Tag Archives: Yorkshire

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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The Year ahead in Writing

The past year has been a busy one in terms of writing and publications, with two novelettes and four novellas having seen the light of day, as well as an anthology of near 80,000 words containing five of these tales. That said, I’ve not published anything ‘new’ since February. ‘What has this slugabed been up to since then?’ you may justifiably ask yourself, taking note of this creative hiatus. Well, quite a bit, as it turns out, although nothing which has allowed me to issue anything new thus far.

Two further tales have been planned and plotted in some depth, and a third has been outlined. One of these, a mystery with occult elements, this time set in Yorkshire, is progressing well, with several thousand words already having been written. Its action plays out over three years – 1949, 1906 and 1537 – and incorporates an unexplained and unpleasant discovery made in the vicinity of Barden Tower. Another, a mystery set on Dartmoor in the early 1920s, draws upon a famously peculiar piece of period folklore that attracted the attention of the national press at the time. I take the raw bones of this legend, clothe them in a little fictional flesh, and add a suitable twist or two. The third, which is currently in a rather more embryonic state, is a contemporary tale of the supernatural and psychological horror that focuses upon the unforeseen consequences attendant upon the restoration of a church monument.

Which of the three tales outlined in the above paragraph sees the light of day first remains to be seen, for most of my time is being consumed by my other long-term project – the completion of my novel, ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return’. It may therefore be the case that either this longer piece is published later this year, or I once again put it on the backburner to release one of the novellas/novelettes in the interim. Hopefully, you’ll find each of these tales to your taste.

If you should be curious as to what is already available, click here to begin unravelling the mystery.

Review: ‘To Walk Invisible,’ BBC1, 29 December 2016

Being otherwise engaged on the evening of 29 December, I finally got around to watching this BBC drama about the Brontës last night. It made for two hours of engaging viewing, with nineteenth-century Haworth brought to life with the assistance of a little CGI and ample additional muck strewn across its cobbled main street. It was a handsome production that paid a great deal of attention to period detail, so what we saw certainly looked as authentic as is practicable in such pieces. For the greater part of the time, the village and surrounding landscape were enveloped in a characteristic Pennine gloom that appeared to have penetrated to the very heart of the parsonage and the individuals who lived within it.

Although the programme opened with the three Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell as children, it dealt, in the main, with their lives as adults, with Branwell’s failures and mental and physical disintegration providing much of the meat of the drama. The story was strong, as was the cast, and the script was, to the greater part, solid, and yet for me this production seemed not to quite realise its full potential. It seemed to suffer from a phenomenon that has crept into much television drama in recent years: ‘soapification.’

‘“Soapification”? What in the blazes does he mean?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is nothing more than the process of making drama fit increasingly into the mould of soap opera, more specifically, making it conform to those exemplars of the genre that revel in misery, shouting and perpetual ill-temper; it was an approach pioneered and popularised by Brookside, and taken up and further exaggerated by Eastenders. Thus it was that the only laughter that we witnessed during the two hours was in one of Branwell’s nightmares, where his family, acquaintances and former lover were laughing at him in a scene of painful humiliation. Amongst the sisters themselves, there was a veritable surfeit of scowling and furrowed brows, a simmering anger unleavened by lighter moments, an atmosphere and mood so unremittingly gloom laden that it was a wonder that the entire family did not lapse into alcoholism and opiate addiction. Their preferred mode of speaking, even whilst out in the wilds of the moors out of earshot of any sheep, let alone any other human being, was whispering, their grumbling and accusatory susurrations at times beyond the range of the viewer’s ear. These observations tempted me to entertain other potential titles for the drama, such as ‘To Speak Inaudible,’ or ‘To Smile Imperceptible.’

Branwell was portrayed as an unruly and disruptive irritant, which I’m sure he was in real life, but the rages that the character in this production displayed seemed to be more appropriate to an adolescent than to a man who was 31 at the time of his death. I had envisioned him as a more subdued depressive, drinking and doping (speaking of which, there appeared to be no reference to his frequent abuse of opiates in this drama) himself to death, whilst his family helplessly looked on. The way in which his manners and conduct, as well as those of his sisters, were portrayed in this programme, did not seem to ring true for the offspring of a nineteenth-century clergyman; the twenty-first century appeared to have rudely intruded into the world of the 1840s.

There must have been some laughter in the lives of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, besides all of the Sturm und Drang which we encountered in this vision of their lives, or at least some brief moments (other than learning of their commercial literary success) during which they experienced at least a little levity. This drama would have benefitted from injecting a little colour into the all-pervading darkness with which it was enveloped; no set of lives is quite so monochrome.