Dead Travel Fast

Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries, beginning with Silent in the Grave, has been a quiet hit in these parts and with six volumes in the series, my friends and I are eager to read more. Raybourn’s writing is easy and polished and her love of words evident in the care she takes in crafting her sentences. I also have a penchant for gothic romances and vampires so I was eager to try her debut, The Dead Travel Fast, which features both.

Take one headstrong Scottish woman, unmarried and practical with a talent in crafting stories to frighten impressionable young ladies, a suffocating household and an invitation to visit a school friend who is about to get married in Transylvania. And so Theodora Lestrange travels to meet her friend Cosmina who is staying in bleak Castle Dragul in the high Carpathian mountains, cut off from civilisation by snow and superstition. Here she meets the brooding and handsome Count Andrei Dragulescu, Cosmina’s cousin and fiancé, who fascinates and frightens her and won’t leave her alone. Taking the opportunity to use this experience to start writing her novel, Theodora soon realises that not all is as it seems at Castle Dragul. Why do they warn her not to keep her windows open at night? And why is there a sprig of basil hanging over her windowsill? And what of the strange dreams and ashen features of Cosmina and her aunt? And when one of the maids is found dead and drained of blood, Theodora’s fear crystalises.

I really enjoyed The Dead Travel Fast, which is full of references to classic gothic and Victorian sensation novels, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which I am sure Raybourn loves. The ending wasn’t as dramatic as I expected but I liked the twist which distinguishes this novel from other classic vampire tales. There was a good mixture of surprise and familiar comfort. That is no mean feat as finding something new to say, in what is fast becoming a crowded genre, is pretty difficult. But I think what elevates this book is the care with which Raybourn crafts her writing. She writes beautifully and her novels really deserve a lot more attention than they get. And yes, maybe some may not think the subject matter may to be serious enough but, as Donna Tartt says, reading should be as much about enjoyment as well as the well crafted sentence. And you get both in The Dead Travel Fast.

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Small Hand

As I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. As a reflex, I bent it over and we stood for a time which was out of time, my own man’s hand and the very small hand held as closely together as the hand of a father and his child. But I am not a father and the small child was invisible.

Following my previous forays into spooky tales come Hallowe’en, this year I thought I’d have another crack at a Susan Hill ghost story. The Woman in Black, although atmospheric and very, very dark didn’t exactly scare the pants off me. And nor did We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson or The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. But then I didn’t exactly read them alone in the witching hour. The Small Hand, subtitled A Ghost Story, has had some pretty spooked reviews and I thought it a fitting tale for the end of October. I was planning to read it at night but after a recent bout of horror films (The Shutter starring Joshua Jackson was excellent), I’m afraid I couldn’t quite make myself.

In this novella, Hill recalls a forgotten age, her language mimicking the great storytellers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an England harking back to the pre-war era although it’s set in contemporary times. Adam Snow is an antiquarian bookseller on his way to see a client when he stumbles across a dilapidated house and overgrown garden. Once a tourist destination for garden lovers, The White House lies forgotten and disenchanted. He feels an urge to see the place and it is there that he first encounters a strange presence. As he increasingly suffers panic attacks and feels a small hand pulling him towards a watery grave, he confides in his brother Hugo, who had had a mental breakdown several years ago, and asks for his help. But Hugo wants to forget his past and is now happily married. Who is the little boy whose hand keeps finding his? And what is the secret behind the sorry house and garden?

Particularly chilling is Adam’s atmospheric journey into the mountains of France to an isolated Cistercian monastery reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s foray into deep and dark Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s classic horror, Dracula. Adam is there to examine a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio for a client but is immediately consumed with fatigue and fear and is looked after by the gentle, if silent, monks of Saint Mathieu des Etoiles.

Although The Small Hand doesn’t offer many surprises, what lifts Susan Hill’s novella far above any ordinary tale of horror is her beautifully crafted prose. Every word has been weighed, every pause timed. Her descriptions evoke the slow and silent descent into horror as Adam succumbs to the lure of the creepy house and garden. He can’t help himself. And you can’t help yourself worrying what will happen to him. Hill is indeed a master at cranking up the tension. It’s a slow and deceptively calm book which will make you want to scream at the end. A little gem.

I read this as part of Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

R.I.P. VIII has started!

9 September, 2013

RIP8

Hurray! It’s shiver me timbers time as Carl’s R.I.P. VIII has started. This is one reading challenge I look forward to every year as my thoughts turn to darker tales. I will once again be doing the Peril the First Challenge and this year have lined up the following books of which I hope to read four or more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield – it’s coming out in October but I was lucky enough to win a copy!
The Twyning by Terence Blacker – all about rats
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time-traveling into the Black Death
Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura – can you be groomed to be a cancer?
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey – a touch of gothic

And I’m still on the search for a book that will really scare the pants off me. Any suggestions? The Woman in Black didn’t work and nor did The Greatcoat. But I’m hopeful. Something spooky rather than gory. So suggestions please!

Outside is a young pilot.
And he wants to come in…

I’ve been looking for a spooky tale to read for a while now that would scare the pants off me and was delighted to receive a copy of Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat for All Hallow’s Read. I have seen lots of enthusiastic reviews of Dunmore’s novels in the past few years and was therefore quite eager to try what many have described as a truly eerie tale.

Isabel Carey, newly married to Philip, is struggling to adapt to her new life in East Riding in the shadow of York Minster. Seven years after the end of WWII, Philip is working hard as a country GP in order to save enough money to buy a family home. In the meantime, he has somehow managed to find a serviceable flat in a house owned by the steely, grey Mrs. Atkinson. However, Isabel takes an instant dislike to her landlady who seems to invoke paranoia by continuously pacing up and down in the flat above and, according to Isabel, spying on them. The flat is dank and cold and one night, desperate for some extra warmth, Isabel finds an old greatcoat hidden deep in one of the cupboards. She feels an instant affinity to it and it is only a matter of time before she hears a tapping at the window…

I initially thought The Greatcoat would be a short story until I realised my error. I wondered whether Dunmore could sustain the suspense but as soon as I started reading, I knew I was in seasoned hands. The Greatcoat reads like a post-war novel but one for modern readers, smooth and unhurried (in the brilliant afterword Dunmore discusses how she tried to avoid clichés). She builds the tension incrementally, from Isabel’s antagonism towards her landlady, to the enquiring looks when she does her daily shopping in an unfamiliar high street, the endless cold in her flat and to Philip’s frequent absence due to his job. And when she meets Alec, her instant familiarity rings alarm bells as you slowly realise how unhappy Isabel is and how easily swayed by phantom memories belonging to another.

I read The Greatcoat with great trepidation and felt uneasy the whole time. I simultaneously wanted to know what was going to happen to Isabel and yet dreaded finding out. That’s part of the fun in reading ghost stories, I know. And the idea of The Greatcoat is a brilliant one, instantly familiar but dripping with atmosphere. You just know what’s going to happen and can’t wait to find out.

My one gripe with this novel is the ending. I guess a lot of ghost stories do end in an ambiguous way, that’s part of their charm (Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a good example) but sometimes, I want the story to end with a bang that would scare the living daylights out of me and leave me swearing I won’t read another one for a long time. I guess I found the ending here a little soft in contrast to the coldly menacing beginning. However, I do feel that it is inkeeping with Isabel’s character as she is a lonely outsider lacking the confidence to find her place in life. Philip loves her but wants her to stay at home and be looked after, believing all her problems will be sorted once she has children. Hmm. Obviously we know that isn’t the problem.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading this tale. The suspense was wonderful and I highly recommend it.