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.