“You make it sound like I’m on my way to Castle Dracula,” says Simon Christie, the narrator of Mathew West’s debut novel The House of Foosteps, after arriving in the remote village of Cobsfoot during a funeral procession and taking refuge in the nearest tavern where he asks for directions to Thistlecrook House – “a strange place, where the master takes dark, wild moods”. It’s 1923 and Simon has been sent by his auction house to evaluate a collection of rare artworks owned by the Mordrake family – and as he enters Thistlecrook House for the first time and makes the acquaintance of the reclusive, secretive Victor Mordrake, it was Dracula that continued to come to mind.
As I read on, I was reminded of other classic Gothic novels and ghost stories and each chapter seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Who is Amy, the beautiful young woman who sits curled up in a chair in the library every evening, begging Simon not to mention her presence to anyone else in the house? What really happened to Victor’s wife, said to have drowned in a frozen lake on the estate? What causes the dark shadows Simon can see under his bedroom door every night? And why does Victor, a vegetarian who can’t even bear having dead flowers in the house, have a whole collection of paintings depicting violent and macabre biblical scenes?
The answers to some of the novel’s many mysteries are revealed gradually as the story unfolds. Others are still unanswered at the end, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about what exactly was going on at Thistlecrook House. I do sometimes enjoy an ambiguous ending, but in this case I was disappointed that we weren’t given more clarity; I had been so intrigued by some of the strange happenings and really wanted to be given a proper explanation for them! However, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – and until I reached that unsatisfactory ending, I had been going to say that it was one of my favourite reads of the year so far.
The novel has a wonderfully dark and sinister atmosphere and despite being set in the 1920s, the remote location – a rural village in the far north of England, close to the Scottish border – creates the feeling that the story could be taking place in a much earlier period. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Simon’s actions and choices, I was always completely absorbed in his story, wondering who could and could not be trusted and watching the boundaries blur between reality and fantasy. If you’ve enjoyed books like The Woman in Black or The Haunting of Hill House I would recommend giving The House of Footsteps a go.
This is book 8/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.