A graveyard smash – two hauntingly good works.
“The night was very still…The church loomed, deep black against the charcoal sky…I glimpsed a dark shape slipping behind a headstone…In the fen behind the churchyard wall I heard the brittle rustle of dead reeds. The wind stirred the mist and I realised that what I’d glimpsed was no creature.”
Thrilling, isn’t it? Foggy fens, cagey creatures and dark secrets in a churchyard; surely the classic ingredients for a Gothic novel. This is the most chilling scene in Wakenhyrst, which also contains the following: the motherless daughter of a sadistic, handsome cad; a mysterious local outcast addicted to poppyseed tea, medieval manuscripts and the restoration of the Doom, an ancient and demonic painting.
Michelle Paver’s book is no pastiche, but a sincere and immersive piece of fiction that never swerves from its gothic intentions. It succeeds because of the way she draws us to her main character, Maud Stearne, whom we first meet in 1967 as an ancient recluse, still living in the house at Wake’s End where, in 1913, she witnessed the scenes which led to her father’s incarceration in Broadmoor. We are by her side as she uncovers the secret that has driven him to destruction ever since one hot summer’s day on the Mere. Her story is woven into a hauntingly memorable setting; a creaking, ivy-clad house surrounded by forbidding – and, for Maud, forbidden – fenland; a garden where the teenage Maud finds some earthly delights, and magpies, shaggy dogs and eels. Plenty of eels, and not all of them in the right place. Set in the years leading up to the Great War, it is laden with the ripe promise of coming-of-age beginnings and prophetically bad endings that readers of Le Grand Meaulnes or The Go-Between will recognise.
Flowing beneath it all is a significant sexual undercurrent. Not only the predictably bad behaviour of Edmund Stearne as he exercises his droit du seigneur, but Maud’s growing maturity, temptation and self-denial. Female passions, traumas and constraints are the true gothic essentials and Michelle Paver quietly infuses this book with them: the distortions, real or imagined, of female hysteria; the doctors who can prescribe sadistic cures or threaten the asylum for women who challenge men. Endless pregnancies and gory childbirth – and a direct line to medieval mystic and suspected witch Alice Pyett.
If you love to dive into a bit of gothic fiction and experience the gasping shocks, the chills and the ultimate warm glow of a novel you can’t put down, the vaporous world of Wakenhyrst is waiting for you.
Another graveyard provides the opening scene in Jess Kidd’s extraordinary Things in Jars. This time we are in the heart of London, 1863, and the chapel-yard contains a raven and a gargoyle – but also Bridie Devine, a small, round, eccentrically dressed Irish woman, smoking a pipe. She’s about to meet Ruby Doyle, the man who becomes her loyal companion on her search for a missing child. Ruby, lounging by a tombstone, is a tall, tattooed ex-wrestler. He’s also dead. It’s the first clue that this book is going to leap on to our imagination and whip it hard on a fantastical ride through the world of Victorian curiosities, collectors and charlatans. There’s more than a touch of Dickens in some of characters and settings – devious doctors, sneering curates, cobwebbed chandleries, and a haphazard windmill with a garden that abounds with orphans, washing and gritty long-tailed carrots – but there’s a modern sensibility, too. The people are swearier, sharper and more cynical. Bridie’s housemaid is the seven-foot tall Cora Butter whom she found manacled to a bear cage in a travelling circus. Cora fixes visitors with an unnerving glare and on fair weather days can be seen stropping her razor to shave the bristles on her chin. She doesn’t trust a man as far as she can throw him – which is surprisingly far.
This was a grim time of botched medical experiments and surgery as public spectacle, but at the centre is a lost child with a backstory swirled with the mystical waters of Irish folklore and unworldly webbed-fingered foundlings. Her presence is marked by crunched snail shells; she is followed by seagulls and can cause storms and floods, but she is a helpless child at the mercy of grasping collectors hell-bent on putting on the greatest freakshow of all.
A female Victorian detective is unusual, but Bridie is no mere device. Once a street urchin whose lack of squeamishness helped her to survive, she is kind to the vanished girl and sympathetic to her grieving mother. She also has to confront Gideon Eames, the man who tainted her childhood and who is the only person she fears.
The real treat is the quality of the writing and its pervasive poetic lilt. Take this description of a picture of a mermaid or merrow:
“On a rock she sits. Her tail, delicately scaled, dipped into a fine calm sea. She is fair, skin like carved marble, pearl-pale eyes, hair bright, she winds a strand of it around her finger.”
Things In Jars brings echoes of Wilkie Collins, Jeanette Winterson, and the animated film Song of the Sea, but it is in no way derivative. It is as fresh as the mermaid-inhabited waters of Bantry Bay.
The Top 10 Gothic reading list
The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
The Mysteries of Udolpho – Anne Radcliffe
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James