Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Until now my only previous experience of the 19th century Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was the short story, Laura Silver Bell, which I read for Mel U’s Irish Short Story Week in March. I was keen to see what I would think of one of Le Fanu’s full-length novels and decided to read Uncle Silas for the R.I.P challenge.

Uncle Silas is an 1864 novel which seems to incorporate almost every aspect of the Victorian sensation/gothic novel you can think of: gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison, family secrets. I had high hopes for the book as it sounded like exactly the type of classic I usually enjoy, and after a slow start it didn’t disappoint.

Our heroine (and the narrator of the story) is Maud Ruthyn who lives with her father at Knowl, their family estate. Maud is fascinated by a portrait of her Uncle Silas which hangs on one of the walls inside the house – she has never met her uncle before and is intrigued by hints of scandal in his past. When Mr Ruthyn decides to find a governess for his daughter, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre comes to live at Knowl and a chain of events begins which will finally bring Maud into contact with her mysterious Uncle Silas.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot without beginning to give too much away! I had managed to avoid reading any big spoilers so I never had any idea what was coming next, and I think that was the best way to approach this book.

It did take me a while to really get into the story. It was fun and entertaining from the beginning and I was never actually bored with it, but it seemed to take such a long time before anything really happened. It wasn’t until about one hundred and fifty pages into the book that the pace began to pick up and then I could appreciate why Le Fanu had taken his time building the suspense and slowly creating a mood of menace and foreboding. It was a very atmospheric and creepy story (particularly any scene featuring Madame de la Rougierre, who must be one of the most horrible, grotesque villains in literature), though I didn’t find it as scary as I had expected to.

Maud may not be the strongest of female characters but she felt real and believable to me. Although she could be brave when she needed to be, she was young and naïve and I felt genuinely worried for her as she found herself becoming increasingly isolated, not sure who she could and couldn’t trust. And for me, this was where the story could be described as frightening: the complete lack of control Maud had over her own destiny and the way she was forced to depend on people who may not have had her best interests at heart.

If you enjoyed The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins then I think there’s a good chance you’ll like this book too. It doesn’t have as many surprising twists and turns as The Woman in White but it is a similar type of book, though with a much darker and more gothic feel. I think it’s a shame Le Fanu isn’t as widely read as other Victorian authors, as his work is definitely worth reading. I hope you’ll decide to give this book a try if you haven’t already.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Gerard Freeman has grown up in Mawson, Australia, listening to his mother’s tales of her own childhood at Staplefield, a country estate in England. However, when she finds him going through her private papers one day she is furious and from that moment she refuses to say any more about her past.

Gerard continues to investigate his mother’s background and is intrigued when he discovers some ghost stories written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. Unable to talk to his mother about his discoveries, the only person Gerard can confide in is his English penpal, Alice Jessel. It’s only as Gerard grows older and uncovers more of his family history that he begins to understand the full significance of Viola’s stories and how they relate to his own life.

The Ghost Writer was published in 2004 and seems to have been very popular at the time of its publication, yet I somehow hadn’t even heard of it until I picked it up in the library a couple of weeks ago and thought it sounded perfect for the R.I.P. challenge and for this time of year. And it was a perfect choice – I was very impressed by this book. The closest comparison I can make is to Possession by A.S. Byatt. Both books are very well written and have similar structures, with different sections written in different styles and with letters and stories woven into the plot. I did find this an easier and more entertaining read than Possession, though, and at times it also reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Viola Hatherley’s ghost stories were my favourite parts of the novel. They were very creepy and I could really believe they’d been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the way the ghost stories were connected to Gerard’s own story and yet they would have been good enough to stand alone as a separate short story collection too. Often when I read a book containing stories-within-stories I find myself becoming impatient and wanting to get back to the main plot, but not this time! There were four of Viola’s stories included in the book (one, The Revenant, is much longer than the other three and almost a novella). The highlight for me was The Gift of Flight, with its descriptions of a sinister doll-like child and a mysterious fog that fills the reading room at the British Museum.

Looking through some other reviews of this book, I’ve noticed that a lot of readers felt let down by the ending. I don’t usually mind being left to make up my own mind at the end of a book, but I can definitely understand why people would be disappointed by the way this one ended. It was very ambiguous and left so much open to interpretation. Despite the ending though, there were so many other things to love about this book: the elegant writing, the intricate plot, the clever structure, the gothic atmosphere, the eerie, unsettling mood and most of all, those excellent Victorian-style ghost stories!

Florence and Giles by John Harding

I hadn’t even heard of Florence and Giles until recently but as soon as I saw that it had been described as a gothic thriller and compared to Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe I knew I wanted to read it – and it went straight onto my list for the RIP challenge!

Florence and Giles could be considered a loose retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (the first clue is in the title as the children in The Turn of the Screw are called Flora and Miles) but if you haven’t read the Henry James book yet it doesn’t matter at all because this is a great story in its own right.

The book is set in 1891 and the Florence and Giles of the title are two orphans who live at Blithe House, a mansion in New England. The house belongs to their uncle, but Florence and Giles never see him – he never comes to visit and prefers to leave the children under the care of the servants. Soon Giles is sent away to school and twelve-year-old Florence is left behind because her uncle disapproves of education for girls. After secretly teaching herself to read and write, Florence spends her days hiding in a forgotten tower room with books she’s smuggled out of the library.

This seems a good place to mention Florence’s narrative style, which is one of the most unusual I’ve ever come across. Although she’s been denied a formal education, she’s an intelligent and imaginative girl who has created her own private language with a very strange way of using nouns, verbs and adjectives! Here, for example, she describes Blithe House:

A house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence, a neglect of a place, tightly pursed (my absent uncle having lost interest in it), leaked and rotted and mothed and rusted, dim lit and crawled with dark corners, so that, even though I have lived here all of my life that I can remember, sometimes, especially on a winter’s eve in the fadery of twilight, it shivers me quite.

The whole story is written in this way. The ‘unbroomed’ library is a ‘dustery of disregard’, her bedroom becomes a ‘smugglery of books’ and she ‘lonelies’ her way around the big house. It did take me a few chapters to get used to Florence’s voice but I loved it because it was so creative and different.

Anyway, back to the story: when Giles is removed from his school after being bullied, a governess is appointed so he can continue his education at home. But as soon as Miss Taylor arrives at Blithe House some strange things begin to happen and Florence starts to believe that she and her brother could be in serious danger. Is Florence right? Can we trust her? We don’t know, but as she’s the book’s only narrator we have no choice but to read on.

Florence and Giles has a wonderfully dark and gothic feel and has everything this type of book should have: the spooky mansion, the mysterious guardian, the sinister governess…Even the quirkiness of Florence’s narrative voice adds to the unsettling feel. Not everything is explained or tied up at the end of the book, but I felt there’d been enough clues throughout the story for me to draw my own conclusions.

I can’t remember who it was that first brought this book to my attention, but as Florence might say, ‘I grateful them!’

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

If you’re scared of snakes you might want to avoid this book! There are lots and lots of snakes in Awakening, from the harmless grass snake to the British adder and the venomous taipan. And in an isolated English village someone is breaking into people’s houses and leaving some of these snakes behind for the unsuspecting residents to find.

Luckily one of the villagers happens to be an expert on reptiles: her name is Clara Benning and she’s our narrator. Due to something that happened in her childhood, Clara has decided she’s more comfortable with animals than people and is working as a vet at a wildlife hospital. And so when the village becomes overrun with snakes, her neighbours come to her for advice. Clara begins to investigate, although she finds communicating with people difficult and would prefer to be left alone. With the help of two very different men – one a local policeman and the other a celebrity snake-handler – Clara is gradually drawn into a fifty year-old mystery which may explain where the snakes are coming from and at the same time she is forced to confront her own fears and insecurities.

Awakening is the second book I’ve read by S.J. Bolton. The first was Sacrifice, which I read earlier in the year and loved. This book had all the things I liked about Sacrifice – the fast pace, the gripping mystery plot, the interesting and independent female protagonist – but I enjoyed this one even more because I was able to connect with Clara more than I did with Tora Hamilton in the previous book. She seemed a more believable and well-developed character. Her personal background intrigued me immediately and the balance between this part of the story and the snake storyline was perfect.

Something else that I loved about this book was the setting. A lot of the action seems to take place at night and the small rural village feels very eerie and sinister in the dark. There are some gothic elements too, including graveyards, abandoned houses, old churches, underground tunnels and possible sightings of ghosts. As for the snakes, if you actually have a phobia about them you probably wouldn’t want to read this book, but otherwise you should be okay. I don’t particularly like them and certainly wouldn’t want to find one in my bedroom, but reading about snakes isn’t a problem for me and I enjoyed all the little facts about them that were dropped into the story without slowing the plot down at all.

Now I’m looking forward to reading Bolton’s other books, Blood Harvest and Now You See Me.

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

After I read The Anatomy of Ghosts earlier in the year, I asked for opinions on Andrew Taylor’s other books. Well, I’d like to thank the three people who left comments recommending The American Boy (published in the US as An Unpardonable Crime) as I thought this one was even better than The Anatomy of Ghosts. As someone who loves classic sensation novels (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood etc) it’s maybe unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It has all the elements of a sensation novel and although it was published in 2003 it almost feels as if it could have been written in the 19th century.

The American Boy is set in England during the final months of the reign of George III. The story begins in September 1819 when our narrator, Thomas Shield, is starting a new job as a teacher at a small private school in the village of Stoke Newington. One of the boys at the school is the ten-year-old Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘American boy’ of the title. Shield is given special responsibility for tutoring Edgar and his best friend, Charles Frant, and through the two boys he becomes acquainted with two rich banking families – the Frants and their cousins, the Carswells. He soon becomes caught up in the dramas that are unfolding within the Frant and Carswell families and when two murders take place it seems that Shield’s own life could also be in danger.

The plot is so intricate and complex I won’t even try to go into any more detail, but in addition to the murders, there’s also a disputed will, mistaken identities, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and even romance. Thomas Shield’s adventures take place in a variety of wonderfully atmospheric locations from the dark, foggy streets and over-crowded slums of London to the snowy landscape of the Carswells’ country estate in Gloucestershire, complete with an ice house and ruined abbey. Taylor made his settings feel vivid and real without going into pages and pages of description.

I should point out that although Edgar Allan Poe does have an important part to play in the story, he’s really just a minor character. I actually thought this whole aspect of the book was unnecessary as the plot would have been strong enough without it and a fictional character could easily have been used in his place. I’m not complaining as I do like Poe and found his brief appearances interesting, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this is a book about Poe because it really isn’t.

Although I hadn’t included this book on my list for the RIP challenge, I’m going to count it as my first book for RIP anyway (I don’t know why I bother making lists for challenges as I never, ever stick to them!) The American Boy isn’t what I would describe as a scary book, but it is a very dark and suspenseful mystery – a perfect book to curl up with and enjoy at this time of year.

I know it’s a cliché but I didn’t want to put this book down and the very short chapters made it even more tempting to keep reading. If it hadn’t been so long (500 pages) I could have read it all in one sitting. I also appreciated the author’s attempts to make the book feel like an authentic 19th century novel through his use of language and Thomas Shield’s narrative style. It won’t be for everyone though; you either like this type of book or you don’t, but for anyone who has enjoyed books such as The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox or The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, I can highly recommend this one.

R.I.P VI is here!

I’ve been trying not to sign up for any more reading challenges, but I knew I’d have to make an exception for the R.I.P. challenge. This was my favourite of all the challenges I participated in last year and I’ve been looking forward to taking part again this year. If you’re interested in joining in too, please see the R.I.P. VI blog post at Stainless Steel Droppings!

There are several different levels (or perils) to choose from and I’m signing up for Peril the First. This means reading four books that could be classified as:
Dark Fantasy.

I’ve listed below some of the books I’m thinking about reading. I’m not expecting to read all of these and it’s also possible that I’ll decide to read some other books that aren’t on my list.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – I was meaning to read this for R.I.P last year but didn’t have time. I’m making it a priority for this year as it’s one of those books I feel I really should have read before now.

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley – I enjoyed the first two books in the Flavia de Luce series and am hoping the third one will be just as good.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – I’ve seen very mixed opinions of this book, so I think it’s time I tried it for myself.

The Quarry by Johan Theorin – This is the third in a series of spooky Swedish crime novels. I loved the first two so I’ve been looking forward to this one.

The White Devil by Justin Evans – I noticed this book appearing on a lot of American blogs a few months ago and I’ll finally get a chance to read it now that it’s being published in the UK.

Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – I read some of Le Fanu’s short stories earlier in the year and can’t wait to read this gothic novel.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – Another book I can’t believe I still haven’t read!

Florence and Giles by John Harding – I hadn’t even heard of this book until recently. It’s described as a gothic thriller and sounds like something I would love.

Awakening by S.J. Bolton – I loved her first book, Sacrifice, and immediately bought two more of her books but haven’t had a chance to read them yet. I could either read this one or Blood Harvest.

Have you read any of these? What are you reading for this year’s RIP?