The fens of Edwardian Suffolk, gentlemanly antiquarianism, mediaeval demonology, murder and madness make for a potent and captivating gothic brew in Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, and if you should have a taste for any one or more of these elements, then you will most likely find this tale to your liking. Although her previous novels Thin Air and Dark Matter had both been recommended to me, it was Wakenhyrst that particularly appealed. Then again, I’m probably in something of a minority in being lured in by the setting of rural England before the Great War, rather than by that of either the Himalayas or the Arctic.
Once I had opened the book and started to read, the only annoyance I experienced was that of having to put it down and get on with the necessities of life. I was captivated from the start. It was engrossing and pacily written, with the opening mystery having me hooked from the outset. The central character of the story is Maud, the precociously bright and perceptive daughter of a man who brooks no challenge to his authority within the confines of the familial home. It is a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist finds the structure of her existence dictated by the religious and scholarly obsessions of her self-absorbed father, who has developed a fascination with the life of a late-mediaeval local mystic. That said, there’s probably as much, if not more, of Richard Dadd about Edmund Stearne than there is of M.R. James.
As the story unfolds, Maud is gripped with an increasing sense of horror as she realises how her father’s researches and the discovery of a ‘doom’ painting in the local church lead him to develop increasingly irrational behaviours as they intersect with a dark secret from his past. Whereas he is quite emphatic about there being a divide between his ‘true’ and ‘rational’ religion, and the folkloric superstitions of his staff, his daughter understands that there is little that separates the two. In time, as a series of unsettling events unfold within the walls of the house and in the immediate locality, Edmund Stearne’s faith morphs into something much darker. There is a strong whiff of the mephitic that emanates from the fen, but as to its precise nature, I shall leave that for the reader to discover.
Paver’s book is a masterfully written mystery, whose sense of suspense carries the reader forward at a great rate of knots, deftly capturing the authentic voice of sensationalist sixties journalistic reportage in its opening, as well as successfully transporting us back to a claustrophobic and misogynist past. Steeped in rural superstition and supernaturalism, Wakenhyrst provides a contemporary and worthy addition to the East Anglian ghost stories of M.R. James. In the closing chapter some rather witty and astute observations are made by a couple of the characters as to what would happen to the story should it fall into the hands of a Hollywood producer. Let’s hope that it does not, and also that it does not fall prey to adaptation by the BBC, for the latter would surely also rip the guts out of this excellent story and stuff it full of its own extraneous political agendas. Wakenhyrst deserves to be adapted for the big screen, but it needs to be handled by a capable director who wishes to translate its essence to a cinematic audience, rather than to ride it as a hobbyhorse for their own personal preoccupations.