Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
This is not my usual sort of read, but I decided to give it go when a copy was sent my way and the blurbs for the three novellas contained in the collection pricked my interest: dangerous night time adventures in a rural Cathedral; a man who loses his way in the middle of nowhere on a stormy night, encountering a house and woman which both seem to disappear. The gothic as a genre is not one I have experienced much, (though I have enjoyed the work of Mary Roberts Rhinehart and Ethel Lina White), despite this being one of several genres which contributed to what we now know and enjoy as detective/mystery fiction.
This story is narrated by a man looking back to his childhood before WW1 and an unnerving experience he and a fellow school pupil went through: ‘Was there a ghost? Was there, in a manner of speaking a murder?’ He ends up having to spend Christmas with a retired school master near the cathedral school he goes to in the Fens, along with another boy named Faraday. They have a difficult friendship due to age and school group divisions, but loneliness brings them together. Various factors contribute towards their decision to go to the cathedral one night; snippets of fireside stories, mysterious musical notes which Faraday begins to hear more and more, fear of being thought a coward and for Faraday a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the school and his peers, before the holidays are over.
Despite having quite a suspense filled blurb the actuality is rather lacklustre, not even being mildly scary, sinister or spine tingling, which if you are writing gothic influenced novels is essential. The rudimentary gothic elements in this story are not used effectively and feel constrained to the final chapters, as the story has quite a long build up, which is a problematic in an 80 odd page story. Faraday and the narrator are interesting child characters to follow and it was interesting to compare how the narrator saw things as a child, to how he sees them now. At times the narrative style or lexicon falls into predictable grooves such as in the sentiments the narrator gives on the First World War: ‘The First World War, that is, the one that was meant to end them all.’ Equally I felt at times the writer belabours certain points which I think readers are already familiar with and therefore would only need a shorthand reminder. One particular instance is when the narrator talks for a while about the faulty nature of memory. Since this is a retrospective story I think the reader already has this sussed.
The Leper House
With references to a humanist funeral service and Kindles this is a decidedly more modern set story. Our first person narrator this time gets lost in the middle of nowhere, with a punctured tire on stormy night, having attended their sister’s funeral earlier in the day. A sister they had an antagonistic relationship with. His luck seems to be in though when someone lets him stay the night in their converted garage. Yet during this night our narrator meets a mysterious woman, who is in the middle of a fraught relationship. Their time together is but a brief encounter, one the narrator wishes to return to. He is stopped in his tracks the following morning though when he finds that the woman and the home she lived in are not there.
The revealing of information in this story is well done and a picture of how the narrator got on with his sister is gradually built up. Yet again despite such intriguing plot items as a disappearing house, there is a lack of a mystery in this story and once more I think this happens because the build-up in this story takes up so much space there is not enough time to develop the mystery aspect and consequently it is a mystery which is left unresolved at the end of the book and the narrator ill-fittingly drops it like a child dropping a toy. Furthermore, although a lot of the story takes place in a rural area on a stormy night it didn’t communicate much tension or drama, in the way Ethel Lina White does in Some Must Watch (1933).
A woman this time narrates the story which looks at when her husband brought his nephew, Jack to come live with them after having been invalidated out of the army. Jack is clearly suffering from PTSD and prefers to spend his time out of doors. In particular despite having a poor relationship with Clare’s cat, Jack is obsessed with proving the existence of a wild cat in the nearby forest. The remainder of the story looks at what follows, as relationships become entangled and complicated and Jack’s own state of mind becomes a greater cause for concern, as is the long cut on his arm which never seems to heal.
This was probably my least favourite of the three novellas as the gothic element in this is negligible to say the least and although intertwined with the cat element of the book, it ultimately becomes a tangent which never fully fits with the rest of the story which looks at the complicated dynamics going on between Clare, her husband and Jack.
I think to be honest this book is being mis-packaged as being of the gothic persuasion, an image fostered by the cover and title. The gothic elements aren’t substantial enough to warrant it and I did not feel they were used effectively, especially given the constraint of each story being a novel rather than a novella. In particular I felt the expected atmosphere of a gothic inspired/influenced story was not there and this is partially down to the first person narration not being used enough to achieve this aim and also because the stories tend to focus more on the preliminary events, only to then squeeze the comparatively more dramatic events into a matter of pages.
It may well be the case that this book was just not for me as the back of the book includes far more positive snippets from other reviews with C. J. Sansom finding it ‘gripping… moving’ and the Times Literary Supplement making parallels between Taylor’s work and Hilary Mantel’s. Whilst The Observer found it ‘brilliantly atmospheric’ and The Sunday Times writes that ‘Taylor’s mastery of plot and character show to great effect.’