All posts by H.E. Bulstrode1815

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.

‘The Essex Serpent’: a Case of ‘Colonitis’

This book is beautifully packaged. Its cover is adorned with sumptuous bucolic imagery through which wends the form of a green serpent, which together with its intriguing title proves sufficient to lure many a reader into making a purchase. Time and time again it has been said that both a book’s title and its cover are pivotal to its success, and given the enviable sales that the author has enjoyed with ‘The Essex Serpent’, these observations would appear, in this case, to have been borne out. But what of the book itself? What of its content? Does this prove to be equally beguiling? 

It cannot be denied that Sarah Perry has a talent for description: much of it, especially where she is describing the landscape, possessing a beautiful and evocative quality that makes Nature itself a character. It also cannot be denied that she has a passion for colons bordering upon an obsession, which lends much of her prose a distinctly idiosyncratic quality. Now, before proceeding I must make it clear that I do not number amongst those who would relegate the colon, or its much maligned sibling the semi-colon, to the dustbin; but I am of the opinion that the author should know when, and where, they should be used. Ms Perry, irrespective of her doctorate ‘in creative writing from Royal Holloway’, appears not to know how to judiciously employ these helpful pieces of punctuation, and ought to, to borrow one of her own favoured words, use them more ‘parsimoniously’ in her prose. Moreover, both her proofreader and publisher should receive a severe dressing down for the nonsensical sentence that appears at the end of the penultimate paragraph on page 49.  

Mud, cakes, macaroons and dresses are all described in minute and loving detail –repeatedly – so much so that ‘Mud, Cakes and Macaroons’ might make an equally apposite title for this volume, for they feature far more frequently in this meandering tale than the eponymous serpent that is notable throughout for its absence. Its presence slithers unseen through the undergrowth of dense prose, as elusive as any semblance of plot.  

Her protagonist – Cora Seaborne – proved unsympathetic, as well as possessed of a certain self-important petulance that rankled. From the book’s description, I had been anticipating an intriguing novel of ideas, in which Seaborne’s scientific worldview parried with that of the Aldwinter vicar William Ransome, as well as a tale in which folklore featured rather more prominently than it did. Instead, it struck me as being a sluggish piece of chick lit crafted for a more educated readership than is usually the case with this genre, that whilst often beautifully written, possessed an underdeveloped plot that seemed to peter out. If its length had been trimmed by a third, its sense of drift might have been supplanted by some semblance of momentum.   

The opening passages of this novel promised much, but upon finishing the book I felt as if I had been struggling through the oft-described mud only to find that the ill-defined form that I had pursued throughout had faded into the mist; vanished into nothingness. In place of a sense of satisfaction, its ending brought a feeling of a certain emptiness, and no desire to read anything further that this author may publish. A pity.     

New Release: ‘The Ghost of Scarside Beck’

The above novelette has been released just in time for Halloween, the one day of the year when adults are forced to cower and hide indoors with the lights switched off to avoid the unwanted attentions of marauding hordes of youngsters. The horror of The Ghost of Scarside Beck, however, is of a rather different nature, and will probably persuade you to keep the lights on, rather than turn them off.  

Set in the Lake District, it starts on a light enough note, but the mood gradually descends into a darkness that cannot be escaped. Inspired by a strange incident in a Cumbrian village, which thankfully for the author lacked the element of terror that characterises the latter part of this tale, it also drew upon the curious carving shown on its cover. It is now available wherever Amazon has a presence, being priced at 99 in the UK, or 99c in the US or the EU. Kindle Unlimited subscribers may read it for ‘free’. To purchase or preview The Ghost of Scarside Beck, please click on the image above or here. The Amazon ‘Look Inside’ function doesn’t seem to be working yet, but if you would like to read a sample, simply click on the ‘send a free sample’ button on the relevant Amazon page.  

Blurb

There are places where the past and the present walk in tandem, where people and events seem to echo those who have been, but are no longer. There is something in the fabric of the buildings, in the feel of the earth, that evokes the timelessness of an eternal present, where a crossing over may occur at any moment. Scarside Beck is one such place; a Cumbrian hamlet in which the gossamer film that separates all of our yesterdays from what is now is apt to tear. Is it from the stone, or the sodden soil that this remembrance seeps, to be sensed, and felt, and yet not acknowledged by the conscious mind? There was something here, and it lingers still. I feel it. A strange sequence of events and a curious carving seem somehow to be linked, but how? 

Tsunami of Spam: Blog Comments Disabled

Hello everyone.

If you have left a comment during the past week, I’m afraid that I won’t have seen it. After not logging on for a handful of days I have been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of spam: 687 ‘comments’ in all. I don’t have enough hours in the day to sift through this, so from now on I will automatically be deleting all comments on my blog, operating on the assumption that almost all will be spam. However, articles will still be free to share if you should find them of interest, and if you’d like to keep abreast of author publications and special offers, then please feel free to sign up to the subscriber list. One thing that I can promise you is this: your email address will be kept confidential, and I will not spam you.

All the best,

H.E.

Book Review: ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris.

Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.    

Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery. 

The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus. 

Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.  

The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.

Review: ‘Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760’, Second Edition, 1997. J.A. Sharpe.

A wide-ranging and commendably balanced piece of historiography spanning the period 1550-1760. It aims to provide an overview of how life was lived by the people of England, from the highest to the lowest, during the period in question, although, alas, the sieve of history has captured far less relating to the lives of the meaner sort when compared to those of the middling and upper orders. This is an unavoidable consequence of differential rates of literacy, and what the literate deemed worthy of recording, or not.

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, the rapid growth of printed material of varying types accompanied the development of a more literate culture as the population became more educated, with the consequence that we possess a far more rounded picture of everyday life during the latter part of this period.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on popular culture and the world of work, as these helped to flesh out the daily experience of the lower strata of society, which, alas, is a theme frequently neglected or glossed over in histories that concentrate more on politics, economics and religious change. This material would prove particularly useful to any author looking to set a novel, or shorter piece of fiction, in the world of this time.

One theme that came through strongly in the book, was the fact that whereas London had already grown to be a considerable metropolis by the middle of the sixteenth century, England was still a predominantly agrarian society two centuries later, with many of its towns still being no larger than what we would term villages today. The section on the village community is therefore of particular interest.

Overall, Sharpe’s book serves as a useful complement to Keith Thomas’s three major works on early modern England; it makes for a fascinating read.