Whispers in the Darkby Jonathan Aycliffe
At the end of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Metcalf is a child of good fortune: a prosperous father, a loving mother, and a loved brother all cocoon her from the fears of the outside world. But then her father dies… and she is plunged into poverty and the workhouse becomes her miserable home.
Yet Charlotte escapes, determined to find her lost brother, and her search brings her to Barras Hall, home of unknown relations where fine clothes, good food and wealth seem to promise her all she desires. But at night the horror begins – of sound and sense, surpassing all earthy terror. And Charlotte finds that daytime comfort comes at a price...and she must fulfill her terrible destiny.
Don't expect an especially "literary" book, but come prepared for a spine-tingling Gothic chiller. If you're hoping for a few shivers, you're likely to find them here. Is it predictable? Well, yes, but it made me shudder, all the same.
This is my second read of this author, the first being The Vanishment, and I hope to read the others, in time. Aycliffe has a writing style that is (generally speaking) effortless to read, which makes the pages fly.
Having said that, the beginning of Whispers in the Dark is a little slow, and Charlotte's trials and tribulations before she arrives at Barras Hall are at times a trifle too melodramatic for my tastes-- but the pace soon picks up.
This tale is creepy, dark, and atmospheric. There's not much gore, for those of us who abhor "body horror" or physical horror in general; instead, an abundance of eerie moments provide just the right level of fairly genteel creepiness.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I do like a story told in journal/diary format. This one really takes that trick and runs with it! Frames within frames! We start out with correspondence between a vicar and the son of a doctor who had an elderly patient (Charlotte) with a most unusual personal history. The son sends all relevant papers to his friend, the vicar-- chief among them, Charlotte's memoir/journal. Now, within that journal, we are treated to two other journals/diaries (Caroline's and James Ayrton's), which Charlotte somehow remembers word for word after all these years. (Yes, I know. No fair, making fun of a format I've just professed to enjoy!)
--There are things we never learn for certain:
----What exactly happened to Antonia's fiance? He's buried on the family grounds-- but not in the family cemetery, if I remember correctly. Why?
----Was Caroline really Anthony's daughter?
----Did Antonia and Anthony's incestuous relationship start before or after Antonia's fiance's death?
----How much did the servants really know, and why did they go along with the Ayrtons' evil ways? (We know that the housekeeper knew a lot, if not all. Why on earth did she stay after her own son was killed? To be closer to him, in some strange way?)
----What happened to poor Jasper? (Ok, I guess we know; I just wish he'd survived... Poor doggy.)
----When Charlotte sees the housekeeper leaving the locked room, she thinks she sees her carrying some blood-stained cloths, which suggests that the Ayrtons are holding someone (Arthur?) prisoner in the room. However, we later learn that Arthur's been in the folly the whole time. So where did those bloodied cloths come from? Did Charlotte just imagine they were blood-stained?
----What drives Antonia to burn down the house? (Guilt? Fear? Emotional exhaustion? Insanity? What made her do it then, instead of any of the other times they'd been involved in the murder of an innocent?)
----What happens to the children that are sacrificed at the folly? There is repeated reference to "hunger", but it's never completely clear what sort of hunger they're meant to satisfy, and there are a few suggestions that there may be a sexual component to the "destiny" of those sacrificed.
----And probably more besides...
--The darkest element of the novel would have to be the repeated insistence that there is no hope of peace in the afterlife. Anthony tells Charlotte, "They are all in hell. That is all there is, Charlotte. All there has ever been." She tells him she cannot believe that, but clearly she has come to a different conclusion by the time she writes her journal.
As if that's not bad enough, people who hear her story or visit the former site of Barras Hall are also "infected" by its horror. Her doctor, for whom she records the tragic events of her past, goes into decline and dies not long after reading her journal. Religious men who had been strong in their faith find themselves irrevocably shaken after involvement with Barras Hall. One goes so far as to kill himself.
--There's one thing above all others that I simply can't understand about this book, and that is this: Why would Charlotte ever have willingly had children, knowing (and believing in) the curse that flows through her bloodline? Her husband, we know, would also have been familiar with at least some of her frightening past. Wouldn't they have discussed it and come to the conclusion that they should not have children of their own? Why not adopt, instead? Or would she have decided that adopting children would still confer the curse upon them? Maybe she figured that if she didn't tell them about their family history-- if they never knew it and never visited the family land-- they would live normal lives and be no more doomed than anyone else. (I assume she believes that all people are doomed to an eternity in hell. That certainly seems to be the implication, though it doesn't fit with Mrs. Manners' typical messages from beyond the grave. Those, we are told, are usually words of comfort and reassurance that all is well.) However, still, that doesn't explain why she would have children. It seems a very selfish decision, and it simply doesn't make sense to me. (Of course, the real reason for it is that it makes an ominous ending for the novel, with Charlotte's grandson on the verge of rebuilding the cursed hall and unwittingly exposing more people to the evils that still haunt the surrounding land.)
--Some of the covers of Aycliffe's paperbacks are atrocious! There's one cover for this book that depicts a young woman in anachronistic garb standing between two of the closest-set eyes you ever did see. Amusingly, there's another of his books with a very similar cover. A different woman in different clothes, but still standing between hilariously close-set eyes. Crazy...