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Making a brand-new myth is a tricky thing. It takes a deft storytelling hand to weave folklore where none may have existed before, along with a keen eye for little details of horror and beauty that can convince a reader that the dark tale unfolding before them is as abiding as the legends that creep around their own homelands. In Melmoth, Sarah Perry brings us a gorgeously wrought tale that feels as timeless as its title character and as real as the monster you’re sure is sitting at the foot of your bed.

Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman working as a translator in Prague, has a relatively simple and quiet life, and while it’s not exciting, that’s exactly what she wants. Everything changes when her friend Karel reveals a letter passed on to him from an old friend—a letter claiming to reveal not only long-ago sins of history but also a mysterious figure called Melmoth, an eternal witness damned to wander the earth for all time and seek out those cursed by their own sins. Karel is troubled by the letter and the files that accompany it, and he seems consumed by it all . . . until he disappears. Left with nothing but confusion, Helen also becomes consumed by this ancient presence and what it means for her own sins.

The simple premise of a shadowy figure who stalks you and witnesses your sins, even if you’re not prepared to confront them, is the driving force of Melmoth, and Perry doesn’t waste a word of this lean, taut novel, effectively conveying an ever-encroaching sense of absolute dread. The story builds, unfolding layers of darkness without ever becoming garish or pretentious, until by the end you’re happily trapped in its eerie embrace.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Sarah Perry for Melmoth.

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Making a brand-new myth is a tricky thing. It takes a deft storytelling hand to weave folklore where none may have existed before, along with a keen eye for little details of horror and beauty that can convince a reader that the dark tale unfolding before them is as abiding as the legends that creep around their own homelands. In Melmoth, Sarah Perry brings us a gorgeously wrought tale that feels as timeless as its title character and as real as the monster you’re sure is sitting at the foot of your bed.

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The chill of The Silent Companions sneaks up on you and then settles in like a gray mist on a British moor. Which is no doubt intentional, since Laura Purcell’s third novel follows solidly in the Gothic literary tradition. It’s an unnerving read of a woman’s unraveling.

It’s 1865, and Elsie Bainbridge is en route to her new husband’s estate, The Bridge, in rural England. But it’s not a happy journey: Rupert Bainbridge has suddenly died there, and she’s traveling as a widow, not a bride, with only his cousin Sarah at her side. She’s also pregnant.

When Elsie arrives at The Bridge, things go from bad to worse. The housekeeper is borderline hostile, the servants are frightened of strange things that happen in the nursery, and mysterious 17th-century wooden figures are found in a locked room. These “silent companions” are a link to a Bainbridge ancestor, and Elsie starts to suspect they have a sinister purpose. She begins to believe that Rupert’s death was no accident—are she and her baby the next target?

Readers know more than Elsie does: From page one, her more modern story is intercut with both scenes from the 1630s, when the silent companions joined the household, and chapters from the near future, where a now-mute Elsie is confined to a sanatorium. But plenty of suspense comes from waiting to discover when and how the boom will fall.

Purcell ably summons a pervasive sense of doom and dread, and though few of the story beats will truly surprise genre fans, she conjures some genuinely creative horror elements. The Silent Companions is a shivery treat.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The chill of The Silent Companions sneaks up on you and then settles in like a gray mist on a British moor. Which is no doubt intentional, since Laura Purcell’s third novel follows solidly in the Gothic literary tradition. It’s an unnerving read of a woman’s unraveling.

Liana Liu’s second novel, Shadow Girl, is a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a ghost story. Mei’s father left home a couple of years before the book begins, and since then, she and her Chinese mother have struggled to make ends meet and keep her brother out of trouble. Now that Mei has graduated from high school, she’s making plans to earn money during the summer before attending the local city college in the fall.

After many years as a camp counselor and academic tutor, Mei gets a job tutoring a young girl named Ella Morison at her wealthy family’s summer house on Arrow Island. With room and board included along with generous pay, Mei is sure this is a great plan. When she gets to the island and meets Ella, Mei discovers the job may be harder than she anticipated. There is something wrong with the house and Ella’s family. Does Mei really see a ghost? Does Ella? What does the ghost want? While Mei tries to answer these supernatural questions, she also unravels her own complicated feelings about Ella’s stepbrother, Henry, her goals in life and who she really is.

Liu’s writing style is compelling, making Shadow Girl difficult to put down. Readers may find it strange that the main character’s name is mentioned only once, in the penultimate chapter, in Chinese. Regardless of this irritation, Shadow Girl is a darn good read.

 

Jennifer Bruer Kitchel is the librarian for a Pre-K through 8th level Catholic school.

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Liana Liu’s second novel, Shadow Girl, is a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a ghost story. Mei’s father left home a couple of years before the book begins, and since then, she and her Chinese mother have struggled to make ends meet and keep her brother out of trouble. Now that Mei has graduated from high school, she’s making plans to earn money during the summer before attending the local city college in the fall.

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Eve Chase’s atmospheric gothic mystery is set in the Cotswolds in England and spans 50 years.

In the summer of 1959, while their mother vacations in Marra­kech, the four Wilde sisters spend the summer with their Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry—who calls them the “Wildlings”—at Applecote Manor, their deceased father’s secluded family home.

The events of that fateful summer are seen through the eyes of Margot, the third oldest at 15 and the most intellectual. Flora, 17, is the beauty, heading off to finishing school in the fall. Pam, 16, tries her best to follow in Flora’s footsteps, and Dot, 12, born shortly after their father died, mostly feels left out.

When the four arrive at Applecote Manor, they find their aunt and uncle mired in depression after the disappearance of their only child, Audrey, five years earlier. The mystery seems to haunt the manor, and the girls begin to look for ways to amuse themselves outside its confining walls. Fortunately, they meet two young men: Harry Gore, whose family owns the grandest of the local manors, and his cousin, Tom.

The three older Wilde girls vie for the attentions of these handsome neighbors, threatening to weaken their ties of sisterhood. At the same time, Margot immerses herself in the mystery of Audrey’s disappearance, forging a strange relationship with her aunt, who sees Margot as a sort of reincarnation of her child.

Fifty years later, Chase’s second cast of characters makes its appearance at Applecote Manor. Jessie and Will Tucker leave London and buy the aging house in hopes of finding a better environment for Will’s 16-year-old daughter, Bella, who still struggles with her mother’s sudden death several years earlier. They know nothing of Audrey’s disappearance all those years ago—but they feel an eerie presence inhabiting their new home.

Chase moves back and forth in time between these two families and the secret that ties them together. Her second novel will appeal to fans of similar English-house mysteries, like those by Daphne du Maurier.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Eve Chase’s atmospheric gothic mystery is set in the Cotswolds in England and spans 50 years.

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The new gothic horror series from Madeline Roux (Asylum) begins with House of Furies, a creepy orphan tale full of occult creatures and gore. Louisa Ditton has always been different, making people uncomfortable without understanding why.

After making her escape from an abusive school, Louisa is surviving by telling fortunes on the street when an old crone offers her employment at a boarding house. A wary Louisa accepts the position, and enters the strange world of the Coldthistle House. A full staff and its proprietor, Mr. Morningside, live at the grand house. When Louisa discovers the mysterious, dark purpose of the house and its inhabitants, she wants to leave immediately, but discovers she is supernaturally bound.

Louisa is also concerned about one of the boarders, a young man named Lee, and is determined to protect him from the staff’s odd brand of justice. The better Louisa gets to know Lee, the more convinced she is that he needs saving; the better Louisa gets to know her fellow staff, the more she suspects that Coldthistle is the first place she has ever belonged.

Though Louisa’s voice and the narrative pacing are a bit uneven, the eerie atmosphere and occult mythology of her world sufficiently propel the reader forward. The tale may have benefited from more proof of Louisa’s strangeness and loneliness, but the reveal of her true identity is indeed satisfying. For teens who won’t shy away from a dark, gory and gothic story, House of Furies is a promising beginning to a series that could go in fascinating directions.

The new gothic horror series from Madeline Roux (Asylum) begins with House of Furies, a creepy orphan tale full of occult creatures and gore. Louisa Ditton has always been different, making people uncomfortable without understanding why.

Review by

Sarah Perry presents a comprehensively intelligent story in gorgeous, sprawling prose in The Essex Serpent. With a convincing tone that’s suggestive of the damp grayness of Victorian-era coastal England, Perry’s American debut (and her second novel) builds and unfolds with never-hurried pacing. Because of its density and care, it is not a page-turner, but more a slow burn to be savored and carefully pondered.

Following the death of her abusive husband, the young widow Cora Seaborne retreats with her son and nanny from London to Colchester, where the soil is ripe with fossils. The tale of a bloodthirsty sea creature has haunted the town of Colchester for centuries; its legacy is even etched into the ancient wood of the church pews. A recent earthquake is thought to have dislodged it and set loose its wrath upon the community.

Cora is a budding naturalist, which is common among housewives of her class and era. Cora, however, possesses exceptional intelligence and a newly unbridled passion for living. As she overturns the soil, collecting whatever she can carry, she hopes to discover glimpses of herself now that her husband is gone.

Cora befriends the local vicar, William Ransome, and his ailing wife, Stella. William and Cora have a stirring intellectual connection, one that both intrigues and infuriates them as they challenge each other’s respective beliefs. Cora believes the Colchester serpent is real and is enthralled by the opportunity to discover a new species. William believes the serpent to be a metaphor for the evils that dwell within everyone, a terror that can be dampened by faith.

The novel deftly leaps from character to character, including extremely well-written and complex children. While Perry writes a convincing romance, the romantic subplot deflates what could’ve been a feminist anthem of self-discovery and deep platonic intimacy.

Sarah Perry presents a comprehensively intelligent story in gorgeous, sprawling prose in The Essex Serpent. With a convincing tone that’s suggestive of the damp grayness of Victorian-era coastal England, Perry’s American debut (and her second novel) builds and unfolds with never-hurried pacing. Because of its density and care, it is not a page-turner, but more a slow burn to be savored and carefully pondered.

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“All this has happened before and will happen again,” President Roslyn said in “Battlestar Galactica,” and this sentiment informs Gian Sardar’s strange, beautifully written thriller. Abby Walters, a Los Angeles estate jeweler, is being tormented by nightmares—one nightmare in particular—that have returned after 14 years. They are so vivid and terrifying that she feels the need to get to the bottom of them, once and for all.

Abby believes her dreams have something to do with her grandmother’s ring, and something to do with what happened to her grandmother’s best friend, a woman named Claire Ballantine. Claire disappeared a few years after World War II, and her husband, William, killed himself shortly thereafter. Abby’s high school reunion is in the offing anyway, so she leaves her recalcitrant scriptwriter boyfriend behind and returns to her childhood home in Minnesota. She arrives just in time to learn there’s a serial rapist on the loose, and her former high school crush is one of the detectives trying to hunt him down.

Sardar titles Abby’s chapters “Now” and alternates them with “Then” chapters, which center on the unhappy Ballantines and Eva, the girl whom the wealthy and guilty William has turned to for solace. Eva is poor, from a Minnesota nowheresville that she longs to put behind her for several reasons. William may be her ticket out, but she truly loves him. Cleverly, subtly, even insidiously, Sardar shows how Abby’s life parallels the lives of the Ballantines and the hapless Eva. What happened “then” has much to do with the nightmares Abby’s having “now”; the author seems to suggest that some catastrophes can be impressed upon the genes as indelibly as they can on the mind and the memory of them passed on. No, Abby is not a secret descendant of Eva or the Ballantines, but she is a descendant of her grandmother. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that Sardar co-wrote a memoir called Psychic Junkie.

You Were Here will make you wonder about the nature of reality even as it gives you goosebumps.

“All this has happened before and will happen again,” President Roslyn said in “Battlestar Galactica,” and this sentiment informs Gian Sardar’s strange, beautifully written thriller. Abby Walters, a Los Angeles estate jeweler, is being tormented by nightmares—one nightmare in particular—that have returned after 14 years. They are so vivid and terrifying that she feels the need to get to the bottom of them, once and for all.

Review by

Grief Cottage, Gail Godwin’s latest novel, opens with a newly orphaned boy grappling with his mother’s fatal accident.

As his late mother never revealed the identity of his father, 11-year-old Marcus is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina to live with his great-aunt Charlotte, a reclusive artist whose paintings of seascapes and rustic summer cottages are popular with tourists. With an empty month to fill before school begins, Marcus is engaged by the safe hatching of sea turtles as they make their arduous journeys to the ocean. But his attention is also drawn to a desolate, abandoned house—the Grief Cottage, where an adolescent boy and his parents vanished during a hurricane half a century before.

With Charlotte holed up in her studio and drinking heavily, Marcus is left increasingly on his own. He is convinced that the ghost of the dead boy is trying to contact him and visits the cottage daily, until finally the spirit reveals himself. At the same time, Marcus befriends several of the island’s most notable residents, who fill in details of the island’s history and provide context to the story of the ill-fated family.

Like Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw, Grief Cottage is less a paranormal thriller than an exploration of the psyche’s creative tactics to survive trauma. The closer Marcus gets to the truth, the more the stories of past and present merge, until the dead are able to provide answers for the living.

Marcus’ precociousness occasionally requires a suspension of disbelief as total as any faith in the supernatural. Despite that, Godwin shows she is still at the top of her craft, using the fragile link between living and spirit to illuminate a young man’s coming of age in this keenly observed, powerful novel.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Grief Cottage, Gail Godwin’s latest novel, opens with a newly orphaned boy grappling with his mother’s fatal accident. As his late mother never revealed the identity of his father, 11-year-old Marcus is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina to live with his great-aunt Charlotte, a reclusive artist whose paintings of seascapes and rustic summer cottages are popular with tourists. With an empty month to fill before school begins, Marcus is engaged by the safe hatching of sea turtles as they make their arduous journeys to the ocean. But his attention is also drawn to a desolate, abandoned house—the Grief Cottage, where an adolescent boy and his parents vanished during a hurricane half a century before.

Review by

It’s easy to dismiss “spoiler alert” people for obsessing over what’s in a story rather than caring about how that story is actually told. Then a book like Mr. Splitfoot comes along, and you realize that this is a case where the spooky details matter—not because of something as shallow as “spoilers,” but because you’ll want to savor every fiendish bit of this book. With her latest novel, Samantha Hunt has delivered a gothic tale that’s both deliciously creepy and emotionally satisfying, combining supernatural intrigue and thematic weight. 

The novel opens with the story of Ruth and Nat, two orphans living in a kind of extremist cult who learned to channel the dead with the help of a con man and then discovered something dark. Years later, Ruth’s niece Cora becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and her Aunt Ruth appears to lead her on a mysterious journey across New York. Aunt Ruth’s life, and the purpose of her quest, are the stuff of deep, dark, luscious mystery, and this journey leads us to the heart of the novel and its gloomy secrets.

Hunt’s confidence in her story propels the book from page one, a task made all the more impressive when you consider the murky waters it traverses. Mr. Splitfoot is about the divide between the natural and the supernatural, between faith and reason, and in the hands of a storyteller like Hunt—an Orange Prize finalist and a winner of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” prize—the novel becomes something truly special. If you’re a lover of rule-breaking ghost stories, spoiler alert: Mr. Splitfoot is for you.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s easy to dismiss “spoiler alert” people for obsessing over what’s in a story rather than caring about how that story is actually told. Then a book like Mr. Splitfoot comes along, and you realize that this is a case where the spooky details matter—not because of something as shallow as “spoilers,” but because you’ll want to savor every fiendish bit of this book.
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Sarah Perry’s third book (and second to be published in the U.S.), Melmoth, is the dark journey of a group of people haunted by a mysterious, legendary figure whose purpose is to act as the eternal witness of cowardice and complicit sin. We chatted with Perry about the book’s origins and themes, and what she’s working on next.

How did the concept of Melmoth come to you, and how long were you familiar with it before starting this book?
I read Maturin’s gothic horror novel Melmoth the Wanderer back in about 2009 when I was studying for my Ph.D. I almost immediately had the idea of writing my own tribute to it, but creating a different version of Melmoth, and very importantly, making Melmoth a woman. It took me a long time to actually come round to writing it, because I had to build my own Melmoth myth, and work out for myself who she is, how she came to be cursed and what her role is. As soon as I had the idea of her being Melmoth the Witness, I knew that I was ready to write it.

“There isn’t really a difference between good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but that rather everyone . . . can do, or be involved in, dreadful crimes.”

Like your previous book, The Essex Serpent, Melmoth deals with the presence of a legendary figure in daily human life. What draws you to stories like this?
I think it is probably partly because I had an upbringing that was very religious, so that I was always reading Bible stories and had a constant sense of reality being inflected by myth and legend, and by the possibility of there being something “out there” that cannot be explained by science or reason. And I am especially interested in how we respond to different legends and superstitions by building them up according to our own fears and desires. There is something very powerful, in fiction and in real life, about how something only half-glimpsed and probably (or possibly) not real can become a kind of repository of very real fears and anxieties.

What drew you to Prague as your primary setting for this story?
My first two novels were set in East Anglia in the U.K., where I am from, and I knew that I wanted to force myself to write a different kind of novel that didn’t rely—for atmosphere and even narrative—on the marshland and old English churches and countryside that I was used to, and that I had written about before. I know Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk so well that I could describe them in detail with my eyes closed; what I wanted was to immerse myself in a city that was unfamiliar to me, and see how that changed my writing. When an opportunity came to be the UNESCO writer in residence in Prague, it was a great chance to move away from the landscapes I had been drawing inspiration from and challenge myself to something new.

The book’s narrative style features a voice in the prose that invites, sometimes literally, the reader to creep into the lives of your characters. It’s a very effective tool. How early on did you know that was something important to carrying this narrative?
This was crucial right from the start. I wanted to write a book that was very pure in its gothic sensation, which is to say, forces the reader to take part in the novel just as much as the characters. That’s a really important part of the gothic, and something that is quite hard to pull off—that idea that the reader needs to be as thrilled, seduced, repulsed and frightened as any of the characters. So I decided that I wanted to address the reader directly and force them into a confrontation with Melmoth herself, in the hope that it would drive forward that sense of being immersed—not always comfortably, I suspect!—in the book.

Melmoth is obviously the title character, but Helen is in many ways just as fascinating. How did she arrive in the story? Did she come before Melmoth?
She came after Melmoth, and in some ways what I wanted to do was to focus on an apparently very drab and small and plain person (very different from Cora Seaborne in The Essex Serpent), to challenge the idea that only people who are very charismatic and attractive and charming can be the lead character in a novel, or be subject to the kind of enormous feelings of guilt and loneliness that Helen feels. I also wanted to posit the idea that there isn’t really a difference between good people who do good things and bad people who do bad things, but that rather everyone—even little, quiet people like Helen—can do, or be involved in, dreadful crimes.

Were there other characters besides the ones present in the book that you considered being touched by Melmoth?
I spent a lot of time thinking about possible storylines of people who were in desperate situations in their lives, where Melmoth might have been watching. I remember reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon while I was in Prague, and wanting a narrative that was to do with someone in solitary confinement in a prison cell and communicating with someone in the cell next door. But I could never quite locate the prisoner, or the country, and so he remains in my imagination somewhere.

Complicity in the sins of history—whether on a macro or micro scale—is a key theme in Melmoth, and a key theme of news and commentary right now. How much, if at all, did the state of current events filter into your writing and the lives of your characters with this book?
I started writing the book as a direct response to what I was seeing unfolding in the world. At the time when The Essex Serpent was first published in the U.K., there were many atrocities unfolding in the world—ISIS, in particular, was constantly in the headlines, and there were images every day of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe and drowning in the Mediterranean. I wanted to feel that I could continue writing fiction but that I could do so with a sense of real moral responsibility: that I could in some way not necessarily make a change, but live in the world in an active and morally engaged sense. So the book became about the act of bearing witness, not only to historical events but also by implication to what is unfolding around us now.

Now that Melmoth is out in the world, what are you working on now?
I think of Melmoth as being the last book in a kind of trilogy of gothic fiction, so I am moving away from that now, but it is very early, and the book hasn’t quite begun to take shape.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Melmoth.

Author photo by Jamie Drew

Sarah Perry’s third book (and second to be published in the U.S.), Melmoth, is the dark journey of a group of people haunted by a mysterious, legendary figure whose purpose is to act as the eternal witness of cowardice and complicit sin. We chatted with Perry about the book’s origins and themes, and what she’s working on next.

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