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Posts Tagged ‘gothic fiction’

Sarah Perry follows up her fabulous 2016 novel The Essex Serpent with a lush literary Gothic, Melmoth (Custom House/HarperCollins, digital galley), which thrills in a more haunting and somber manner. In 2016, middle-aged British translator Helen Franklin leads an austere life in Prague, apparently to atone for an undisclosed incident in her past. But then her friend Karel disappears after having given her a strange, confessional manuscript whose stories are tied together by the spectral figure of Melmoth. The latter is a creature out of folklore and myth, doomed to wander the world in solitude as she witnesses acts of betrayal throughout history. She appears to those lonely souls consumed by guilt and complicity who have given into despair, and then bids them follow her. She is so lonely. Why, then, is she watching Helen? Or is it just Helen’s fevered imagination, inspired by the manuscripts’s chilling stories, perhaps her own suppressed guilt? Helen’s tale is full of portents like chattering jackdaws, but it’s what she — and the reader — witness in the manuscript that imprints on the memory: crimes of war, suffering and exile. “Look!” is Perry’s imperative throughout. Witness the heartache but also the hope of forgiveness. Given Perry’s way with words, it’s hard to look away.

 

Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is a clever and chilling novel of marriage, grief, obsession and Something Mysterious. American college professor Charles Hayden and his wife Erin take up residence at the secluded English estate that was once home of the Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow, author of a strange, fanciful book, “In the Night Wood.” The recent death of their young daughter Lissa haunts both Charles and Erin. She has given up her law career and numbs her grief with pills and drink, while Charles tries to escape his by researching Hollow’s tragic life. At different times, both glimpse a sinister horned man in the encroaching woods who figured in Hollow’s book. Further research and a series of coincidences has Charles believing that there is fact in the fiction of the pagan god Herne the Hunter. A little girl from the village has disappeared in the wood; her body has not been found. Bailey is adept at building a menacing atmosphere, although numerous literary allusions tend to overload his prose and sap the magic.

Witches, vampires and demons intermingle with mere mortals in Deborah Harkness’ popular All Souls Trilogy, which began with A Discovery of Witches (now a British TV series). With Time’s Convert (Viking Penguin, digital galley), Harkness returns to that world, bringing back many familiar characters, including witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew de Clermont, now married and parents of young twins. But the main characters are Matthew’s son Marcus Whitmore, who became a vampire while a field doctor in the American Revolution, and 23-year-old human Phoebe Taylor, who is about to become a vampire in Paris and marry Marcus. Harkness moves back and forth between centuries and exotic locales to chronicle the mental and physical struggles the pair undergo separately to satisfy the demands of tradition. Readers familiar with Harkness’s previous works will appreciate the further adventures of her characters and the elaboration on customs. The twins Becca and Philip are already showing signs of having inherited their parents’ magical talents. Philip, in fact, has a new play pal — a griffin called Apollo.

With Dracul (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), Dacre Stoker, a descendant of Dracula creator Bram Stoker, teams with writer J.D. Barker to come up with a prequel to the classic vampire novel, and Bram himself is a main character. Readers are introduced to him as a terrified 21-year-old in 1868, waiting alone in a tower at night. As Something lurks outside the locked door, Bram writes of his family’s history in Ireland, primarily his own sickly childhood. He was miraculously saved from death by his nursemaid Ellen Crone, who then disappeared. Some years later, Bram’s sister Matilda reports from Paris that she has seen Ellen, and so begins a quest leading to the revelation that Ellen is a Dearg-Due, a bloodsucking creature of Irish folklore but subject to a more powerful master. (I’m not giving the story away — readers will be aware that Ellen is some sort of vampire from the get-go). Dracul is too over-the-top to provide the genuine chills of the original Dracula, but it’s an entertaining tale nonetheless.

 

An English country house. A missing diamond. A sepia photograph. A star-crossed romance. A children’s story. A plucky orphan. A disappearance. A drowning. A ghost. . . The ghost plays a major role in Kate Morton’s new saga, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria Books, review copy), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The review hasn’t been published yet, but as soon as it does, I’ll post it on Facebook and Goodreads and provide a link here. Happy Halloween!

 

 

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splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well. ┬áBut when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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