This House is Haunted by John Boyne

A lonely mansion, a young governess, two young children in white nightgowns, servants who seem to vanish into thin air, villagers who refuse to answer any questions, gusts of wind that blow up out of nowhere and disappear as suddenly as they came…

“You are not there, Father,” I cried. “I wake up at Gaudlin Hall, I spend most of my day there, I sleep there at night. And throughout it all there is but one thought running through my mind.”

“And that is?”

“This house is haunted.”

This House is Haunted This House is Haunted is a wonderful Victorian-style ghost story and a perfect October read.

It begins in London with a public reading by Charles Dickens, attended by young schoolteacher Eliza Caine and her invalid father, a big admirer of Dickens. As they walk home in the cold after the reading, her father’s health worsens and he dies shortly after, leaving Eliza blaming Dickens for his death. Alone in the world, Eliza decides to answer an advertisement in the newspaper and finds herself being offered the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk.

Arriving at the train station, she experiences what will be the first in a series of unexplained and increasingly sinister incidents when she feels a pair of ghostly hands try to push her under a moving train. Eliza survives this attack and continues to her destination where she meets her two young charges, twelve-year-old Isabella and eight-year-old Eustace Westerley, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. Isabella and Eustace appear to be alone in the house and won’t tell Eliza where their parents are or when she will be able to speak to them. As she slowly pieces together the truth about Gaudlin Hall and learns the fates of the previous governesses, Eliza begins to fear for her own life.

I loved this book. It reminded me of The Séance by John Harwood, though there were shades of lots of other novels too, from Jane Eyre to The Turn of the Screw. Dickens is another big influence; as well as the author himself appearing in the book’s opening scenes, the characters also have suitably Dickensian names, such as Mr Raisin the lawyer, who has a clerk called Mr Cratchett. I really liked the narrator, Eliza, and it was a pleasure to spend 300 pages in her company. The author has obviously made an effort to create an authentic Victorian narrative voice and it worked well, though I did notice a few inaccuracies and words that felt too modern.

Although this is a very atmospheric book, I didn’t find it a very scary one – it’s too predictable and the ghostly manifestations are a bit too ridiculous (the tone of the novel seemed to be somewhere between serious ghost story and parody). But this didn’t make the book any less enjoyable, entertaining and fun to read and once I got past the first few chapters I didn’t want to put it down.

I highly recommend This House is Haunted if you’re looking for something ghostly and Victorian to read as we approach Halloween – I enjoyed this much more than The Woman in Black!

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

Dragonwyck - Anya Seton Sorry for neglecting my blog recently…I’ve had a busy two weeks at work and haven’t had much time or enthusiasm for blogging. Luckily I have a week off now and will be able to catch up on telling you about all the books I’ve been reading, beginning with this one, Dragonwyck, which I read for the R.I.P challenge.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, having been a fan of Anya Seton’s for years and also being a lover of both historical fiction and gothic novels. Dragonwyck is a combination of both – it includes some typical gothic elements (mysterious deaths, a mansion with haunted rooms and an old servant who tells tales of ghosts and curses) but it also has a fascinating and thoroughly researched historical background.

One day in 1844 Abigail Wells, wife of a Connecticut farmer, receives a letter from her rich cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, offering to take one of her daughters into his home as a governess for his own young daughter, Katrine. Eighteen-year-old Miranda is the one who is chosen and she is thrilled to be given this opportunity to improve her situation in life. Nicholas is the Patroon (landowner) of a large estate called Dragonwyck in Hudson, New York, and after growing up on her parents’ farm the naïve and romantic Miranda is immediately captivated by the handsome Nicholas, his luxurious home and his aristocratic lifestyle.

Soon she becomes aware that she is falling in love with Nicholas and is sure he feels the same way – the only problem is, Nicholas is married. When tragedy strikes at Dragonwyck, Miranda’s life is transformed again, but this time she begins to uncover some of the house’s dark secrets and to learn the truth about her mysterious cousin Nicholas. As Anya Seton explains in her author’s note introducing the story: “All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations…”

As a gothic novel I didn’t find Dragonwyck particularly creepy – although it’s certainly a very dark book, with an oppressive, unsettling atmosphere. But the real attraction of this book for me was its wonderful historical setting that gave me some fascinating insights into areas of American history I hadn’t read about before. We learn about the Patroon system, for example, which began when landholders in the Dutch colony of New Netherland were given power over large areas of land, similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. This led to an uprising of the tenants known as the Anti-Rent War and this forms a large part of Dragonwyck’s historical backdrop. We also learn about the Astor Place Riot during William Charles Macready’s performance in Macbeth and about the steamboat captains who would race each other on the Hudson River with total disregard for the safety of their passengers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

There are also a few brief appearances by real historical figures, most notably Edgar Allan Poe, but these felt as if they had been woven naturally into the story rather than name-dropping for the sake of it (in fact, the Poe episode does have a significance to the plot which only gradually becomes apparent later in the story). The main focus though, is on the three main fictional characters – Miranda, Nicholas and the doctor, Jeff Turner – and you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of those three, because to attempt to explain why I liked or disliked each character would risk giving away too much of the story.

I did enjoy Dragonwyck but not as much as some of Anya Seton’s other novels (and I don’t think it really comes close to the brilliance of Jane Eyre or Rebecca, two books that it has been compared with). I do love reading ‘older’ historical fiction novels like this one though, as they seem to somehow have a completely different feel from modern ones. This book was published in 1944 and there’s a film too from 1946 with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. I haven’t seen it, so I’d be interested to know what it’s like and how faithful it is to the book.

As well as this book, I have now read Katherine (one of my favourite historical fiction novels), Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Devil Water. If there are any of her others that you think I should look out for, please let me know which ones!

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner My sister gave me a copy of this book saying it was one of the weirdest books she’d ever read and she thought I would love it. I’m not sure what that says about my reading tastes, but she was right anyway because I did love it!

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, was written by the Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg. I had never come across Hogg and his work until now and was interested to learn that he was a shepherd who taught himself to read and write and became a friend of Sir Walter Scott. This, his most famous novel, is part horror story, part murder mystery and part gothic fiction, but it also incorporates elements of religion, Scottish folklore, the supernatural and even some humour and satire.

Robert Wringhim, the ‘justified sinner’ of the title, is a young man who has been raised by his adoptive father, a Calvinist, to believe he is one of the chosen few, destined for a place in Heaven regardless of the sins he commits in life. One day he meets a mysterious stranger who calls himself Gil-Martin and who seems able to change his appearance at will. Wringhim allows the stranger to convince him that it’s his duty to “cut sinners off with the sword” and that he doesn’t need to worry about committing murder as in this case it’s the right thing to do and he is sure to be saved by God anyway. In his Private Memoirs and Confessions, he describes how he falls under the spell of the sinister Gil-Martin and how, when he begins to have doubts about his new friend, he starts to descend into madness and desperation.

Robert Wringhim’s Confession is presented as an authentic document that has been discovered under unusual circumstances a century later. It is introduced by a Narrative written by a fictitious editor which gives a supposedly factual account of Wringhim’s life and the crimes he is involved in. The Editor’s Narrative also forms the third and final section of the novel and attempts to explain how the Confession was found and what it might mean. But instead of helping to clarify the story, the Editor actually makes things more confusing and sometimes even contradicts what Wringhim has said. Neither narrative seems to be very reliable and at the end of the novel, we have to decide for ourselves what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether Gil-Martin is a product of Wringhim’s imagination or whether he is a real person or even the Devil.

This book kept me gripped from the first page, but it was quite a challenging story to read. There was a lot of Scottish dialect and while that’s not something I usually have a problem with, many of the words used here were unfamiliar to me and I was constantly turning to the glossary at the back of the book. There were also a large number of Biblical references on almost every page and again, I found that I kept needing to refer to the notes. It wasn’t completely essential to recognise or understand all of these references, but it was important to know how the various characters were interpreting them. Finally, there are no chapter breaks – the middle section, the Confession, forms one continuous chunk of over 100 pages, making it hard to find a place to stop reading.

However, it was definitely worth having to make a bit of extra effort; this is one of the most fascinating and original classics I’ve read and I can’t believe it isn’t better known. I thought it was much better than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is the book it reminded me of most. I’m also surprised that, as far as I’m aware, it has never been adapted for film or television. Some parts of the novel are very visual – the atmosphere of the dark wynds and closes of Edinburgh; the description of the rainbow seen by Robert Wringhim’s brother, George; and some of the scenes where Wringhim finds himself hounded and tormented by fiends and demons. I loved this book and am very grateful to my sister for recommending it!

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

Until recently I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer Louisa May Alcott was. Like many people I read Little Women and its sequels as a child – and Little Women is still one of my favourite books – but I never thought about exploring her other fiction until now. A Long Fatal Love Chase is a suspense novel, written in 1866 but never published in Alcott’s lifetime (it was eventually published in 1995). I didn’t even know Alcott had written books like this, so I’m glad I have now been enlightened!

Rosamond Vivian, eighteen years old at the beginning of the novel, lives with her cold-hearted grandfather in a mansion on a remote island. Bored and lonely, feeling unloved by her grandfather, Rosamond longs for some adventure in her life. When she loses her temper with the old man one day and tells him she would gladly sell her soul to Satan for a year of freedom, it seems that her wishes are about to come true.

That same day, Phillip Tempest arrives (during a storm, of course) to do some business with Rosamond’s grandfather. Tempest, who we are told resembles a painting of the demon Mephistopheles, is handsome, charming and surrounded by an aura of mystery. Rosamond is instantly attracted to him and soon Tempest sweeps her away with him on his yacht. But Rosamond’s happiness doesn’t last for long. When she makes some shocking discoveries about Tempest she decides to leave him…but it seems Tempest is not prepared to let her go.

The rest of the story is, as the title suggests, a long and fatal love chase in which Rosamond flees across France, Germany and Italy from chateau to convent to asylum with Tempest never far behind. The tension builds and builds; almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger as Rosamond finds herself in danger yet again. With Tempest growing more and more obsessed and increasingly devious in the methods he uses to track down her hiding places, will Rosamond ever be able to escape?

As you’ll be able to tell by now, A Long Fatal Love Chase is not like Little Women at all, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not expecting it to be (which I wasn’t). Just be aware of its sensational nature and be prepared for something over-the-top and melodramatic. There’s a lot of symbolism too and as well as the Mephistopheles reference I mentioned earlier there are many other allusions to mythology, art and literature, particularly Shakespeare – with a character whose name is Tempest, I suppose that’s not surprising!

If you have read Little Women and remember Jo writing her novels, it’s easy to imagine Jo sitting in her garret writing a story like this and persuading Meg, Beth and Amy to act out some of the scenes with her! It wasn’t the best book of this type that I’ve read, especially in comparison to the more complex sensation novels written during the same period by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood, but it was still exciting, entertaining and also quite daring for its time, with its themes of obsession and stalking. It has a lot in common with early gothic novels by authors such as Ann Radcliffe too, though with the advantages that this one is easier to read and Rosamond is a stronger character than the heroines of Radcliffe’s books.

Apart from Rosamond, the other characters in the novel are less well-developed and tend to represent either the good side of human nature (the priest who becomes Rosamond’s friend and confidant) or the bad (Tempest). From the moment he first appears in the novel, Tempest is such an obvious villain and there are so many hints and so much foreshadowing, that it’s easy for us, as the reader, to know that he is not to be trusted. Rosamond is a young, naïve girl (though not without a lot of courage and spirit) being taken advantage of by a ruthless and manipulative older man, and it takes her a lot longer than it takes the reader to discover that something is not right. But despite so much of the plot being predictable, some of the twists did still take me by surprise and the ending was not quite what I had expected either!

If you’ve enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart – although they were written almost 100 years apart I thought they had a very similar feel.

The Seance by John Harwood

When Constance Langton’s little sister Alma dies, she takes her grieving mother to a séance. She has her doubts as to whether it’s really possible to summon spirits, but she hopes it might offer her mother some comfort. Unfortunately though, Constance’s decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have foreseen. Alone in the world, Constance is contacted by solicitor John Montague and learns of an inheritance connecting her with Wraxford Hall, a crumbling manor house surrounded by gloomy woods. The dark secrets of the Hall’s sinister past are revealed to the reader through the narratives of Constance, Montague and another young woman, Eleanor Unwin, whose fate also becomes linked with the house. It’s not surprising that Constance is advised to “sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt if you will; but never live there…”

The Séance is a wonderfully atmospheric gothic mystery set in Victorian England. The book was published in 2008 but has everything you’d expect to find in a Victorian ghost story or sensation novel: a derelict mansion said to be haunted, bad weather (complete with thick fog, heavy rain, howling winds and dramatic thunderstorms), wills and inheritances, dangerous scientific experiments, mesmerism, spiritualism, mysterious disappearances, ghostly apparitions and family secrets. There’s even a haunted suit of armour! The story is told in the form of the various characters’ narratives, letters and journal entries – a style reminiscent of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, for example. I would be very surprised if Collins is not one of John Harwood’s influences, but there are shades of other Victorian gothic/sensation fiction writers too. Harwood’s writing is not as flowery and descriptive as a typical Victorian author but at the same time he perfectly captures the mood and tone of a piece of 19th century writing.

The plot does start to become very complicated – much more complicated than it needed to be, in my opinion – but it does keep the reader guessing and wondering what the next plot twist will be. The villain was very easy to identify though! The changing viewpoints were handled well, and the author chose the right points to end one character’s narrative and move onto the next – although there was such a long gap between Constance’s two narratives that by the time I came to the second one I’d almost forgotten about her. This made Constance feel slightly disconnected from the other two narrators and she didn’t seem such a vital part of the novel as Montague and Eleanor. I also thought the voices of the different narrators could have been more distinctive (this is an area where Wilkie Collins really excels but where so many other authors seem to have difficulties). But although the characters could have been stronger, the real heart of the novel is the house, Wraxford Hall, which is almost a character in itself.

About thirty yards from the house I stumbled over the remnant of a low stone wall, where I settled myself with my tablet and pencils. The air was still and cold; somewhere in the distance a fox barked, but no answering cry arose from the blackness opposite. Minute by minute, the clearing brightened; the Hall seemed to be inching its way upward out of darkness. As the moon rose higher, the proportions of the house appeared to alter until it loomed above me like a precipice. I reached down for my tablet and, as I straightened, saw a light spring up in the window immediately above the main entrance

The Séance is the second book I’ve read by John Harwood; the first was The Ghost Writer, which I read almost exactly a year ago. Of the two, I enjoyed The Ghost Writer more (I loved the ghost stories in that one) but both are very creepy, very gothic and perfect books to read at this time of year.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. But during the coach journey to her new home, Mary hears some disturbing things about Jamaica Inn and its landlord. Soon Mary makes her own shocking discoveries about Joss Merlyn’s activities and finds herself drawn into his villainous schemes while trying to protect her frightened, nervous Aunt Patience. And when Mary is befriended by two very different men – one of them her uncle’s horse thief brother, Jem Merlyn, and the other Francis Davey, the albino vicar of Altarnun – she must decide which, if either, she can trust.

This was actually a re-read for me, although it’s been so long since I first read it that all the details of the plot had completely faded from my mind. What I did remember was being disappointed. When I read it for the first time it was immediately after finishing Rebecca (which I loved – and which is still one of my favourite books ever) and Jamaica Inn just wasn’t as good. This was more than ten years ago though, so I recently decided to give it a second chance. And I did enjoy the book much more this time than I did the first time, maybe because now that I’ve read so many of du Maurier’s other novels it meant I could consider Jamaica Inn in the context of a wider body of work rather than solely in comparison with Rebecca.

Like many of du Maurier’s other books, this one is dark, gothic and atmospheric. Published in 1936 but set in the early 1800s, it has a lot of the traditional elements you would expect to find in a gothic novel (stormy weather, smugglers, locked rooms, shipwrecks, desolate moors, a remote, lonely inn). There are also some memorable characters – Mary herself is an intelligent and courageous heroine, and I know I said that I couldn’t remember much from my previous read, but I certainly hadn’t forgotten the character of her violent, brutal Uncle Joss!

So, Jamaica Inn is not one of my favourite du Maurier novels but not my least favourite either. It does not have the depth and complexity of Rebecca or some of her later novels, but then this one was written near the beginning of her career and is a good early example of her work. The plot is not particularly complicated and I found it quite predictable but du Maurier’s skill at creating tension and suspense meant that I still enjoyed reading it.

Classics Circuit: A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

A Sicilian Romance is a gothic novel first published more than two hundred years ago, in 1790. Set in the late sixteenth century, it’s the story of two sisters, Julia and Emilia, the daughters of the fifth marquis of Mazzini. After the death of the girls’ mother, the marquis marries again and as his second wife prefers to spend her time in Naples, he leaves his daughters living alone in his ancient castle in Sicily with only the servants for company. When their father returns to the island and informs Julia that he has arranged a marriage for her, she rebels against his choice of husband, putting her life in danger. Meanwhile several of the castle’s inhabitants report hearing strange noises and seeing mysterious lights shining in an abandoned part of the building. Is the castle haunted?

This is not the first Ann Radcliffe novel I’ve read; I had previously enjoyed both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, so when I saw that the theme of the latest Classics Circuit tour was the early gothic novel, I decided to try another Radcliffe book. This one was shorter and less satisfying than the other two I’ve read, but in a lot of ways it was very similar. All of her books are perfect examples of gothic literature and have everything you would expect from a gothic novel: An old castle with crumbling staircases and dark, dusty chambers, locked doors, family secrets, lonely monasteries, bandits, shipwrecks, dungeons and underground tunnels, thunder and lightning, and almost anything else you can think of.

I’ve found that reading early gothic novels requires a different approach to normal. You need to be prepared for lots of melodrama and it’s necessary to completely suspend disbelief because in reality nobody would ever find themselves in the situations Radcliffe’s characters find themselves in. I hope not anyway! The characters also tend not to be as well developed as you would expect in a more modern novel and are usually portrayed as either completely good or completely evil. A Sicilian Romance features two beautiful heroines, a brave, handsome nobleman, and a wicked stepmother, among other stereotypes. The storyline is predictable and relies heavily on coincidences, last-minute escapes and other typical plot devices found in this type of book. It’s almost impossible to take these books seriously, but if you can accept them for what they are, they can be fun to read.

I should also mention that there are some beautifully written descriptions of the Sicilian scenery (although there’s not as much descriptive writing as in The Mysteries of Udolpho, which made this book easier to read and much faster-paced). I enjoyed this book but I think The Italian is still my favourite Radcliffe novel.

Visit the Classics Circuit blog to discover more early gothic literature.