All posts by H.E. Bulstrode1815

Review of The Lost Village by Neil Spring

In this book, Neil Spring succeeds in creating moments of genuine horror that will make the reader flinch, but there were occasions, I’m afraid, when I flinched in horror for very different reasons altogether. It is a book that purports to have at its heart a supernatural mystery, specifically the haunting of the abandoned village of Imber, so I must make it clear that I have no problem with suspending disbelief in such phenomena for a story of this nature, but there were elements of this novel that simply stretched credulity beyond breaking point. From his description of Imber, for example, gripped by frost and covered in snow, you would think that he had set this tale in the middle of a harsh English winter, but the action unfolds at the end of October. Such weather at this time of year is atypical even for the lofty heights of the Cairngorm Mountains, let alone for Salisbury Plain. He even refers to it being ‘winter’ at one point, even though it is spelt out that the action is taking place around Halloween. Earlier in the story he describes the art deco fixtures of a cinema as being ‘old’, even though the character making this observation is reflecting on their ‘oldness’ in 1932, when Art Deco was the style of the moment.  

With respect to this self-same cinema, he makes mention of his characters hearing the wind whistling around outside whilst they are stood in its auditorium. Can anyone hear the wind when standing in the auditorium unless it should be issuing from the cinema’s speakers? No. To think that this could be the case is ‘a big ask’ on the part of the author, who places this anachronistic ‘big ask’ phrase into the mouth of his twenty-something heroine in the autumn of 1932. I can recall the jarring effect of hearing someone speak this phrase for the first time a few years ago, and concluded that it must have been a recent Transatlantic borrowing smuggled into English to displace the more restrained native ‘it’s a bit much’. Other Americanisms cropped up in the prose of this Welsh writer, slipped into the speech of his 1930s English characters, presumably to appeal to a contemporary American readership. The result left his prose bobbing about in the turbulent and choppy waters of the mid-Atlantic, but appearing far more artificial than the once well-known drawl of Masterchef and Through the Keyhole presenter Lloyd Grossman.  

I found that I warmed neither to his protagonist – Sarah Grey, anachronistically placing career before family – and her erstwhile employer/foil, the ghost hunter Harry Price, who came across as some sort of American gumshoe detective. On the plus side, the story did deliver an interesting twist at the end, but the central premise of the book simply didn’t ring true to me, as the author seemed to be projecting contemporary social norms regarding inheritance law into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The gentry could, and would, pass on the bulk of their estate to their eldest son, even if he did have older sisters; the existence of such sisters would not hinder this practice, and thus the central motivation for the frankly deranged and utterly unbelievable actions of the novel’s antagonist are removed at a stroke.  

Having said all of this, I might be seeming a little harsh, but my remarks and quibbles are intended to highlight how this could have been a better book. Many readers will find it to their taste and like it just as it is, but for me, it could have benefited from the attentions of a more competent copy editor, and a sharper and more-focused plot. It read more like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie than a novel, and I can imagine it making for a diverting enough 90 minutes or so on ‘film’. Don’t be surprised if reading this book summons up the unnerving spectres of Scooby and Shaggy: ‘If it weren’t for those pesky kids!’

The Ghost Hunter by Neil Spring may be purchased here.

Review of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

Ghost stories are conventionally supposed to elicit at least a frisson of fear, but just occasionally, one will come along that breaks this rule and does so with aplomb. One such story is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, initially written for the stage in a single creative burst one week in 1941, and adapted for the big screen in 1947. One of the bleakest moments of the war seems, in this case, to have brought forth a ghost story of a contrastingly light mood. The audience does not so much shudder with terror, as with barely suppressed laughter, if it bothers to suppress it at all. It is a creation imbued with an abundant acid wit, nowhere more manifest than in the lively repartee between the eponymous spirit, Elvira, and her remarried husband, the author, Charles Condomine. In the film version, Kay Hammond, all ghastly greenish white set off against a lurid red lipstick, and Rex Harrison, the very model of an impeccably turned out English gent, play their roles with a decided verve. And then there is Margaret Rutherford, as the inept medium Madam Arcati, who provides an energetically eccentric performance that steals more than a scene or two.

The rivalry between Condomine’s murderously devoted former spouse and his new wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), is brought crashing into the present quite unwittingly by the efforts of Madam Arcati. The latter has been invited to the author’s abode purely so that he might make notes on the tricks of the trade employed by mediums, for his forthcoming mystery – The Unseen. However, what neither he, nor Ruth, expect, is that anything will come of it, for both of them view mediumship as the purest bunkum. Madam Arcati on the other hand, is not amused to learn of their attitude towards her inexpertly mastered craft. The sceptics soon learn to rue their disregard for her powers.

You may find this rather strange, but the film for me brought to mind something that I have previously mused upon whilst regarding those late-mediaeval and early-modern tombs that feature effigies of a deceased husband flanked by his first and second wives: just how were they all supposed to get along in the afterlife? Blithe Spirit, perhaps, provides the answer: they squabble a great deal.

Coward’s film was one of those influences that fed into the penning of my first ghost story, and its recent follow-up, Old Crotchet’s Return, which has just been released on Amazon in Kindle, and in paperback. Its blurb follows below:

Old Crotchet’s Return: a high-spirited romp of a ghost story set in 1920s England.
George Simpkins is in a state, and it’s not just because of the gin. His wife remains missing, his son a curious and callous enigma, and, most worryingly of all, his spouse’s erstwhile schoolmate, the witheringly waspish Cynthia, has plans afoot for his future. An invitation to a festive break in the country brings London society into collision with half-cracked Somerset locals steeped in cider and superstition, as well as a far from festively inclined spirit. Welcome to the world of Hinton St Cuthbert, the parish with a past, but seemingly no future.

Amazon UK
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon US
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Australia
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Canada
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07K7X33MD

Review of Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler

This book, a collection of tales deftly edited and translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, is a delight to read, and is guaranteed to provide many hours of entertainment for those who possess a taste for folklore and fairy tale. The Russian folkloric tradition is a particularly rich and captivating one, and this sizeable volume manages to introduce English-speaking readers to many stories that they may not previously have encountered, although one of the recurrent characters – Baba Yaga – will be well known by name if nothing else.

It brings together a selection of stories written by a number of the most gifted Russian writers to have put their own personal spin on traditional themes and stories, as well as oral tales collected by the Russian equivalent of the Grimm brothers – nineteenth-century folklorist Aleksandr Afanasyev. Amongst the more well-known examples provided by Afanasyev are Vasilisa the Fair, and The Frog Princess, both of which you may be aware of through illustrations rather than having read the stories themselves. Talking of which, many of you will doubtless have happened upon the enchanting folktale illustrations created by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, who also provides a contribution to this book in the form of his interpretation of Ivan Tsarevich, the Grey Wolf and the Firebird. As the book also provides some biographical details relating to the featured authors, it was sad to learn that Bilibin died in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942 after having returned to Soviet Russia in 1936 after a long period of exile. A personal tragedy amidst millions of others.

A particular favourite of mine in this selection is Pushkin’s A Tale about a Fisherman and a Fish, which raised a wry smile. A nice little morality tale if ever there was one, and just as apt today as ever it has been.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov can be previewed and purchased from Amazon by clicking on the image above, or here.

 

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.

Review of Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

A light appetiser of a tale to be read in a single sitting, that will produce neither upset, nor any great sense of satisfaction in the reader. Although the writing is competent and not without atmosphere, and its Mary Shelleyesque theme diverting enough, Printer’s Devil Court possesses all the hallmarks of a story that should either have been shorter, or longer, but not the length that it is. It reads like a first draft for something meant to be more substantial, but which, for whatever reason, was left in its embryonic form and served up to the public. Either the author lacked the requisite motivation and energy to work it up into anything longer, or the demands of the publisher led to its seeing the light of day, semi-formed, in the autumn run-up to the Christmas book-buying extravaganza. A number of obvious typographic errors, as well as a certain peculiarity relating to its illustration, suggest that it was the latter. If this story had been written by anyone with a lesser public profile than Susan Hill, it strikes me that it would not have found a publisher.  

The illustrator, it would seem, had read no further than the first sentence, and given it a cursory glance at that, before setting about producing the engravings for this sumptuously bound little volume. Why would I say this? Well, the opening lines make reference to ‘the days of Dickens’, although if we set these four words within the context of a slightly longer sentence fragment we learn that the tale was set quite some time later, for it refers to ‘an area which could not at the time have changed greatly since the days of Dickens.’ The illustrator has therefore diligently produced a set of charming illustrations from the age of Cruikshank, that punctuate the text here and there with figures sporting the fashions of the 1840s/1850s, and a paddle steamer alongside a fully rigged man-o’-war at rest on the Thames at Greenwich. All very Dickensian, which is something of a problem, for the story itself is not, despite its vague and murky setting amidst London’s fog and frost. The sole concrete temporal reference is a mention of the protagonist’s visit to London at the bidding of his stepson, which takes place after the Blitz had wrought its destruction. This is said to have been approximately forty years after he, then in his mid-twenties, had left London for a life in the country. This would suggest that the setting for the pivotal scene was most likely Edwardian London, or possibly at a push, the capital during the fin de siècle. The illustrations therefore, constitute a most peculiar, and glaring, anachronism.  

The story, in many respects, is as vague and ephemeral as an ectoplasmic materialisation, its form and setting lightly sketched in an impressionistic manner, its characters written with suggestive strokes that impress themselves upon the reader’s imagination no more than the phantom, that lends the tale its spectral element, imposed its form upon the air that it occupied.  

To preview or purchase Printer’s Devil Court, either click here, or upon the picture above.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s comic ghostly novella Old Crotchet’s Return – a sequel to Old Crotchet – will be published shortly. To find out when, please sign up to his mailing list by clicking here.

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.