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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Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Horror in the Himalayas…

😀 😀 😀 😀

thin airIt’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…

After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.

The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.

I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

dark matterI dare you…

😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. Part scientific expedition, part adventure for the group of upper-class men who are arranging it, for Jack it is an escape and a possible way back into the scientific studies he had to abandon when his father died. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is billed as a ghost story, and like the best of those it’s totally amibiguous, not to mention totally terrifying! Is there a malevolent presence haunting Gruhuken, or is it all a product of Jack’s mind? Since the story is told through his journal, his is the only perspective we have, and we see his mind being affected by the vastness of this empty landscape and the ever-deepening darkness. And the loneliness. And the silence. And the ice beginning to freeze his only escape route – the sea…

husky

Did I mention it’s terrifying? There was actually one point late at night where I thought ‘Nope! Not reading that till the sun’s shining tomorrow!’ And yet, what happens? Very little – no gore-fest, no clanking chains or shrieks (except mine), no werewolves, vampires or zombies. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, distorted perspectives, and mysterious legends of barbarous cruelty. And all added to some fabulous descriptive writing that puts the reader right into this cold, dark, threatening landscape where the only contact with the outside world is through the fragile valves of Jack’s wireless, and where help would take days to arrive, if at all.

The depiction of Jack’s growing loneliness is superb. At first resentful of his companions’ effortless social superiority, he gradually begins a tentative friendship with Gus, the leader of the group – a friendship that borders on hero-worship. And it’s for Gus’ sake that he tries to keep the failing expedition alive. As a natural loner, he thinks he’ll be fine on his own, but soon learns the difference between being alone in the midst of the teeming city streets of London and the total solitude of his new surroundings. Well, maybe total solitude – or maybe not. (Cue spooky music.)

arctic night

Any regular visitor will know of my aversion to first person present tense narratives. I’ve explained in the past that the reason I usually hate these is because they are used when they’re not appropriate or else they are handled clumsily. This book is an example of how FPPT should be used – Paver handles both person and tense brilliantly, slipping in and out of present and past at exactly the right moments and never once allowing herself to be trapped into a particular tense when it doesn’t suit the narrative. As a result, this achieves its aim of reading like a genuine contemporaneous journal, and should be a compulsory text in all creative writing classes. But only ones that are held in daylight because – did I mention it’s terrifying?

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

There are lots of other things I’d love to praise but really this is one where every incident adds to the overall effect so I’ll restrict myself to saying cryptically – loved all the stuff about Jack and the huskies, and loved the way Paver used human contact to increase the effect of the all-pervading loneliness. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t – do!

I dare you…

* * * * *

Thanks yet again to Lady Fancifull whose brilliant review talked me into this one. (Though I’m deeply concerned that she tried to get me to read it on a dark winter night with the snow whirling and the wind rattling the windows. I thought she liked me…)

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 2 of my 20 Books of Summer

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