Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!

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I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!

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1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My first book for this year’s RIP challenge is Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella, Carmilla. First published in 1872, it is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which came more than twenty years later, and is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction (although John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Fragment of a Novel were written earlier still).

My previous experience with Le Fanu has been limited to his Victorian Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, and one of his short stories, Laura Silver Bell, both of which I read ten years ago. I’ve always intended to read more of his work, so when I saw Carmilla available through NetGalley (a new Deluxe Edition is being published by Pushkin Press this week) it seemed the perfect opportunity.

The story is narrated by nineteen-year-old Laura, who lives in a lonely castle in Styria, Austria, with only her father and governesses for company. Laura longs for a friend her own age and it seems she may get her wish when a young woman is injured in a carriage accident near the castle. Her name is Carmilla and her mother, who is desperate to continue on her journey, asks Laura’s father to take care of her daughter until she returns. Laura is delighted to have Carmilla staying with them, but also feels uneasy, because she has seen Carmilla before – in a dream that has haunted her since her childhood.

As this is a very short book, if I say much more I will be giving away the entire plot – and anyway, as I’ve already said that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what Carmilla really is and how the rest of the story will unfold. For the modern day reader there are no big surprises here, although I’m sure that at the time when it was published, as one of the first of its kind, it would have felt much more original and shocking. However, there are still plenty of things that make this book an entertaining and worthwhile read.

First of all, it’s interesting to read Carmilla while keeping in mind its place in history and its influence on later vampire fiction – there are some very obvious similarities with Dracula and Anne Rice has cited it as an inspiration for her Vampire Chronicles. It can also be read as an early example of a lesbian romance; although the constraints of 19th century fiction prevent Le Fanu from being too explicit, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is clearly based upon physical attraction and we learn that Carmilla always chooses young women as her prey. Finally, with its sinister atmosphere, remote castle setting and other elements of classic Gothic literature, it’s the perfect choice if you’re taking part in the RIP event or just looking for something dark and spooky to read as we head towards Halloween!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 1 read for R.I.P XVI

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.

Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?

Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.

Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!

What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.

There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I keep coming across books that are said to have been inspired by or similar to Henry James’ 1898 classic The Turn of the ScrewFlorence and Giles by John Harding, This House is Haunted by John Boyne and The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, to name a few – so it seemed ridiculous that I still hadn’t read the book itself. I decided to put it on my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge, and have finally read it, appropriately just in time for Halloween.

The Turn of the Screw is presented as a ghost story told to a group of friends sitting round the fire at Christmas. It tells of two children left in the care of an uncle after the deaths of their parents. Not wanting to be bothered by his little niece and nephew, the uncle employs a young woman as their governess, giving her strict instructions not to contact him with any complaints or questions and to deal with any problems herself. The governess, who remains unnamed throughout the story, arrives at the family estate, Bly, and gets to know Flora, the younger of her two charges. Flora’s brother, Miles, is away at school but shortly after the governess’s arrival, he returns home, having been expelled. The governess can’t understand this, as Miles, like his sister, appears to be so charming and angelic.

When the governess begins to see two mysterious figures around the grounds of the estate, however, she begins to wonder whether the children are really as innocent as they seem. Learning from the housekeeper that the two figures she has seen closely resemble two previous Bly employees – Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, both of whom are now dead – the governess becomes convinced that she is seeing ghosts. But are the ghosts a figment of her imagination or do they really exist? Are Flora and Miles, as she strongly suspects, secretly aware of them too? And if so, what hold do the ghosts have over the children?

I do wish I’d read this book before now; it was a quick, short read and it would undoubtedly have been better to have read it before reading all those other novels it inspired! Already being familiar with the general outline of the plot before I began did spoil things a little bit, although I still found that some parts of the story were new to me. I didn’t find it particularly scary, which in a way I was pleased about as I live alone and don’t like to be terrified – but I was also slightly disappointed because surely a good ghost story should be scary. Anyway, it was certainly unsettling, mainly because of the ambiguity. Because of the governess’s unreliability as a narrator, we have to decide for ourselves whether the ghosts are real or whether they are not – and there are other questions that are never fully answered either, such as the true nature of the children’s relationship with Jessel and Quint or what exactly Miles said and did to get expelled from school.

This is the second book I’ve read by Henry James and although I found it more entertaining than my first (The Europeans), I don’t think I’m ever going to be a fan of his writing style which I find very dry and difficult to engage with. I’m glad I’ve read this one at last and I will try more of his books, but I’m not expecting him to become a favourite author.

This is book #7 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver is an author I’ve been meaning to try for years, since I noticed all the hype surrounding her 2010 novel Dark Matter. For some reason I never got round to reading that book or any of her others, but I put her new one, Wakenhyrst, on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it.

Wakenhyrst begins in the 1960s with the elderly Maud Stearne coming under pressure from journalists to tell the story of a murder committed by her father many years earlier. Maud is the only person who knows why Edmund Stearne left the house one day in 1913, armed with an ice-pick and a geological hammer, and killed the first person he came across ‘in the most bizarre and horrible way’. Edmund spent the rest of his life in an asylum and Maud stayed on alone in the family home – the old manor house, Wake’s End, in Suffolk – never speaking about the tragedy to anyone. But now the house needs urgent repairs and Maud can’t afford to pay for them. It seems that she will have to sell her story after all.

Maud then gives her account of the events leading up to the murder, beginning by describing her lonely childhood, growing up at Wake’s End on the edge of Guthlaf’s Fen, ‘the oldest, deepest, rottenest fen ever’, with a father who is cold and domineering and a mother who is constantly pregnant (although most of the pregnancies result in stillbirths or miscarriages). Edmund, her father, is a historian and enlists Maud’s help in transcribing a book believed to be written by Alice Pyett, a medieval mystic. The book that really interests Maud, however, is her father’s secret notebook in which he records his innermost thoughts and fears. Maud already knows that Edmund is not a nice person, but even she is shocked by some of the things she reads in his journal. And when he becomes obsessed with a medieval painting of the Last Judgement, known as ‘the Doom’, she worries about her father’s mental state. Are there really evil forces at work in the fens or are they all a product of Edmund Stearne’s imagination?

I enjoyed Wakenhyrst, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I think because I’d seen Dark Matter and Paver’s other recent novel, Thin Air, described as creepy ghost stories, I assumed this book would be the same, but I didn’t find it very scary at all – although I’m not necessarily complaining about that! There are plenty of Gothic elements, and the setting – a remote fenland community steeped in folklore and superstition – is certainly atmospheric, but it is not really a horror story in the usual sense. The horror in this book is more of the psychological kind, in the portrayal of a man’s descent into madness and obsession. Edmund’s notebook entries, which are interspersed throughout Maud’s narrative, become more and more disturbing and outlandish as his fears of the Doom and of demons in the fens spiral out of control.

I can’t really say that I liked Maud, but my sympathies were with her, particularly after her mother dies – weakened by too many pregnancies, or ‘groanings’ as the young Maud thinks of them (because that’s how each one ends). Maud’s life from this point becomes very isolated and unhappy, trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of Wake’s End as her father, never the most pleasant of men to begin with, gradually loses his grip on reality. The only bright spots in her life are her love for her tame bird, Chatterpie, and her relationships with Clem, the under-gardener, and Jubal Rede, the ‘wild man’ who lives in the fen.

After a slow start, I found Wakenhyrst quite an entertaining novel and I do still want to try some of Michelle Paver’s other books. I’m sure I will get round to reading Dark Matter eventually and will be interested to see how it compares.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Having read Sarah Perry’s previous novel, The Essex Serpent, last year, I was looking forward to reading her new one, Melmoth. I read it in October, just before Halloween, and found it the perfect read for the time of year: dark, atmospheric and Gothic. It’s very different from The Essex Serpent, but with some similar ideas and themes.

At the centre of the novel is the legend of Melmoth the Witness, the woman who stood by Christ’s empty tomb and denied the Resurrection. As punishment for lying about what she had witnessed, she is condemned to wander the earth alone forever, dressed in black and with bare, bleeding feet, forced to bear witness instead to all of the cruelty and misery humans cause for one another. Desperate for some company in her exile, she appears to those who have lost hope and holds out her hand to them, urging them to join her in her wandering.

Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman who lives in Prague where she works as a translator, is fascinated by the tale of Melmoth. Her friend Karel, a Czech academic, has inherited a collection of papers which explore Melmoth’s story, and he passes these on to Helen. As she delves more deeply into the subject, she discovers more documents and journals giving different accounts of Melmoth from earlier times and from around the world. But the story of Melmoth could have a personal significance for Helen herself – because Helen is hiding a secret of her own, which could make her an ideal target for a mysterious woman in black.

Melmoth is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, partly because Prague is such a great setting which lends itself to strong, vivid descriptions, but I think Sarah Perry’s writing style also adds to the mood. Here is the opening paragraph in which we are introduced to Helen Franklin for the first time:

“Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust swept there by a broom; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St John of Nepomuk. Look! She is coming over the bridge, head bent down to the whitening cobblestones: Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair…”

The writing style and some of the devices the author uses, such as speaking directly to the reader, give it an almost timeless feel; although the main part of the novel is set in the modern day, there’s a sense that it could have taken place at any time in history – and of course, the Melmoth legend is a very old one. Through the stories-within-stories which emerge as we continue to read, we see how the influence of Melmoth has touched the lives of not just Helen Franklin, but many other characters throughout history, the most memorable being a boy who faces the horrors of the Holocaust. I enjoyed some of the stories while others interested me less and in the middle of the book I found my concentration wandering; the writing style, which works so well in other ways, creates a distance between the reader and the characters and I felt that I was watching them from afar rather than engaging with them as real people.

On the whole, I preferred The Essex Serpent, but I did love what this book had to say about forgiveness, atonement and loneliness. I’ve also been reminded of Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, which it might be interesting to read and compare with this one.

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

This is Katherine Clements’ third novel set in 17th century England, but it has a different feel from the previous two. Rather than being a straight historical novel like The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, The Coffin Path is a ghost story with a lonely rural setting and this time there is much less focus on the political and social events of the period.

It’s 1674 and there are signs that spring is on its way to the Yorkshire moors. The first lamb of the season is about to make its appearance, but it is a difficult birth and requires human assistance. Mercy Booth of Scarcross Hall, who farms the land and tends the sheep for her elderly father, helps to deliver the lamb into the world but its mother dies in the process – the first of several bad omens. Next, three ancient gold coins go missing from her father’s collection and reappear in unexpected places – and then Mercy begins to hear noises coming from a disused bedchamber upstairs.

Around this time, a stranger arrives looking for work. His name is Ellis Ferreby and although the local people are slow to trust him, he soon proves himself to be a good shepherd and a reliable worker. Ellis, however, is a man with secrets and it seems that he could have reasons of his own for coming to Scarcross Hall.

We slowly get to know both Mercy and Ellis as their stories alternate with each other throughout the novel. We hear what Mercy’s life has been like, growing up without a mother, with only her eccentric father, Bartram, and the servants for company – and we learn of her hopes for the future, which centre around the knowledge that one day, as her father’s only heir, she will inherit her beloved Scarcross Hall. As for Ellis, his background is shrouded in mystery and the truth about both his past and his purpose in being at Scarcross is only revealed later in the novel.

The 17th century is obviously a period which interests Katherine Clements and of which she has a lot of knowledge: The Crimson Ribbon was the story of a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell, while The Silvered Heart was about a highwaywoman in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Coffin Path is set just a few decades after those two books yet I felt that the story would have worked just as well if it had been set in almost any other period, either an earlier century or a later one. Although the effects of the recent Civil War do still linger in the lives of our characters, this only has any real significance towards the end of the book – otherwise, perhaps because Scarcross Hall is so isolated from the wider world, there is a general feeling of timelessness.

However, what the novel lacks in sense of time is made up for in sense of place. There are some wonderful descriptions of the moors surrounding Scarcross Hall, bringing to life this harsh but beautiful landscape. We also explore some of the old traditions and beliefs which survive in this remote part of England: the White Ladies is an ancient stone circle which the villagers associate with evil, while the Coffin Path of the title refers to the old track down which coffins would be carried from the moors to the church for burial. It’s no wonder that in a place like this, people like Ellis and Mercy are viewed with suspicion and distrust – Ellis because he is an outsider and Mercy because she is an independent, unconventional woman, still unmarried in her thirties and doing ‘a man’s work’ on the farm.

I enjoyed following the personal stories of both main characters and I liked the supernatural elements too: they were suitably eerie, but at the same time subtle enough to keep me wondering whether there really were ghosts involved or whether something else was happening. My only problem with the book (other than the fact that, like many novels these days, it is written in present tense) was that there were times when the plot seemed to be moving forward very slowly. It didn’t help that the first few chapters are devoted to describing, in great detail, the birth of a lamb; I would have preferred a stronger opening to pull me straight into the story.

Of the three books by Katherine Clements I have read, I think I liked both of the others better than this one, but it’s good to see that she has tried something slightly different here. What will she write next, I wonder?

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.