall into the thinking it’s awful category. It’d be interesting to hear how effectively you thought she’d used it in this though, so I think you really have to read it… 😀

    • I thought Dark Matter was deliciously terrifying! This one is much more grounded in madness than the supernatural though, I thought, though I think it could be read either way. Of course, it was never clear in Dark Matter either just how sane the narrator was… 😱

    • I did enjoy this one and her last one, Thin Air, but I really thought Dark Matter was a brilliant book. It manages to be deliciously scary without being full of gore, unlike most modern horror. I actually had to stop reading it after dark because it spooked me so much… 😀 😱

  3. Not my cup of tea, so I’m safe for now. I don’t read horror — I like to sleep at night, and there’s enough real-life horror in our world as it is. Glad you found it an enjoyable read though.

  4. This sounds rather disturbing, yet intriguing. Horror is a genre I read sparingly, especially when it deals with the supernatural… but if I could interpret this as madness and cruelty, I might consider it at some point. (not sure what that says about me!) The slow start concerns me, but that might just be because I’m currently reading a book that is taking me forever, despite the fact it’s good.

    • I like older horror where it’s all done by suggestion rather than gorefests. And I think that’s why I like Paver so much – the horrors she writes about are all vague, and possibly madness rather than supernatural, which works much better for me. Yeah, slow starts seem to be happening too often recently – I’m stuck in one too at the moment, and am thinking I’ll abandon it if it doesn’t brighten up in the next few pages…

  5. I have a review copy of this too which I should be reading soon. It will be my first Michelle Paver book, so I’m glad you liked it even if it’s not her best. If I enjoy it I’ll have to go back and read Dark Matter!

    • You may well enjoy this even more than Dark Matter – it’s very strong on the historical fiction aspects, whereas Dark Matter was stronger on the spookiness. But both are very good reads in their own ways, and one of the things I like about her is that every book seems to be different…

  6. The two things which especially draw me to this story are your eventual absorption in the story and the Suffolk folkloric elements. I have mixed feelings over the fate of women misused in marriage – I do and don’t want to know more. Like you I would be more likely to relate to the disturbed psychology of the father than to evil influences. So this book does make it onto the list!

    • Yes, it took a while to get me totally involved but partly that’s because I too have mixed feelings about reading about women in these situations – I feel it can so easily be overdone, although I felt on the whole Paver kept it realistic. But I did love the folklore element, and she uses the fens very effectively to create a nicely threatening atmosphere. I hope you enjoy it! And I do recommend her earlier Dark Matter if you ever feel like being really spooked… 😀

      • Yes, I have read Dark Materials. I’m relatively unspookable (which has costs as well as benefits), but I was thoroughly taken up with the oppressive atmosphere and did ‘enjoy’ the story.

        • I usually am too with books or stories, though the occasional one gets through my defences, but films can terrify me! What I liked about that one was that it scared me without horrifying me, if you know what I mean. So much modern horror depends on gore for its effect, and I never find that nearly as scary as things glimpsed from the corner of the eye that might not be there… 😱

  7. I was quietly hoping that you wouldn’t like this one. It must have appeared on one of your tbr posts recently and I was tempted then. Now I’m hooked, though I’m not sure that I want to be! One for when the nights draw in again I think 🙂

  8. Michelle Paver was one of my daughter’s favourite authors so I we have a shelf of them but I never thought to read them myself – this does sound good though!

    • I think she only started writing for adults a few years ago, with Dark Matter. I haven’t read her YA stuff, but I’d quite like to – you should read them first and tell me if I’d like them… 😉

  9. You have definitely piqued my interest with you bestowing the best modern horror title on this author! The idea of being constantly pregnant is horrific enough however, that poor porr woman! Ugh that makes me cringe just thinking about it…

  10. I may have to limit my reading of your reviews. Books you like just add to my perpetually soaring list of TBRs while your writing style and humour are streets ahead of others. Sigh.

  11. I remember others loving DARK MATTER and I had noted it to read. However, my libraries around here only have Paver’s young adult books. I also remembered that I’ve read one of them – WOLF BROTHER – a number of years ago. A co-worker at the library encouraged me to read a bunch of young adult books and that was one of them. Don’t recall much about it, honestly. Anyway, I can get the audio of this one and the other two you mentioned at some point. Might do that. 🙂

    • Well, make sure you don’t listen to Dark Matter when it’s dark and you’re alone and the wind is whistling eerily round your house, making the branches of a tree tap, tap, tap on your window… 😱 I’d really like to try her YA stuff sometime just to see what it’s like, though I rarely enjoy YA books.

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