Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

Times past, times present, or times to come, were they not all one, if he had the power to make them so?

Part ghost story, part time-slip fantasy and part historical fiction, Margaret Irwin’s first novel from 1924, recently reissued with a pretty new cover, is a wonderful, dreamlike read.

Jan Challard is a young woman living in 1920s London and trying to find her place in the new society which has emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Life seems to be going well, but Jan feels restless: she is bored with her office job, bored with the nice, suitable young man who wants to marry her, and haunted by a face in a portrait – a Gentleman Unknown, who seems to be following her everywhere she goes.

In 1779, we meet another bored young woman: seventeen-year-old Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family with an estate in Berkshire. Juliana spends her days walking in the gardens of Chidleigh House and writing in her journal, while waiting for something more exciting to happen and remembering a line from her favourite childhood fairytale: “…still she sat and still she span, and still she wished for company”. Company does eventually arrive, but perhaps not in the way Juliana had expected.

First, following the death of Lord Chidleigh, Juliana’s eldest brother Lucian returns after a long absence to take up his father’s title and his inheritance. Stories of the wild, debauched lifestyle Lucian has been leading have reached the family and he receives a frosty welcome at Chidleigh House. Juliana is the only one who is happy to see him and as the brother and sister grow closer, something strange begins to happen: the centuries separating Juliana’s life from Jan’s seem to dissolve and merge. Jan can see Juliana and Juliana can see Jan, but which of them is the ghost and which of them is real?

This is a very short novel, but just the right length for the story – or stories – being told, and it really doesn’t need to be any longer. Jan’s story frames Juliana’s and is confined to a short section at the beginning of the book and another at the end; Margaret Irwin appears to be more comfortable writing about the eighteenth century (a period she obviously knew well and knew how to bring to life) and most of the novel concentrates on Juliana. I couldn’t help comparing this to most of the dual time-period books being written today, where I usually find that far too much time is spent on a weaker present day narrative, leaving me impatient to get back to the more interesting historical one. The structure of Still She Wished for Company is much more effective, in my opinion, as I could become fully immersed in Juliana’s story without being pulled out of it after every few chapters.

The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read. There are no obvious anachronisms, no dialogue that feels jarringly wrong for the time period…it was just a pleasure to read! The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!

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

The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull – #RIPXV

I’ve enjoyed several of Richard Hull’s novels over the last few years – particularly The Murder of My Aunt and Left-Handed Death – and with Halloween quickly approaching, The Ghost It Was (first published in 1936) sounded like a good one to read next.

The novel begins with aspiring journalist Gregory Spring-Benson trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter. Having failed to impress the editor, Gregory is given new hope when he comes across a badly written article about James Warrenton’s purchase of the supposedly haunted Amberhurst Place. James Warrenton happens to be his uncle – his very rich uncle – and perhaps if Gregory goes to visit him in his new home he will be able to gather material for a much more interesting article that will help to launch his career in journalism. If he can also persuade Uncle James to leave him as much money as possible in his will, even better!

On his arrival, however, Gregory finds that he is not the only one hoping to secure his inheritance; three other nephews and a niece have also descended upon the house in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their uncle. But while the cousins are busy plotting and scheming against each other, the ghost of Amberhurst Place makes an appearance at the top of a tower. Deaths soon follow, but is the ghost responsible or is there a human culprit?

Although all of the books I’ve read by Richard Hull so far have been very different, unlikeable characters seem to be the one thing they have in common! This worked very well in The Murder of My Aunt, where the characters were so horrible they were funny, but in this book they are just thoroughly unpleasant and not much fun to spend time with at all. I could easily have believed that almost any of them was the murderer and didn’t really care which of them was. It didn’t help that after a strong opening, introducing us to Gregory Spring-Benson and describing his ordeals at the newspaper office, the narrative then jumps around between the other cousins, the butler, a clergyman and some Scotland Yard investigators. We barely see Gregory after this and I felt that the novel lost focus through trying to involve too many different characters at once.

The ghost story aspect of the novel is well done – not at all scary, but it adds some atmosphere and makes it more difficult to work out exactly how the murders are being carried out. Despite the unpleasant characters and the lack of focus I’ve mentioned, it’s quite an enjoyable mystery to try to solve and the denouement, when it comes, is unusual and unexpected. Instead of tying everything up for the reader, Hull leaves us to make up our own minds and to decide whether we’ve correctly interpreted what we have been told. Not a favourite Hull novel, then, but still worth reading and I will continue to explore his other books.

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

This is my second book read for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

The Ghost Tree by Barbara Erskine

I’m finding that I usually like the sound of Barbara Erskine’s books much more than I like the books themselves! I thought Sleeper’s Castle was an enjoyable read, but I’ve had very mixed feelings about the others that I’ve tried, even Lady of Hay, which I’d heard so much about. Still, when I saw her latest novel, The Ghost Tree, in the library, I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Like most of Erskine’s other books, this one is set in two time periods and includes elements of the supernatural which link them together. In the present day we meet Ruth Dunbar whose father has just died, leaving her his house in Edinburgh. On arriving at the house, she is surprised to find that it is already occupied by a stranger who tells her his name is Timothy and that he has been caring for her father during his final months. According to Timothy, it is actually he and not Ruth who will inherit the house – and although Ruth’s lawyer assures her this is not the case, it seems that Timothy is not prepared to give up his claim.

As she begins to sort through her parents’ possessions, Ruth finds a collection of old diaries and letters written in the 18th century by Thomas Erskine, an illustrious ancestor of her mother’s. Thomas led an eventful, dramatic life and Ruth quickly becomes captivated by his story, but when she starts to think she can see Thomas standing beside her as she reads, the boundary between past and present seems to have been broken.

The Ghost Tree, as the title would suggest and as I have hinted above, is a ghost story, so I am counting it towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge. Thomas himself, as Ruth’s many times-great-grandfather, is no threat to Ruth, but he is not the only ghost who finds his way into the 21st century – there is another, who is a much more menacing and evil presence. Ruth (as seems to be a standard requirement of a Barbara Erskine heroine) just happens to have several friends and acquaintances who are experts in the paranormal and she enlists their help in dealing with her ghostly visitors. As far as ghost stories go, I didn’t find it either particularly scary or very atmospheric, but if you enjoy reading about séances, exorcisms and other aspects of the supernatural, you will probably find a lot to interest you here.

The narrative switches between past and present throughout the novel and as usual it was the historical one that I found most compelling. Thomas Erskine is a real life ancestor of Barbara Erskine’s and she has based his story on what we already know about him and on her own research into his life. Born in Edinburgh in 1750, he served in the Navy in the Caribbean and later joined the army, before returning to Britain to concentrate on a career in politics and the law. You can easily find a wealth of information about him online if you’re interested in knowing more, but if you’re thinking about reading The Ghost Tree you might prefer to read the novel first before looking up all the facts. Personally, I think there would have been enough material for a whole book just about Thomas and his adventures, without needing to involve ghosts or anything else!

I had other problems with the modern day sections of the book. For a start, the villains (one of whom is Timothy, the man contesting Ruth’s inheritance) are stereotypical and lack the sort of nuance and depth I prefer – and I quickly lost patience with the way Ruth and her friends repeatedly put themselves at risk, despite knowing how dangerous the villains were. There’s also an unpleasant storyline involving some cases of ghostly rape, which added very little apart from shock value.

This book was a bit of a disappointment, especially after enjoying Sleeper’s Castle so much, but at least I found Thomas Erskine’s story interesting, so I didn’t feel that it had been a waste of time. I just wish we could have spent more time with Thomas and less with Ruth and the ghost hunters! Can any Barbara Erskine fans tell me whether there are any of her earlier books that I might enjoy more, particularly any that spend a more substantial amount of time in the past or that use the supernatural elements more convincingly?

This is my fourth book read for the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: supernatural).

Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

Historical Musings October is here and has brought with it (in my part of the UK at least) a change in the weather, longer, darker nights and a distinctly autumnal feel. With Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give this month’s Historical Musings post a seasonal theme! I would love to hear about any historical novels you’ve read which deal with any of the following subjects:

  • Witches and witchcraft
  • Magic (black or white)
  • Ghosts and hauntings
  • Vampires/zombies/werewolves/monsters or other supernatural beings of any kind

My suggestions:

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is one of the first authors to come to mind when I think about this type of historical fiction. The Vanishing Witch is set during the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and features both ghosts and witchcraft; at the beginning of each chapter is a spell, a piece of folklore or a superstition, which I thought was a nice touch! The Raven’s Head, set in the early 13th century, is a darker novel with a strong supernatural element. I haven’t read her other books yet, but am about to start her new one, The Plague Charmer.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (also published as The Lost Book of Salem) deals with the Salem witch trials. It’s a dual time-frame novel but is set at least partly in the past so I’m including it here.

For those readers who are interested in witches and witchcraft but prefer a gentler read, I can recommend The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. The first is set during the English Civil War while the latter is set in the 1940s (but published in 1988, which is why I’m classing it as historical here). There’s also Susan Fletcher’s Corrag (also published as Witch Light), a beautifully written novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692; the main character and her mother have both been accused of witchcraft due to their knowledge of herbs and healing.

Vlad the Last Confession C.C. Humphreys has written a novel called Vlad: The Last Confession, which tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia who is thought to have provided at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not actually a vampire novel, but because of the Dracula connection and the dark atmosphere I’m including it here anyway.

There are also two ghostly novels by John Harwood that come to mind: The Séance, a gothic mystery set in Victorian England, and The Ghost Writer, which includes four genuinely chilling short ghost stories supposedly written by a fictitious author in the 1890s.

Finally, there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, in which our hero and heroine are a vampire and a witch. The first book, A Discovery of Witches, is set in the present day but in the second, Shadow of Night, we travel back in time to 16th century Europe. I’m not sure about the third book as I haven’t read it yet.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you think of any other historical fiction novels with a ghostly/witchy/magical feel?

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.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill The Woman in Black begins on Christmas Eve, when Arthur Kipps’ family gather round the fire to tell ghost stories. To the surprise and disappointment of his wife and stepchildren, Arthur refuses to join in and leaves the room, not wanting to explain that the only ghost story he knows is a true story that’s too terrifying to be told. Standing outside in the cold, Arthur decides to write his story down instead. The rest of the novel consists of Arthur’s account of something that happened to him many years earlier.

As a young lawyer, Arthur was sent to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow, in the town of Crythin Gifford. Before her death, the elderly Mrs Drablow lived alone in lonely Eel Marsh House, which can only be reached from the mainland by the Nine Lives Causeway which becomes flooded at high tide. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman dressed in black but when he tries to find out who she is he discovers that nobody will answer his questions. Arthur’s work takes him to Eel Marsh House where he decides to stay for a few days sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers – and alone in the isolated house, cut off by the tide from the rest of Crythin Gifford, Arthur has a series of encounters with the mysterious woman in black, each one more frightening than the one before.

The Woman in Black is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I put it on my list for the RIP challenge last year but didn’t have time for it, so added it again to this year’s list, determined to read it this time. I’m glad I’ve read it at last and I did enjoy it, but I didn’t love it as much as I hoped to. I didn’t find the book as scary as I thought it would be either. There were a few scenes that sent a shiver down my spine, but it wasn’t quite the terrifying story I’d been expecting. I wonder whether the fact that I had to read the book in two sittings with a break in the middle made it have less impact; my advice to anyone else reading this book for the first time is to make sure you give yourself enough time to read it in one sitting if possible (it’s only a short book so it would be quite manageable).

Although this book didn’t really succeed in scaring me, it does still have everything you would expect from a traditional ghost story: there’s a creepy old house in a remote and lonely setting, lots of bad weather including storms and thick fog, a sense of mystery created by the villagers’ reluctance to talk to Arthur or to go anywhere near Eel Marsh House, and of course the ghostly manifestations of the woman in black herself. I am starting to get impatient with characters who insist on staying in houses that they know are haunted, though – Kate in Midnight is a Lonely Place which I read recently was exactly the same. I know it would spoil the story if they ran away at the first sign of trouble but I think I would have more sympathy if they weren’t voluntarily choosing to spend the night in a haunted house!

There’s not really much more I can say about this book without starting to give too much away. It’s written in a Victorian style, which I loved, but I kept wondering when the story was supposed to be set. It was obviously not the Victorian period as there were mentions of cars and electric lights, so I’m assuming it was set in the early decades of the twentieth century. I loved Spider the dog – she was my favourite character! And I thought the ending of the book worked perfectly – it wasn’t entirely unexpected but I was still shocked by it!

Midnight is a Lonely Place by Barbara Erskine

Midnight is a Lonely Place My first introduction to Barbara Erskine’s work last year, River of Destiny, left me unimpressed but I was assured by Erskine fans that her earlier books were better, so when I found this one at the library I decided to give her another chance. I also thought it sounded like an ideal book to read for the RIP challenge, even though it wasn’t on my original list.

When author Kate Kennedy’s relationship with her boyfriend, Jon, comes to an end and she is forced to move out of their London home, she decides to rent a cottage on the Essex coast where she can spend the winter working on her new biography of Byron. The owners of the cottage, Diana and Roger Lindsey, live in a farmhouse nearby and do their best to make Kate feel welcome, but unfortunately not all the members of the Lindsey family are happy to see her. The eldest son, Greg, an aspiring artist, had been using the cottage for his painting and resents Kate for pushing him out. His fifteen-year-old sister, Alison, is an amateur archaeologist and is furious when she discovers that Kate has been interfering with her dig at what she believes is an ancient Roman grave.

When strange things start to happen at Redall Cottage, Kate suspects Greg and Alison of trying to frighten her away, but after several encounters with ghostly figures she begins to accept that she is being haunted by the ghosts of the Roman soldier Marcus Severus Secundus, his wife Claudia, and the Druid prince, Nion. It seems that Kate has stumbled upon a two thousand-year-old love triangle that ended in a murder and a curse – and secrets that have been buried under the earth for centuries are about to be revealed at last.

Midnight is a Lonely Place was much better than River of Destiny, but still not a book that I can say I loved. I was right about it being a perfect RIP choice, though. It has all the elements of a classic ghost story: a lonely, isolated cottage, an ancient burial site, ghostly apparitions, strange smells and unexplained noises, relentless snow, sleet and blizzards. It’s quite scary in places and you might not want to read it late at night if you’re on your own (while I was finishing the book on Friday evening the real-life weather outside obliged with heavy rain and strong winds which made it even more atmospheric).

While Marcus Severus Secundus, Claudia and Nion do have a strong presence in this novel, the story is set entirely in the early 1990s (which actually feels surprisingly dated from a 2013 perspective) and we only learn about the Roman characters’ lives in brief flashbacks at the start of the chapters. I would have liked their storyline to have been more fully developed as I felt I didn’t get to know them well enough to really care about them or their secrets and this meant that, for me, the novel wasn’t as effective as it would have been with a stronger historical element.

The second half of the book is suspenseful and action packed, as the level of paranormal activity increases and more and more of Kate’s friends and neighbours become involved (at one point it felt as if the whole population of Essex were wandering about getting lost in the snow) but I found the ending disappointingly abrupt. I’m not sure I correctly interpreted the final page and after reading what was quite a long book (more than 400 pages) I had expected a more satisfying conclusion. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot more than River of Destiny but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s books – though I might still be interested in reading Lady of Hay, her first and best known book.