by Jonathan Aycliffe
Writer Peter Clare has bright hopes that a summer by the sea in Cornwall will renew his faltering marriage. But when his wife becomes the next victim of "the vanishments" of Petherick House, Peter is plunged into a battle with unspeakable evil.
I'm going to have a hard time rating this one. It lacked a completely satisfying conclusion-- but on the other hand, I found it really, really creepy. Was most of it a hodge-podge of "creepy stuff" we've seen or read before? Yes, but it was still creepy! I'd rather an author use tried and true eerie elements than attempt to make something entirely original that simply falls flat. (Or in other words, there's a reason these things seem familiar. They work, so no wonder they're kept in constant rotation.)
I recommend this book for readers more interested in the journey than the destination-- anyone in the mood for shivers. Prepare to think twice about walking through the house in the dark, and don't be surprised if you get the feeling that something's looking over your shoulder as you read...
In Greater Detail (with SPOILERS):
-- Some things (like the fact that the Clares were never meant to have been allowed to rent Petherick House) were immediately obvious. Others should have been obvious, but for some reason I missed them. (Witness the location of Catherine's body, hinted at early on by the clue in Sarah's painting.)
-- This is the second book I've read (in recent memory) with a coin-fed meter box for electricity in a rented building/room. (The other was Stella Gibbons' Starlight, incidentally.) I don't know if that was/is a "British thing"-- or just not an American thing... or if it's (been) done in the U.S., too, and I only happen never to have seen or heard about it.
I guess it makes sense for a rented place, but it strikes me as odd. I can't imagine living somewhere where I'd have to put coins in a box to keep the lights on, as opposed to paying a monthly bill through the mail. On the positive side(?), I guess it would serve to make you more immediately conscious of your electricity usage.
(...Okay, looked it up. It seems they were used in at least parts of the U.S. in the early fifties. They were installed as a "penalty" if you had a history of not paying your bill! The person I found discussing it called it a quarter meter.)
-- I was uncertain for a while of when the book took place. I guess it was meant to be present-day (published in the mid-90s, with most of the action taking place about ten years prior to that). Eventually, there is enough information given (Peter's age, year of conviction, etc.) that you could narrow it down to almost the exact time, if you were that interested. (I'm not.)
-- I liked how quickly things started happening. None of this "everything seemed fine for several days/weeks" business. Sarah knows right away that something's wrong.
-- I've read several other reader reviews, already, and some of the points others have made echoed my own thoughts. First, Peter is an unsympathetic character. Early in the book, he admits to himself (and us) that his wife doesn't mean "everything" to him. Then we have his casual reaction to her fears. He emotionally blackmails her into staying at Petherick House, even though he knows there's something "off" about the place and that it's troubling her. Why is he so determined that they stay? Then when she goes missing, he doesn't seem especially bothered. Even taking into consideration the fact that they've had problems in the past, it's not the behavior of a loving husband. ("The devil of it was that I loved her very much. We had been married thirteen years." ...Yes, I can really sense the great love you felt toward her.) Later, when we learn more about Peter's history, it's even more difficult to sympathize with him.
-- Speaking of Peter's history, it's awfully suspicious that the reader doesn't learn the particulars of his past (his drunken accidental killing of his own daughter, his time in prison, and the subject of his early works) until so late in the book. It lends credence to one reader/reviewer's suggestion that Peter is an unreliable narrator who may be even less innocent than he would have us believe. How much of this narrative can we trust?
-- It seems unlikely that Sarah would stay with Peter, given the way their daughter died. Even if you can accept that she manages to forgive him, why would Susan and Tim leave their own young daughter in Peter's care while Susan's off at work? Maybe he's stopped drinking, but I can't imagine entrusting my child to someone with that kind of history. Not worth the risk.
-- The bleak insertions of the "present-day Peter" into the narrative removes all hope for a happy resolution and darkens an already dark tale. From those "present-day" comments, I think we're meant to infer that Peter has concluded that his efforts to "lay the ghosts" haven't been entirely successful. The mother and child are at peace, yes, but Agnes is as bitter and malevolent as ever. In killing Susannah Adderstone, he saved Rachel, but Agnes is still there, haunting Petherick House. When Peter gets out of prison and has nowhere to go but there, she will be waiting to torment him in his final days.
-- There were so many parallels that they got a little bit silly. The death/disappearance dates all falling on July 16th. Sarah's resemblance to Susannah Trevorrow. Sarah (according to her sister) just happening to have bought a bracelet that looks exactly like the one belonging to Susannah Trevorrow. Susannah Adderstone's resemblance to Agnes. The inspectors both dying of TB within a few months of taking on the cases of "vanishment". Both Peter's and S. Trevorrow's daughters being named "Catherine". Some of it is explained away by the blood link-- but apparently several young women and children in the community have gone missing or been affected without any family connection. Rachel, too, is profoundly affected, but there's no reason to suspect that she was related to the Trevorrows.
-- Speaking of Rachel... Are we meant to believe that she's being temporarily possessed by Catherine Trevorrow's spirit? Or is she supposed to be remembering a past life? I really hope it's the former, because the latter is just too much of a coincidence, don't you think? The fact that it's even a question (for me, at least) is a testament to the fact that things are rather in a jumble in this book. The author's method seems to have been to take a little of this, a little of that, and a touch of something else, then swirl it all together and hope that it makes sense in the end. All (or most) of the individual elements are good (creepy) on their own, but somehow there's a little less coherent adhesion than one might have hoped. The sum of the parts? Not greater than the whole, I'm afraid.
-- That said, some of those parts are super creepy. When we finally learn exactly what happened in the house... Agnes calmly making herself a meal after locking away her sister and niece... Then the terrible discovery she makes when she opens the door again... The image of Susannah standing, staring out that window... ~shudder~ And then Agnes covering the window and leaving Susannah to die in the dark. Yeah, that's scary.
-- The legal system seems to let Peter off fairly lightly for his crimes. For the conviction of manslaughter (the accidental, drunken killing of his daughter), he spent five years in prison. Then the incident with Susannah Adderstone took place. We're told that he was only acting to save Rachel's young life, but to the outside world, it looks like he's just taken an axe to the neck of an innocent young woman, with no provocation. (She'd have no reason for wanting to harm Rachel. No violent past and hardly any connection to Peter. Also, this happened in a house her father owns, whereas Peter is hiding out after having "abducted" Rachel.) For this offense, he's spent ten years in prison. He tells us, "in a few years I shall be a free man again." Good grief! He's literally an axe murderer, in the eyes of the law. At what point do they decide to just keep you away from other people for the rest of your life?
-- Thinking over the book, there's one thing that happens toward the end that I just can't completely figure out. I've tried reading reviews, but I've only found other readers equally as confused. This is the problem: After killing Susannah A. (possessed by Agnes), he's recounting the two things he had to do. One was burying Catherine T.'s remains with her mother's in the graveyard. (He discovered those remains hidden in one of the walls of the room where she died.) The other task "was to go downstairs and break open the old cupboard that Agnes had boarded up, the one between the kitchen and the study. What I found there I wrapped in sheets the next morning, after the mist had cleared. I took the bundles down to the cliff and threw them into the sea. It was better no one knew. Tredannack and its inhabitants would not rest any easier for being told."
The question is, what was in the cupboard? The best solution I can come up with is that it's the rest of the physical evidence of what Agnes did to her sister and niece. She threw her sister into the ocean, and she hid what was left of her niece behind a wall, but there had also been a lot of other "stuff" in her sister's room. Mr. Adderstone told Peter, "The room had been ripped to shreds. Driven mad with thirst and hunger, Susannah had torn the bedclothes to pieces. She had stripped the paper from the walls. Her own clothes had been shredded. ... There was a lot of blood." And after Susannah finally died, Agnes had to get rid of the evidence: "All I know is that somehow she cleared the room." My guess is that the cupboard/closet was stuffed with all of the ripped fabric and wallpaper-- and whatever Agnes had to use to clean all traces of blood. She put them in there, then sealed them in, never to be seen again. Only Rachel-as-Catherine remembered that there used to be a door, and mentioned it to Peter, who apparently put two and two together.
Throwing the stained, befouled shreds of fabric and wallpaper into the sea would've been unwise, because someone might have found them and linked them to Petherick House. Why she wouldn't have burned or buried them, I can't say. I'm also not sure how long those kinds of things would last, hidden away in a closet-- but it's the only explanation I can come up with, so until something better comes along...
-- Certain aspects of this book remind me of The Uninvited (a.k.a. Uneasy Freehold)-- only this story is about 100 times darker.
-- Quibbles aside, it was an absorbing read, and I'd like to try another of the author's books, sometime.