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!

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

Kitty Easton I first met Laurence Bartram two years ago when I read The Return of Captain John Emmett, a mystery novel set in 1920s England. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is the sequel. In this book, Laurence’s friend William Bolitho, an architect, has asked Laurence to join him in the village of Easton Deadall. Easton Deadall lost many of its young men in the First World War and William has agreed to design a memorial window for the small church at Easton Hall. As an expert on churches and their renovations, Laurence’s help and advice is needed.

During the journey to Easton Deadall, Laurence learns about the disappearance of Digby and Lydia Easton’s five-year-old daughter, Kitty, several years earlier. Kitty went missing from her bed one night but her body was never found and her fate is still unknown. Since Kitty’s disappearance, the Easton family have continued to suffer; Digby was killed in the war, Lydia has become seriously ill and the relationship between Digby’s two surviving brothers, Julian and Patrick, is strained and tense.

After a slow start in which Elizabeth Speller introduces us to the characters, describes their tragic history and paints a portrait of a small English village trying to recover from the devastation of war, a mystery begins to develop. Another child disappears on a family trip to London to see the British Empire Exhibition and when a murder is committed in Easton Deadall, Laurence is sure both of these incidents are connected to the disappearance of Kitty Easton all those years ago.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as the previous one. The plot was well constructed with some interesting twists and lots of family secrets that are slowly revealed to the reader, but although I’ve referred to the book as a ‘mystery novel’ once or twice in this post, and in many ways it is a mystery novel, it’s also much more than that. The fate of Kitty Easton really only forms a small part of the story.

While reading both of the Laurence Bartram books, I have been impressed by the amazing sense of time and place the author creates. These books don’t just feel like pieces of historical fiction written in the modern day and set in the past – they almost feel as if they could really have been written in the 1920s. As with The Return of Captain John Emmett, my favourite thing about this book was the way it explores so many different aspects of the Great War and reminds us that although the war may have ended in 1918, its consequences were still being felt all over the world for many years afterwards.

There are lots of interesting characters to get to know too (I was particularly intrigued by the story of the youngest Easton brother, Patrick, resented by his family for abandoning them during the war after being excused from fighting on health grounds). The only thing that disappointed me slightly was that until we reach the final chapters of the book, Laurence seems to be on the outside watching and observing rather than taking an active role in the story. I do like Laurence but as the central character of a series I find him a bit bland and it would be nice to see his own personality coming through more strongly.

The way this book ended leaves plenty of scope for a third in the series and I hope there is going to be another one, though I notice that Elizabeth Speller has a new book due out in November with different characters, set during the Battle of the Somme.

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.

It’s time for R.I.P. VIII

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September is rapidly approaching, the nights are starting to get darker again, and that means it’s time for R.I.P. (R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril), the annual reading event hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

For those of you who are new to R.I.P. the idea is to read books that could fit one of the following categories:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.

As always, there are different levels of participation to choose from and I am signing up for Peril the First, which means reading at least four books between now and the end of October.

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I’ve listed below some of the books I’m thinking about reading for R.I.P. this year. I don’t expect to read all of them, of course, but I like to have lots of books to choose from!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe
These first three books are all taken from my Classics Club list so I’m hoping to read at least one of them.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley – I loved the first four Flavia de Luce books and can’t wait to read this one.

What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris – These books have been recommended to me a few times and I’ve finally managed to get a copy of the first one in the series.

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton – The only Bolton novel I still haven’t read.

Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler – It’s been too long since I last read a Bryant & May book and this is the next in the series.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – This was on my R.I.P list last year but I didn’t have time for it so will try again this year.

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton – Another one I was hoping to read last year and never got round to.

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters – Hearing about Elizabeth Peters’ death a few weeks ago reminded me that I really want to continue the Amelia Peabody series!

A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King – I’ve also been meaning to continue this series since reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice more than a year ago.

The Asylum by John Harwood – I loved both of John Harwood’s two previous books so I’m looking forward to this one.

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield – I requested this book from Netgalley and can’t wait to start reading it. I’m sure it will be a perfect R.I.P. book!

I’m also planning to take part in the Mary Stewart Reading Week so will be reading one of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels in September too – I still haven’t decided which one yet!

Are you going to join in with R.I.P this year? What are you planning to read?