House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

I loved Susan Fletcher’s Corrag, a novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, but for some reason have never read any of her other books until now. That has clearly been a mistake because House of Glass is another impressive novel. Although it is a very different type of story from Corrag, there are still some similarities, such as the beautiful writing and the interesting, unusual protagonist.

The novel is set in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Our narrator is Clara Waterfield, a young woman who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disease. Because of her condition, Clara has led a very sheltered life, kept indoors where she is less likely to fall and injure herself. She has made the best of her situation, using books to educate herself on the people and places she is never likely to see, but still she longs to go out into the world and have the experiences that other people take for granted. When she is twenty years old, Clara loses her mother to cancer and, left alone in their London home with her well-meaning but over-protective stepfather, she takes her first tentative steps towards taking control of her own life.

Venturing as far as Kew Gardens, Clara discovers a love of plants and returns day after day to learn everything the head gardener can teach her about botany. Her new skills lead to her being summoned to Shadowbrook, a large estate in Gloucestershire, where the owner, Mr Fox, is looking for an expert to help fill his new glasshouse with plants from Kew. Almost as soon as Clara arrives at Shadowbrook, however, she becomes aware that something is wrong. Why do the housekeeper and the maids seem so afraid? Could the house really be haunted by the ghost of a former occupant, Veronique Pettigrew? And is the mysterious Mr Fox ever going to make an appearance?

House of Glass seems at first to be a typical Gothic ghost story. It certainly has all the elements of one: a neglected mansion with secrets hidden behind closed doors; unexplained noises in the night; servants who hint at trouble in the house’s past; and various other eerie occurrences which may or may not have a rational explanation. There are definite shades of classic novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca or, to give a more recent comparison, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Throughout the first half of the book the sense of mystery builds as we try to work out what is really happening at Shadowbrook and Clara is as much in the dark as we are. Because of the way her life has been until now, her contact with other people has been very limited which means, as well as trying to solve the mysteries of Shadowbrook, she also has a lot to learn about social relationships and human nature. As she moves around the house and its grounds, asking questions and making observations, she not only makes some discoveries about Mr Fox and the Pettigrews, but she grows in confidence as a person too. I didn’t always like Clara quite as much as I felt I should have done, but I admired her for her strength and resilience.

In the second half of the book, everything changes; some revelations are made which send the story in a different and slightly unexpected direction and although some of my questions – and Clara’s – were answered, I wasn’t entirely convinced by these new plot developments. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but I did feel that I was reading a different type of story than it had seemed to be at first.

Now I need to go back and read some of the other Susan Fletcher books I seem to have missed out on over the last few years. Apart from this one and Corrag, have you read any you can recommend?

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

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Footsteps in the Dark Georgette Heyer is more famous for her Regency romances, but she also wrote twelve mystery novels. Until now, the only one I had read was Envious Casca, but I decided to try another one for this year’s R.I.P. event. Footsteps in the Dark, published in 1932, turned out to be a good choice. More of a haunted house story than a traditional mystery, there are secret tunnels, underground passages, ghostly happenings and noises in the night. A perfect October read!

Celia Malcolm and her brother and sister, Peter and Margaret Fortescue, have inherited an old Priory from their uncle. When their solicitor warns them that the estate is said to be haunted, the three are intrigued and decide to live in the house together for a while so they can inspect their new property and plan some refurbishments.

Accompanied by their aunt, Mrs Bosanquet, and Celia’s husband, Charles, they move into the Priory and almost immediately hear tales from the neighbours of a mysterious Monk who wanders the grounds at night. At first the family are unconcerned, but it’s not long before they witness the Monk for themselves and are forced to accept that something strange is going on at the Priory. Is their new home really haunted or is someone trying to scare them away?

Footsteps in the Dark was Heyer’s first mystery and while I did enjoy it, I also thought there were one or two weaknesses. The characters felt very wooden – I found the two men almost indistinguishable and Celia and Margaret unbelievably silly (in different ways) – and while I did enjoy any scene featuring Mrs Bosanquet, the dialogue didn’t feel as sparkling and witty as I have come to expect from Heyer. The plot wasn’t particularly complex either and it was too easy to identify the villain. There is a murder, if you’re wondering, but it doesn’t take place until later in the novel so I wouldn’t describe this as a murder mystery like Envious Casca.

It was a lot of fun to read, though! With a plot based around a group of young people exploring a haunted house, I was frequently reminded of Scooby Doo – or maybe one of the Famous Five or Nancy Drew stories I used to love as a child. This is not a book to be taken too seriously, but Heyer does create an atmosphere which is genuinely eerie at times, especially if you’re reading when you’re on your own late at night! I probably won’t want to re-read this one, but I do look forward to reading the rest of Heyer’s mysteries.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong I’ve included this book on my R.I.P. list every year since I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in 2011, but this is the first year I’ve actually found time to read it, thanks to a readalong hosted by the Estella Society. They have posted some discussion questions for us today, which I didn’t see until I had already written my post…though I think I’ve said everything here that I want to say anyway. I’ll look forward to reading what everyone else thought of it!

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist and psychic investigator, is renting Hill House for the summer in the hope of studying the supernatural phenomena and ghostly manifestations that he believes take place there. After assembling a list of people who have had previous paranormal experiences he invites them to stay in the house with him as his assistants, but there are only two who accept the invitation: Eleanor Vance, a shy, lonely woman of thirty-two, and the confident, outgoing Theodora. Accompanied by Luke Sanderson, whose aunt is the owner of Hill House, Dr Montague and his guests arrive at the house one by one and wait for something to happen.

Things do soon begin to happen but I can’t tell you too much about those happenings because as with all books of this type it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start. All I will say is that the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective…and Eleanor is not always entirely reliable. The supernatural element of the novel is quite subtle and you can never be completely sure what is going on. Because we spend so much time inside the head of a character who is unstable and insecure it’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t.

The Haunting of Hill House I didn’t find this book as frightening as I’d expected, but that could just be because I deliberately avoided reading it late at night (I’m a coward when it comes to books like this). There are certainly some very creepy moments, though – without having to resort to graphic horror, Jackson is still able to unsettle the reader and convey the feeling that something isn’t quite right. I loved the descriptions of Hill House – it has all the characteristics you would expect a haunted house to have, including a tragic history – but there are very few physical manifestations of ghostly activity. The creepiness of the story comes mainly from the fact that we don’t know how much of the ‘haunting’ is caused by Hill House itself and how much is the product of Eleanor’s disturbed mind.

I had been looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House because of its status as a classic American haunted house story and because I loved the other Shirley Jackson book I read. I really wanted to love this one too, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t. It was good, but not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’re new to Shirley Jackson, I would recommend either of these two books as a perfect read for this time of year.

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.

Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

This is the third Sarah Waters book I’ve read this year, the other two being Affinity and Fingersmith, and I think this one is my favourite. I seem to be in the minority though, as I’ve seen some very mixed reviews of this book.

The Little Stranger is set in Warwickshire just after the end of World War II. When Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, home of the Ayres family, to treat their young maid, he can’t help noticing that the house has deteriorated since he was last there as a boy. Striking up a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her daughter Caroline, Dr Faraday begins to spend more and more time at Hundreds – and becomes involved in a series of increasingly strange and terrifying events.

This is a typical haunted house story, yet it was psychologically fascinating, very suspenseful – and genuinely spooky. I always find poltergeist-type phenomena very disturbing to read about and there’s plenty of that in this book, from moving furniture and inexplicable fires, to tapping noises, ringing telephones and mysterious handwriting that appears on the walls. I had to avoid reading this book late at night because I knew it would scare me if I did!

I have said before that I think one area where Sarah Waters really excels is in creating believable and vivid settings for her stories. She has done this to perfection in the two Victorian novels that I’ve read, and does it again here with her portrayal of life in post-war Britain – the class system, the economy, housing, medical care and the introduction of the NHS.

Another thing I loved about this book is that it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on, which allows the reader to be a detective. Is Hundreds Hall really haunted? Is there a rational explanation for the supernatural occurrences? Or is someone playing a cruel trick? And if it is a trick, who is responsible for it? I think I suspected every character at some point in the novel! Then there’s Hundreds itself, which is almost a character in its own right – perhaps the most important ‘character’ in the book. It seems to be symbolic that as the house falls further into neglect and disrepair, the Ayres family themselves begin to fall apart one by one.

I was hoping that by the end of the story everything would become clear. However, after finishing the book I am still no closer to knowing exactly what had happened at Hundreds than I was at the beginning. The final few chapters of the book are very ambiguous and leave the story open to interpretation. It was slightly frustrating not to be given all the answers, but in the end it didn’t really matter because the story was wonderful anyway – and even a few days later I’m still thinking about it and wondering whether I’ve interpreted things correctly.

Unless you really don’t like ghost stories, I would recommend The Little Stranger as a great, spooky read, perfect for the RIP challenge or for Halloween.