Review of The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.

Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.

The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.

The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.

Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.

I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?

Review of ‘The Unquiet House’ by Alison Littlewood

Does she own the house, or does the house own her?

This is the second of Alison Littlewood’s books that I’ve read, and whereas I wasn’t as taken with it as with The Hidden People, I still found it a solid read. The novel opens with a theme of loss and acquisition, with its protagonist – Emma Dean – having lately lost both of her parents, as well as a distant elderly relative who has bequeathed her Mire House. However, it soon becomes apparent that the house as much owns Emma, as she owns it.  

The story weaves in a little folklore here and there, and is firmly grounded in its rural Yorkshire setting with a good sprinkling of Yorkshire accent and dialect lending it an engaging warmth and authenticity. However, this is a ghost story, so the few moments of warmth that are encountered are greatly outnumbered by the reader’s chills. Littlewood is particularly good at portraying childhood group dynamics and bravado, showing how a simple dare can descend into cruelty and lead to the direst of consequences. For me, this was the greatest horror in the book, and made me cringe, but in the manner that the author intended rather than in a bad way, for it was extremely well written.  

The novel has an interesting non-linear narrative structure which works well, and the period aspects of the story are deftly handled. However, I did guess the twist some way in advance, and the ending seemed to stutter and fade, being somewhat drawn out. As for the protagonist, I felt less sympathy for her than for many of the other characters, but this may well have been the author’s intention. For all that, this was an enjoyable read that I’d recommend to those who possess a taste for ghost stories.

Review of ‘The Hidden People’ by Alison Littlewood

An Adult Fairy Tale without a Fairy-tale Ending.

Every now and again, I read a book by an author new to me that makes a real impression, and I wonder why their work, being so well crafted and written, is less lauded and well known than that of many other contemporary authors. The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood was one such book, and if you’ve not read it, and have a taste for the Gothic and folk horror, then I heartily recommend it.

In The Hidden People, Littlewood has woven a lyrical tale of enchantment, delusion and jealousy, in which urban Victorian rationality collides with lingering rural folk belief, with neither emerging unscathed. Whereas the much-lauded The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry aspires to explore these themes and fails to deliver upon its promise, this cannot be said of The Hidden People, for it is by far the better-written and more satisfyingly plotted book of the two. It is a novel steeped in the Gothic, in which the wild and outlandish sentiments of the uneducated country folk are rendered in a rich Yorkshire vernacular, which contrasts with the staid speech of the middle-class London protagonist, Albert Mirralls, whose presence is at best viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into what appears to be an everlasting bucolic summer.

Fairy lore and the spirit of Wuthering Heights loom large in this story, where the power of belief in the malign power of the fairy folk and changelings is convincingly portrayed, leaving the reader guessing as to what is real, and what is not, in a world refracted through the first-person narrative of ‘Albie’ Mirralls. It is his obsession with his cousin, Lizzie Thurlston, that provides the thread which the reader must follow with a compulsive zeal until the final revelation with which the book concludes. There is also a powerful underpinning theme of loss and yearning, which is expressed through the blindness of the central character to what he has, whilst he remains locked into the pursuit of his idée fixe, to the detriment of himself, and to those closest to him. It is a novel sure to appeal to those with a taste for historical fiction, mysteries, and psychological horror. That said, if forced to pigeonhole this work into a single genre, its best fit would be folk horror with a pronounced Gothic streak.

Another historical tale set in Yorkshire and drawing upon local folklore that might be to your taste is the occult mystery Upon Barden Moor, in which an Edwardian summer’s day swiftly yields to something altogether darker.

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Review of ‘Monk’s Hood’ by Ellis Peters

The edition of the book that I read, dating from 1990 (ten years after its initial publication), is riddled with typos, with the first one being displayed on the cover: Monks Hood rather than Monk’s Hood.  Still, despite these minor niggles, the story told by Peters is engaging enough, with Brother Cadfael emerging as a sympathetic and highly unconventional sleuth, for I must own to not knowing of any other twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist protagonist fulfilling such a role. The period detail was very well done, but I found the prose a little lumpy in places. It was well plotted with plenty of potential suspects to divert the attention of the reader, but following the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule I sensed that the appearance of a certain character very early in the story, and his subsequent absence until the latter stages of the book, pointed to him being the culprit. Was he? Well, if you want to find out for sure, you should read it yourself.  

All in all Peters needed a better editor for this book, but for all I know the issues that I have enumerated may well have been addressed in later editions.

Review of ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

An atmospheric classic that manages to capture some of the wild lawless spirit of early nineteenth-century Cornwall. Du Maurier seems to have been clearly influenced by Wuthering Heights both in her choice of a bleak moorland setting and the character of the overbearing and violent Joss Merlyn, who makes Heathcliff seem like a civilised gentleman in comparison. The cast of characters who frequent the inn itself are an ensemble of disagreeable lowlife, and as such, make for good entertainment, not that I would go so far as to recommend wrecking, smuggling and murder as suitable pastimes. Still, this made me wish to bodily shake the heroine Mary Yellan for her bizarre insistence upon staying at her uncle’s inn rather than simply decamping elsewhere, but if she had done so, it wouldn’t have made for a very good story. 

The novel ends with a suitable twist, amidst the evocation of the obscure pagan past of Bodmin Moor. If I have any gripe with the book, it relates to Du Maurier’s slip in portraying what it is like to be out alone in the darkness of Bodmin Moor in the depths of night with a storm raging. Anyone who has stood upon the West Country moors at such a time at a far remove from modern street lighting knows that you can’t so much as see your hand in front of your face. Mary Yellan, it seems, was part cat.

Review of ‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham

First published in 1955, this post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham whilst being very much a creature of its time, remains pertinent today. Although he does not state it in words, it is clear from his text that the society which both fears, and in a sense reveres, ‘the Tribulation’, is one that has been rebuilt from the wreckage of a portion of humanity that has lived through a globally devastating nuclear war. Wyndham shows the reader a society that has regressed technologically, sociologically, and intellectually to the level of that encountered in the first half of the seventeenth century, in which scriptural literalism and dogma dictate every facet of community life. It thus taps into the fears of its time: nuclear confrontation between the superpowers; the perverse pursuit of genetic purity by recently defeated Nazism; humanity’s tendency to cleave to dogma, whether in the form of religious obscurantism – as in this novel – or political ideology.

The novel’s protagonist – David Strorm – is a child when the story opens, and it is through his eyes, and his encounter with Sophie Wender, that the reader comes to understand the depths of revulsion which the people of Labrador hold for ‘deviations’ from ‘the true image’, i.e. for any form of mutation in the external human form. However, what David and a small group of externally normal individuals manage to conceal from this tightly controlled and policed community is their own mutation: telepathy. At least for a time. Their fate, should they be discovered, could be expected to be no better than forced sterilisation and banishment to the Fringes, a lawless zone in which mutation has run riot, forming a transitional area between that deemed habitable and the blackened glassy wastes created by the nuclear conflagration.  

Wyndham’s novel is an engaging coming-of-age tale in which the human impulse to seek out and destroy that which it finds different to itself, and thus unpalatable, is depicted in bleak detail. Although very different in its setting to The Midwich Cuckoos, which unfolds in rural postwar England, both books focus upon a group of characters possessed of telepathic abilities, which was evidently a theme that appealed to Wyndham. In The Chrysalids, however, it is the group of telepaths who find themselves the persecuted rather than the persecutors, until . . .  

Overall, I found this to be a rewarding read, although I would probably state a preference for The Midwich Cuckoos owing to its occasional humour, which is very much absent from this volume. Its ending also seemed to arrive with an unexpected abruptness.

Review of ‘The House of Doctor Dee’ by Peter Ackroyd

All fades into obscurity. 

It has been many years since I first read this novel, and upon rereading it recently what struck me the most was not the book’s supernatural element, but the coldness of the contemporary protagonist – Matthew Palmer – for whom I was unable to conjure up the least smidgen of sympathy. In fact, there is a chilliness that pervades the whole of the book that left me, for all of its merits, to a degree cold. ‘Behold the world without love,’ enjoins the shade of Dee’s late wife at a critical juncture of the story, and the same may be said to the reader of the tale as a whole, but this feeling of emotional sterility was doubtless intentional on Ackroyd’s part, for he is too good a writer for it not to have been. The protagonist, his mother, and father are each deeply estranged from each other, with their set of alienated relationships being echoed in the dysfunctional relationships between Dee, his wife, and his dying father, but beyond this it is the physical fabric of the house – or what remains of Dee’s dwelling – that unites them all. 

In terms of its structure, this tale, like a number of others penned by Ackroyd, involves the interweaving and interpenetration of two distinct periods, in this instance the Tudor London of Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, and the capital that you may have known some quarter of a century or so ago. Neither London, of course, is with us today, for it has in many respects been rendered as unrecognisable as its sixteenth-century incarnation. It is, however, in his conveying of the ambience of the latter that Ackroyd excels, along with his measured updating of Elizabethan speech for a modern readership; in this respect, he is a conjuror of spirits, and raises Dr Dee, or a version thereof, from his slumber of centuries. His ghost is made to speak. 

Alas, however, as a story it has its flaws. Whereas I rather enjoyed that part of it that was set during the sixteenth century, I did not care for the chapters set some four hundred years later, which it would have been better to have dispensed with. As for the book’s concluding chapter, it was a confused and muddled mess that seemed jumbled up with the author’s reflections on the writing of history and fiction. This second reading will therefore, I think, be my last.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s latest novel – Upon Barden Moor – an occult mystery centring upon a single summer’s day in Edwardian England, is now available on Kindle and in paperback.    

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Review of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Many books receive plaudits and yet fail to live up to them, but Mythago Wood falls into that rare category of books that for all of its awards, exceeds the expectations of the reader, or, at any rate, this particular reader writing this review. Its concept is both original and deftly executed, breathing life into Jungian archetypes and the lost lore of Britain in the wildest of wildwoods that you could possibly enter.   

Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the novel opens with a homecoming, but as with all such returns, the protagonist – Stephen Huxley – finds that all is not as it was. With his father now deceased, and his brother Christian behaving in a decidedly eccentric manner, we are gradually introduced to the enchanting, and sinister, world of Ryhope Wood. From the fragmentary notes of his father’s diary, the disclosures of his brother, and the sightings of shadowy forms that flit about his field of vision on the perimeter of the wood, we are gradually lured, along with Stephen, into the enigmatic and enchanting realm of the mythagos.

 The innocuous appearance of the wood, set amidst the tranquillity of the Herefordshire countryside, conceals a primal and ferocious domain, in which time and space are stretched beyond what the imagination could conceive from its external bounds. It is a place that exerts a teasing fascination that at once both attracts, and yet physically repels, those who attempt to penetrate its shaded depths; it is where men find their deepest desires, and fears, realised in a profound physicality, where the psychological, the psychic, and the mythic merge into an eternal and yet malleable ‘reality’. Wild and bloody rites, magic, lust, vengeance and the quest for personal wholeness through union with a significant, Pygmalionesque, other, constitute the meat of this engaging fantasy, in which the reader encounters plausibly imagined Neolithic tribespeople, Celts, Saxons, and many others who have called the English landscape their home through the passage of the ages. All coexist within the wood in an eternal present.

Ryhope Wood is a profoundly pagan place, so it strikes me as no mistake that Holdstock chose to bestow the name of Christian upon Stephen’s brother, and it is Christian’s presence that proves to be most destructive to the world that he enters. However, the destructiveness of the elder Huxley brother is in no way linked to any proselytising on his part, but merely to the vicious impulses that lie deeply embedded within the structure of his own personality.

This book came to be the first of a series, but can be quite happily read as a standalone novel. Whether its successors lived up to this initial promise, I cannot say, as I have not yet read any of them. Still, this is a book that I heartily enjoyed, even though fantasy is not a genre that I normally read. Highly recommended.

 It was interesting to see that Holdstock allowed a cameo appearance for the Celtic goddess Epona, who lies at the centre of my Victorian gothic ghost story of the same name. In the latter tale, however, it is the downland of Wiltshire rather than a pocket of ancient woodland that provides the backdrop against which the drama unfolds.

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Aleister Crowley’s Corpulent Alter Ego

Maugham’s occult novel The Magician opens in the Paris of La Belle Époque, a place of light and gaiety where, none the less, it would seem, shadows still lurked, with the shadow in this particular instance being cast by the increasingly corpulent bulk of Oliver Haddo. With speech as ponderous and weighty as his physical form, Haddo, the eponymous magician of this tale, with his tall stories and florid speech, comes across as a more sinister cousin of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty. It is, without doubt, the villain who gets the best lines in this book.

Maugham based Haddo upon the person of none other than the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, whom he met during a sojourn in Paris in 1904. The former did not take to the latter, and writing some years later he noted that Crowley had published a review of The Magician in Vanity Fair, signing off as ‘Oliver Haddo’. In a later foreword to the book, Maugham wrote, ‘I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.’ So much for the background, but what of the story itself?

The first two chapters of the novel are rather sluggish and unremarkable, for Haddo’s presence is as yet unseen. They introduce us to the other four main characters: Arthur Burdon, an eminent London surgeon who is in Paris to visit his young ward and fiancée Susie Boyd; the aforementioned Miss Boyd; Margaret Dauncey, Miss Boyd’s older and plainer companion, and Dr Porhoët, a Breton doctor with an interest in matters relating to antiquarianism and the occult that has led him to become something of a specialist in this esoteric field.

It is only once we encounter Haddo in the Chien Noir along with the four other major characters, that the novel picks up pace and begins to hook the reader. Despite his being a narcissistic, snobbish, socially and physically repulsive braggart, Haddo manages to exert a certain allure, and somehow insinuates his way into the lives of this quartet. That there is something preternatural about this soon becomes apparent, and the mutual antipathy of Burdon and Haddo is what propels this story to its destructive denouement via the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, to its climax in the fictitious Haddo familial seat of Skene in Staffordshire.

There is something, it would seem, to the powers claimed by this practitioner of the dark arts, and he has a goal in mind dear to the hearts of the adepts of Paracelsian alchemy: the creation of the homunculus. Quite why either Haddo, or Paracelsus, would wish to go to such great lengths in an attempt to create such a monstrous parody of the human form, rather than adopting the rather simpler expedient of a little, and rather more pleasurable, conjugal rutting, is quite beyond me. Still, this novel makes for an enjoyable read, even if it should be at times a little overwrought and melodramatic, as well as somewhat purple in its prose.

To be amongst the first to view and download H.E. Bulstrode’s occult novel Upon Barden Moor at an initial discounted price of 99c/99p, sign up to his mailing list by clicking here. It will be published in the spring of 2018.