Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…
Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.
* * * * *
Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.
The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.
I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.
A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Well, during my two-week break (did you miss me? You better have…), I’ve been reading up a storm, most of it horror or Gothic or otherwise packed with spookifulliness. So you will need to take safety precautions before visiting my blog over the next couple of weeks – it would be awful if your eyes started from their spheres and your hair stood on end like quills upon the Fretful Porpentine.
(Poor porpy – he keeps looking at his hibernation box longingly, but I’ve told him he’s got a long way to go yet…)
My advice is – take precautionary chocolate at least three times daily for the next month. This can be in the form of truffles, hot chocolate or fudge cake – the choice is yours. But keep some 80% plain chocolate aside for emergency top-ups as required.
To start the ball rolling (is it a ball? Or is it in fact the head of the headless ghost??), I thought I’d join in with the Classic Club’s…
The Gothic Book Tag
1. Which classic book story has scared you the most?
Truthfully I rarely find books can maintain scariness for more than odd moments – I think short stories are much more effective. So I’m going with The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs – a story that sends chills down my spine every time I think of it. If you want to be terrified this Hallowe’en, here’s a link…
2. Scariest moment in a book?
That would be the moment in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, when Eleanor realises the hand she has been clutching for comfort doesn’t belong to whom she thought it did…
“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”
3. Classic villain that you love to hate?
Sauron. There are so many great villains in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, in fact – Denethor and Saruman are up there amongst my most hated too, but Sauron wins because he’s not really in the book in person – he simply broods over it like a malignant dark cloud of supernatural terror…
4. Creepiest setting in a book story?
The island in The Willows by Algernon Blackwood – from the moment those willows clapped their little hands I developed a total horror of the place…
Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.
5. Best scary cover ever?
6. Book you’re too scared to read?
Nope! Can’t think of one! There are loads I won’t read because the subject matter sounds too gory or graphic, but that’s not a matter of fear, simply of good taste… 😉😎
7. Spookiest creature in a book story?
Thrawn Janet – if you can cope with the Scots language in Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story, then this tale of a woman who has become the victim in the fight between good and evil and may now be the Devil’s pawn is wonderfully chilling. The image of her tramp-trampin’ and croonin’ lives with me…
Syne she turned round, an’ shawed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an’ it was borne in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an’ this was a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin’ in the cla’es, croonin’ to hersel’; and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face.
8. Classic book story that haunts you to this day?
The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier – the imagery of the tree as a possible reincarnation of the unpleasant main character’s dead wife is nightmarish…
Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.
9. Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?
Meg’s heroic exploit in Tam o’Shanter – Robert Burns plays it mainly for laughs in his classic ghostly poem, but there’s some wonderful horror imagery in there too, and I love that the brave horse Meg/Maggie wins the day, though making a great sacrifice as she does…
For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest, And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle; But little wist she Maggie’s mettle! Ae spring brought off her master hale, But left behind her ain grey tail: The carlin claught her by the rump, And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
10. Classic book story you really, really disliked?
Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe. I suspect Poe must have been having toothache on the day he wrote this horrible little story…
The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!
11. Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?
I’m not going to name the character because that would be a major spoiler, but I will say the death at the end of Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance in her The Hound of Death collection has lingered in the scaredycat portion of my mind for the best part of half a century now, and shows no signs of going away…
The curtains of the alcove seemed to have been pulled back a little, the medium’s figure was just visible through the opening, her head fallen forward on her breast. Suddenly Madame Exe drew in her breath sharply. A ribbon-like stream of mist was issuing from the medium’s mouth. It condensed and began gradually to assume a shape, the shape of a little child.
12. List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.
13. Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.
….“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost. ….They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. ….Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. ….“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more. ….“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”
I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.
There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.
Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.
But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…
The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!
The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.
The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.
The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.
In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.
It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…
The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.
Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror! – The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.
The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.
The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…
J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.
The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!
The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.
The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.
The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!
As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)
I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.