Review of Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver

At her scariest, Michelle Paver is about the most frightening contemporary English ghost story writer out there. Dark Matter presents the ultimate horror of being alone in the long frozen polar night. Thin Air, set in the Himalayas, didn’t quite work for me, but I may return it. With Wakenhyrst, Paver reverts to a more domestic setting, East Anglia, shortly before the Great War. Owing especially to M. R. James and more recent contributions by Susan Hill, the fen country is probably the spookiest region of England, though Dartmoor and Northumbria are keen competitors. A lonely manor on the Broads is home to the fourteen-year old Maud Sterne. Her father Edmund Sterne is a figure straight out of James, though his sensual appetites would not have featured in the stories of the original master. A keen amateur antiquary, he died in a lunatic asylum. He had devoted his scholarship to editing the story of a late Mediaeval mystic, Alice Pyett. (She’s loosely based on Margery Kempe, though postponed to the next century.) Edmund is a tyrant, who uses his daughter as an amanuensis, and has a guilty secret from his own childhood. He also has a horror of eels, who figure prominently in the story.

Most enthusiasts for supernatural fiction should love Wakenhyrst. The pudding may be over-egged, but it is certainly nourishing. I’d feared I’d find the serpentine characteristics of eels off-putting, but I found their expressions quizzically endearing. But as they are an endangered species, I’ll not be venturing into the fens with a glave. Paver subtly depicts class differences and conflicts, especially between Maud and the servant girl Ivy (who is also Edmund’s mistress), Jubal the fen dwelling outcast, and Clem the strapping young servant boy who kindles both Ivy’s and Maud’s passions. The antiquarian and religious background details, like the Life of Saint Guthlac and the ‘Doom’) wouldn’t quite survive scrutiny by a real mediaevalist such as James (or even a fake one like me) but they were close enough. (I loved Edmund’s summarising his amatory adventures in Latin phrases.)

 

 

After finishing, I’m still not persuaded that the traditional English ghost story can work at the length of a full-scale novel. The other James’s The Turn of the Screw seems maximum before the reader’s credulity stretches too far. Artistically, Wakenhyrst is a little too derivative a blend of different traditional elements of gothic and horror fiction to succeed as a five-star original. But as a sequence of courses it will definitely satisfy the connoisseur’s taste, especially for eel pie.

Review of The Auguries, by F. G. Cottam

 

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Since the publication of The House of Lost Souls in 2008, F. G. Cottam has established a place in the front rank of writers of English supernatural fiction. But though the mayhem is on a hyperbolic scale, I believe The Auguries to be the first to feature what is essentially a comic plot. Imagine a mixture of Good Omens,The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Frankenstein. In the sixteenth century, a cabal of adepts led by a German alchemist Gunter Keller, were brought to London to compile an epitome of magic revealingly entitled the Almanac of Forbidden Wisdom, a project initiated by a nobleman, Edmund Fleury. Actually this was a plot to eliminate diabolical magic and magicians, the creators were tracked down and met suitably grisly fates at the hands of witch finders and inquisitors.

The book survived, to be found in France during the Second World War by a British commando, where it falls three generations later into the hands of his great grand daughter Dawn Jackson. She is a slightly autistic fourteen-year-old with a talent for languages and code breaking, and soon signs of the End Times – plagues, fires, floods, turn London into a cataclysmic nightmare. Dawn is fascinated as well by the ultimate object of occult science, to bring the dead to life, beginning with her pet terrapin Freddy (functioning without a head), her brother Peter the altar boy, and her grandfather, who develops an insatiable appetite for neighbourhood cats. There is a lot of gross humour on the cannibalistic proclivities of the revived dead.

Besides the sixteenth-century characters, and the mischief-making Dawn, we have Juliet Harrington, an academic historian, who is empowered by a delegation of the Great and the Good (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Home Secretary, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) to find and neutralise the almanac. (I very much doubt that Cottam intended the total chaos engulfing Britain as a satirical allegory on contemporary politics, but I indeed found easy parallels.) Juliet requires the assistance of a linguist and paleographer who turns out to have both the appropriate special forces background and chemistry (as opposed to alchemy, surely!) I’ll not reveal whether they succeed in averting the ultimate apocalypse.

My scholarly conscience obliges me to reveal that the flavour of the sixteenth-century documents struck me as off, even if we grant that they are supposed to be translations from Latin into modern colloquial English. And the English of the period wasn’t “Middle English” – it was Early Modern. (I just returned from West Virginia, where folks still talk like that.) It is true, as Cottam has his characters notice, that our distinction between “magic” and “science” did not exist in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that what we call “science” was just one form of magic, one that actually turned out to work.

Though not perfectly executed to scholarly standards, The Auguries is a splendid romp with buckets of ghoulish fun. I’d be delighted if Dawn returned in a sequel. That girl has possibilities. 

Review of Between the Lies, by Michelle Adams

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Between the Lies belongs to a familiar category of psychological suspense. A young woman, finds herself isolated and totally dependent upon someone, usually male, whom she cannot trust. Sometimes, as in S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, amnesia plays an additional role. Here Chloe finds herself on a country estate near Brighton, being cared for by her father, a psychiatrist, along with her mother, a younger sister, and a gardener. She is told that she was in a car smash where her young son Joshua was killed along with her husband. But Chloe soon begins to suspect that her parents are lying to her, and when the police interview her, that the physical evidence at the scene of the wreck fails to match the story that Chloe had been run off the road by a dangerous driver. The accused maintains that his car was stolen and he wasn’t at the scene. Even stranger – the police inform her that her spouse Andrew is very much alive. Gradually her father reveals that he has not been entirely truthful with her, claiming that the husband was an alcoholic whom Chloe had left, and that he had been deceiving her for her own good. He says he has been treating her with something called ‘reconsolidation therapy’ and giving her ‘propranodol’. I have taken propranolol for hypertension (till I found that abstaining from alcohol and losing weight works even better) but what he is doing struck me as unethical as all get-out. Surprisingly, according to Doctor Google, ’reconsolidation therapy’ is an accepted treatment for PTSD.  Hard to imagine that forgetting – as opposed to facing up to and conquering – fearful events is an effective therapy, but even if it is, lying and deception surely isn’t. (There are rare cases when lying to a patient is the right thing to do – demential patients are unable to enter our world, so if we want to befriend them, we have to go into theirs.)

By midpoint in this genre, the main character starts to recover her freedom and to investigate what is really going on, often with the aid of another male character such as a detective or a physician, as I Before I Go to Sleep or Rosamund Lupton’s Sister. in this case it’s a younger colleague of Chloe’s father named Guy. Then we begin to wonder if this character is going to prove a white knight, or a villain in disguise.

I’d rank Between the Lies as a solid four star. The situation held me from the beginning. I truly hated Chloe’s father long before we find out whether he is a bad hat or just a manipulative weakling. Some of Chloe’s choices, both after the accident and in the revealed backstory were stupid (having an affair with someone who will try to kill you is always a sign of poor judgement) but in her circumstances she deserves forgiveness. I have a low tolerance for this species of fiction – seeing women abused either physically or psychologically repels me (I cannot reread Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner, though it is a great story), but Between the Lies falls into the safe zone. Readers of psychological thrillers should enjoy it.

I am grateful to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a gratis review advance e-copy.

Review of The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts

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If you like delicious meals made from off-the-shelf ingredients, you should enjoy Alice Clark-Platts’ The Flower Girls. What happens after underage murderers are released has been the basis of numerous thrillers: my favourites of all are Alex Marwood’sThe Wicked Girlsand Elizabeth Little’sDear Daughter. Here two decades ago two sisters, Laurel and Primrose (hence the title), aged 10 and 6, were charged with the torture killing of the little 2-year-old Kirstie. Laurel was tried and convicted, and at age 18 moved to an adult women’s prison, where she is still incarcerated. Primrose was too young to be held legally responsible. (That too was the basis of Andrew Taylor’s absolutely brilliant The Office of the Dead.) Primrose now has a new identity as Hazel, but whilst staying at a seaside hotel in Dorset with her fiancé and his daughter Evie, a little girl goes missing. Of course, we are not surprised at who becomes the number one suspect when Hazel’s real identity is found out by the police and the press.

Clark-Platts succeeds in giving a new twist to a familiar cast of characters: a police detective who most reluctantly becomes sympathetic to Hazel, a hack writer who sees in Hazel a bestseller, sister Laurel, embittered and still seeking parole from prison, represented by a broken-down solicitor who is her uncle, Kristie’s aunt, an avenging fury who wants to keep Laurel in prison for life (there is a similar blogger in Dear Daughter), and Hazel herself, grappling with the suppressed memories of what actually happened and her stormy relationship with her sister. (There is also a marvellously bitchy literary agent who all of us self-published authors will love to hate.)

Artistically it is not a perfect book. The present story of the missing child and the backstory run awkwardly and the twist that combines them will at least be speculatively foreseen by the experienced mystery story buff though hidden by a couple of really smelly red herrings. (Another Madeleine McCann knock-off, but an important clue will spring off the page in the reader’s face.) But the vividness of the principal characters will make this story impossible to put down. As Alice Clark-Platts is herself a human-rights lawyer, questions of justice, responsibility, and forgiveness arise, without any easy or obvious answers. (Personally, I think life without possibility of parole is worse than a death sentence, but given a criminal justice system where virtually all prosecutions are malicious, capital punishment is unconscionable as well. Yet the murder of a child is scarcely material for restorative justice.) Like The Wicked Girls, The Flower Girlsfeatures an example (two really) of generous self-sacrifice, but here the final twist indicates the beneficiaries scarcely deserved it. So I award four stars for literary quality, but five for moral and spiritual value. For those of us fascinated by conflicts between moral and legal responsibility, this is a splendid read.

The Girls of 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib

The Girls of The Girls of 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib belongs on the shelf I labelled Bell-Jars, from the most famous novel in the genre. The main character is usually a girl or young woman confined to a treatment facility, suffering from addiction or some other mental disorder, suicidal ideation, self-harm, or anorexia nervosa. Here the narrator, Anna Roux, is a victim of the last. She is a 26 year-old French woman, who has followed her husband Mathias to America, Saint Louis, Missouri. She is a former ballerina, and although no longer working as a dancer, continues to lose weight. As in cheer-leading, gymnastics, and modeling, anorexia is an occupational hazard for dancers. (Ballet also rivals American Profession Football for serious injuries and having to perform in spite of them.) Her husband becomes so alarmed at her condition that he compels Anna to commit herself to the faculty whose address is the title of the book.

Like alcohol and drug addiction, anorexia often represents an extreme form of misplaced spirituality. (It’s not simply a figure of speech that they feature “spirits,” “getting high” and “losing weight” and “fasting”—in the middle ages someone like Anna might have been canonized. That seems to me one of the short-comings of the treatment plan Anna encounters—the main emphasis is simply on getting her to up her caloric intake, without attention to her spiritual condition and to the experiences in her life that led to obsession with body image and self-denial. (An past unhappy affair with a director who constantly criticized Anna’s weight features in her backstory.) Being allowed to visit church on Sunday provides some solace though she is not a believer.

Having recently read Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, I was struck by the unexpected resemblance between the treatment facility and a concentration or prisoner of war camp. Both feature obsession with food and risk of starvation; the difference is that in the former the inmates starve themselves and try to hide food to avoid having to eat it. In both they experience the sudden disappearance through death of other girls they’ve become fond of. And of course anorexics look like inmates of Belsen or a Japanese POW camp.

This is a gripping story and the reader sympathizes with Anna both when she resists treatment and when she finally appears potentially on the path to recovery. The reader of the Audible edition, Saskia Maarleveld, was superb, especially with the principal character’s French pronunciations; I loved “metro” and “crepe” especially. The American voices, especially that of the CNA called “Direct Care,” were rendered in realistically flat twangy midwestern dialect that provided an ugly contest to Anna’s sophisticated voice.

I cannot quite award five stars, though. Anna is a marvelous character, but the others, especially that of her husband Mathias, who relationship is crucial to her recovery, remain vague. He is supposed to be physicist, though we learn nothing about his career or why he is in Saint Louis. Some of the scenes with the other girls are very moving, but they too were shadowy for me. But this is was an excellent story with an engaging narrator.

Review of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix

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Though a generation older than the protagonists of this book, I loved the evocation of 1980s pop culture—like The Breakfast Club meets Teenage Exocist. There actually was a great Satanist panic in that time, which wasn’t funny – peoples’ lives were ruined – here played out in a snobby Charleston school without very much to be snobby about. Abby is a scholarship girl whose ne’er-do-well father has 200 lawnmowers in front of their house (is that upscale from a Buick on breeze blocks?) to repair for $20 each when he gets round to it; her mother is a hard-working but short-tempered nurse. All her classmates skip Abby’s tenth birthday party except Gretchen, and they become BFFs through fair and stormy weather. I am so envious a guy could write such a lovely account of a friendship.

Albemarle Academy was well up (or down?) on my list of horrible schools. The teachers communicate to their students in threats and cheap sarcasm and the headmaster is guilty of the grossest favoritism towards wealthy parents like Gretchen’s. Even worse (from my point of view) was the school chaplain, who though an Episcopal priest thinks like a teen counselor, so is utterly clueless faced with a diabolical possession. But even worse, conveys private information about one student to another, totally violating the ethics of chaplaincy. Appropriately, a fundamentalist weightlifter proves more helpful, not because one brand of religion is better than another, but because real spirituality is required, however bizarre and hilariously off-the-wall the situation. (That the form of prayer that actually works should be so pop-culturally secular proves something about Abby and Gretchen’s true spirituality, which is derived from their mutual relationship.) There’s also a dog that comes to an end reminiscent of a famous National Lampoon cover and a VW Rabbit (what Golfs were labelled then in America) called the Dust Bunny.

Funny, moving, nostalgic, sometimes infuriating and maddening (especially towards the adults who won’t listen to Abby or worse) are only a few epithets describing my feelings listening. It’s good to have the text too, for its visual effects, especially the teen-magazine quizzes. (“Is Your Best Friend Competing with You?”). This is a light-weight book, though we have moments we really fear for Abby and Gretchen. Think of it as a wonderful chocolate soufflé.

Review of Foe, by Iain Reid

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How many people know that the real name of “canola” oil is “rapeseed” oil? That was one of the lesser queries I was left wondering about with Iain Reid’s Foe. Another was whether the rhinoceros beetle has any kind of occult significant. Or why Terrance’s parents didn’t know how to spell the name of the Roman dramatist. As a space station places some role in the story, is there an allusion to “Terra” our home planet? The main character is named Junior and for just a moment as we are offered the final revelation I thought I’d spotted a significance, but no, that had always been his name. But who is he younger than? No one mentioned in the book. His wife is named Henrietta; Junior refers to her as “Hen” and he keeps chickens—which is apparently illegal because poultry is now confined to multistory battery farms—this clue leads nowhere. So far as I can divine, Reid has his own private mythology that only esoteric disciples are privy to, or he simply did not bother to finish his intended magnum opus and left us readers with a skeleton plot full of false leads.

As for the basis of the plot, I realized about halfway in that I had seen this movie already, more than forty years ago though I’m not sure whether it should be regarded as plagiarism or simply a standard science-fictional trope. Reid’s previous book I’m Thinking of Ending Things totally creeped (crept? Rule seems to be that back-formations are weak verbs) me out, and I was eager to enjoy this one and most disappointed. Apparently the author decided to change genres from horror to sci-fi with a dystopian ecologic message that became lost in transmission, leaving the yellow fields of rapeseed (bio-fuel we presume) and the rhinoceros beetles with nothing to do. Junior himself is a total bore (though once we know the secret, that is appropriate) who works in a feed mill. Supposedly he has won a lottery that will allow him to spend two-years on a space station. A mentor named Terrance moves into Junior and Henrietta’s farmhouse to prep them for his absence, which requires attaching all sorts of monitoring devices to him. Terrance is a brilliant satiric creation, given to such clichés as “It’s all good.” If you’ve ever made the mistake of letting a salesman into your house and then finding you can’t get rid of him, you’ll know the type. Which was my principal problem with this book—it was like listening to the kind of vacuum cleaner salesman who empties the bag all over your living room rug to demonstrate the suction power of the machine. And when he doesn’t make the sale, leaves you with the mess.

Reid can do so much better. Let’s have another horror story next time.