Review 1551: The Grey Woman

Here’s another book for RIPXV.

This novel opens with an unnamed narrator, a traveler in Germany, who meets a pale woman known as The Grey Woman. When he asks for her story, she gives him a letter she wrote to her daughter. This letter contains her story.

As a young girl in 1778, Anna Scherer is very beautiful. A miller’s daughter, she is invited to visit a school friend in Karlsruhe, where she stays with the Rupprechts. She is a shy girl, but she makes a conquest of her social better, a Frenchman named Monsieur de la Tourelle. She is pushed by Frau Rupprecht into receiving him and accepting his gifts, and the next thing she knows, she is engaged to marry him even though he makes her feel uncomfortable.

After their marriage, de la Tourelle takes her to his castle in the Vosges Mountains, where she feels that the servants spy on her. He makes her cut all ties to her family and tries to control her every movement, not allowing her even to go for a walk. The saving grace is Amante, the servant he hired to be her lady’s maid.

Aside from being a stern and controlling husband, de la Tourelle has a fearsome secret, which Anna and her maid discover by accident.

This novel is typical of the gothic genre that was popular in its time, except that it is much more believable than most that I have read, not including any supernatural elements. I took it to be one of Gaskell’s earlier works, and it may have been, because it was published the year of her death, in 1865. It is very short, easy reading, although the antique-sounding dialogue is a bit cumbersome. Luckily, there’s not much of it.

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Review 1531: The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

I picked up this collection of gothic stories from the library so that I could read one of them, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” for the 1920 Club. Then I decided to read the rest of this beautifully presented book.

It’s hard for me to know what to say about it, because this type of gothic horror story, which used to appear in such magazines as Weird Tales, is just not my thing. On the other hand, it is almost definitely for people who like this genre. I prefer my scary stories to be about things that could happen or about ghosts, but Lovecraft is clearly drawn to grotesque creatures, dark family histories of the most freakish, and ancient rituals and beliefs become reality.

That he was deeply knowledgeable in the latter and often based his stories in actual locations or history is attested to by the many annotations and pictures in the margins of this book. That his writing is heavily dependent on description, some of it highly florid, is also certain. He loves using adjectives and adverbs, many of them unlikely, such as describing ruins as “hideously ancient.” In fact, he seems to have a fascination and repugnance for old things, both at the same time—or at least his narrators do.

The earlier stories are very short, only a couple of pages, while the later ones get longer and longer, so that I finished about half of the book but more than 3/4 of the stories.

Some of the more notable stories are “The Shunned House,” based on an actual house in Providence, in which the inhabitants seem to die off; “The Rats in the Walls,” combining a haunted house story with one of his favorite themes of a dark, hidden family history; and “The Outsider,” about a being who discovers he lives in a crypt. One of the stories, “Ex Oblivione,” described as a prose poem, I was unable to finish, but the rest were entertaining enough, just not my thing.

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Review 1517: House of Glass

Clara is born with bones so fragile that as she grows, they can snap for the slightest reason. Her mother and stepfather keep her inside a home filled with padded corners until she is an adult. When they judge that she is finally able to come out, she is slightly misshapen through injuries that didn’t heal well.

Shaken after her mother’s death, Clara finds comfort in visiting Kew Gardens and learning about the plants. Her voracious curiosity tends her to spend a lot of time talking to the foreman of the glasshouse. Eventually, he offers her a job. A wealthy man wants to establish his own glasshouse to rival that of Kew. Will she take a job overseeing the planting and establishment of this garden?

Clara decides to take the job at Shadowbrook, where she is received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bale. The owner of the house, Mr. Fox, is often away on business, and even when he is home he doesn’t like to be disturbed in his rooms on the upper floor.

Clara finds there are rumors in the village about the house and its former occupants, the Pettigrews. Mrs. Bale seems to be under some strain, and she eventually reports that the house is haunted by Vivenne Pettigrew. Clara doesn’t believe in ghosts and begins trying to learn about the Pettigrews. Those who are willing to talk about Vivienne seem to be describing a different person than she imagines from the few words spoken by those who knew her.

Ever since Fletcher’s marvelous Corrag, I have been waiting for her to write something as good. This novel comes very close. It starts out as a ghost story but goes much farther, exploring women’s role in pre-World War I society. It is atmospheric and wonderfully written, with an assertive and appealing heroine. I recommend it highly.

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Review 1496: #1920Club: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which I read for the 1920 Club, was my introduction to H. P. Lovecraft, whom I’ve read about for years. Based on this one story, I can’t really say much about Lovecraft’s work, but I intend to read all of the book it came in, The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.

The short story is written in archaic language that is supposed to remind us, and does, of old stories and legends. It tells how men came to live near the ancient city of Ib, occupied by green, voiceless beings with bulging eyes, and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants, and how its sea green idol disappeared. There the men founded the city of Sarnath.

Later, the city becomes wealthy and so beautiful that people from other cities visit it. But doom was foretold with the original actions of the men, and on the city’s thousandth anniversary . . . . Well, I won’t tell.

I get the impression just from the notes on this annotated edition that Lovecraft invented whole worlds that he returned to in other stories. The story is atmospheric but very short and not particularly scary or disturbing.

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Review 1417: The Web of Days

I think it is interesting to reread a book I read long ago to see if or how my reaction to it has changed. This can work both ways—I can appreciate a book I disliked the first time or see the flaws in a book I loved. I remember reading the gothic romance The Web of Days when I was a teenager, borrowed from a neighbor’s house for whom I was babysitting. After the kids went to bed, I would pull it out for the next installment. I liked the book and had a crush on its romantic hero. So, what did I think this time? More about that later.

Hester Snow arrives from the North at Seven Chimneys, a ruined plantation on one of the sea islands of Georgia just after the Civil War. She is to be a governess for Rupert LeGrand, the son of the owner of the plantation, Saint Clair LeGrand. At the house she finds an indifferent master; his mother Madame, who cares only for her food; and his wife Lorelei, who drinks too much. The house is slovenly, the fields are ruined, and the servants are insolent.

Hester believes that with hard work and oversight, Seven Chimneys could be made profitable again, and she soon seeks permission from LeGrand to see to it. When she begins to find herself successful, she becomes obsessed with seeing the plantation thrive and making a home for herself. What she doesn’t see is the truth behind the relationships between the family members at Seven Chimneys.

She is attracted to Roi, Saint’s dashing bastard half brother, but he offers a life in a cabin in Missouri. Hester thinks that will be a harsh life of drudgery and wants nothing to do with it.

First of all, this novel is so racist it took my breath away. It’s hard to tell if Lee was trying to depict the time as it was or was racist herself. However, Hester herself is racist. Even though she comes to like a couple of the African-American characters, she treats more than one of them despicably, and they are all stereotypical.

Second, in other ways Hester is not at all likable, being so obsessed with succeeding on the plantation and feeling herself so superior to the southern characters. In many ways, except for not being evil, she reminds me of the main character in one of Philippa Gregory’s early series, Wideacre. She acts fairly reprehensibly up to the very end of the novel, when she has a change of heart. Frankly, she does not deserve her happy ending.

Did I like the book? It is well written and atmospheric. It has some suspenseful scenes, and Hester finds herself in a corner. But no, not only is the racism too much for me, but the regionalism is, too, because Lee depicts most southerners as loafing crackers (she even uses the word), greedy vulgar businessmen, or effete, elitist aristocrats. This is not at all the book I remembered reading.

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Review 1375: Melmoth

Helen Franklin is an Englishwoman living in Prague who leads a willfully colorless and drab existence. She dresses and behaves as if she wants no one to notice her and makes a living translating brochures. In nine years in Prague, she has made only two friends, Karel and Thea, a couple.

Helen encounters Karel one night, looking ill. Thea was recently stricken by multiple sclerosis, and Helen assumes he is worried about her. He tells her the story of a manuscript he’s been given that documents sightings of Melmoth. In the legend of the novel, Melmoth (who seems in actuality to be based on a male character in an Irish Gothic novel) witnessed Christ arisen from the grave but denied it. In this novel, Melmoth is an evocatively described woman, a suggestion of tattered sheer silks, who is fated to witness man’s inhumanity. She appears to those who have entered the depths of despair and asks them to keep her company.

Through the manuscripts, we learn the stories of several people who have caused the sufferings of others and who have met Melmoth. Both Karel and Helen are immediately obsessed with this vision and imagine Melmoth stalking them.

The novel is tied together by the gradual exposure of Helen’s own crime, but the themes of the novel center around the history of man’s inhumanity and the importance and difficulty of witness.

This novel was certainly a departure from Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. It has a deeply Gothic atmosphere, suitable for its setting in Prague, but I didn’t understand its characters’ fascination with Melmoth. Also, I had little sympathy for most of the characters whose crimes are related in the manuscript, even though I was sympathetic to Helen. Although this novel has more serious intentions, I have to say I preferred The Essex Serpent.

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Review 1359: Go to My Grave

Cover for Go to My GraveDonna Weaver and her mother have invested everything in The Breakers, a large house on the Galloway coast that they have made available as either a self-catered or fully catered vacation rental. Donna is excitedly awaiting their first guests, an anniversary party of cousins and their spouses, while her mother attends a hospitality convention.

When the guests arrive, however, it becomes clear that they have all been there before. Twenty-five years ago, they attended a 16th birthday party for Sasha, the man whose wife, Kim, has planned this trip.

The reactions of the guests when they recognize the house make it clear that they do not relish memories of this party. Then, shortly after they arrive, things begin appearing in the house that hearken back to that occasion. What is happening in the house? Is one of the guests trying to gaslight the others?

Occasionally, we see flashbacks to 1991, when a 14-year-old local girl named Carmen is invited to the party. When she arrives, she brings along her 12-year-old sister.

This novel is truly riveting, although the answer to what is happening seems a little too contrived. Although McPherson is known for her “cozy” thrillers, this one is probably more accurately described as a modern gothic thriller. The ending to it is a bizarre mixture of cozy and chilling. I didn’t know quite what to think of it, but the best term I can come up with is “morally challenged.” We are presented with an ambiguous conclusion to tone down the ending, but I know very well what I think happened.

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Day 1183: The Widow’s House

Cover for The Widow's HouseI haven’t read a creepy book in a while, and The Widow’s House is a good one. It is also a complex story where nothing is what it seems.

When she went away to college, Clare Martin moved away from her home in the Hudson Valley and hoped she would never return. She and her husband, Jess, moved to New York with aspirations to be writers, and ten years ago, Jess wrote a critically acclaimed novel. However, another one was not forthcoming, and for the past three years, Clare has been supporting them by taking editing work. They are badly in debt.

Jess suggests they move back into the country with the money from selling their loft apartment, leaving both of them time to write. He has a fancy to live in the same area where Clare grew up. When they go to look at houses, however, most of them are out of their price range.

Their realtor, Katrine Vanderberg, has an idea. Another writer is looking for a couple to occupy the caretaker’s house on his property. The rent would be free in exchange for some help around the property. The main house is River House, a beautiful but neglected octagonal mansion that is said to be haunted. The owner is Alden Montague, or Monty, the writer, who just happens to be the Martins’ old writing professor, and he is glad to have them.

Shortly before the move, Clare finds out that Jess turned down a teaching job at a college near their apartment, an opportunity that would have allowed them to stay in New York, without even discussing it with her. She is so upset by that, and what she thinks is his philandering, that she prepares to leave him soon after the move. But his behavior makes her change her mind.

The main house is supposedly haunted by a woman who had a child by the owner of the house. One stormy night she left the child on the doorstep of the house and drowned herself in the pond. The child was found dead. Clare was fascinated enough by this local story to have written about it in college, and now she decides to write a novel about it.

But almost upon her arrival in the house, she sees the woman standing near the pond and hears a baby crying at night. Clare has a history of psychic experiences and decides the house is haunted. When the caretaker’s cottage is destroyed in a flood, she and Jess move in with Monty.

Early in the novel I suspected gaslighting. I won’t say if I was right, but there are layers upon layers to this novel. It is a well written, suspenseful, spook fest. I had to keep reading it until late in the night once I got started.

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Day 1170: The Black Opal

Cover for The Black OpalWhen I was a teenager, I enjoyed Victoria Holt’s gothic historical romance novels. At some point, however, I felt that she was just churning books out, so I quit reading them. When I ran across The Black Opal in a used book sale, I decided to see what I think of her now.

Carmel was found as a baby under an azalea bush at Commonwood House, owned by the Marlines. She is believed to be a gypsy child. Although Mrs. Marline wanted to send her to a foundling home, Dr. Marline insisted on keeping her. So, she stayed in the nursery with the Marline children, although she was not treated like the others.

Mrs. Marline’s brother, Toby, captain of a sailing vessel, is one of the few people who are nice to Carmel. Another is Miss Carson, the governess. Things begin to improve for Carmel when she meets Lucian and the other children at the Grange, a neighboring estate.

But Mrs. Marline dies, and Carmel is thrilled to learn she is going on a voyage with Uncle Toby to Australia. On the voyage, she learns something about her parentage. When they arrive there, they get news that the Marline household is broken up. There is nowhere for Carmel to return to, so she stays with Uncle Toby’s wife.

Ten years later, Carmel returns to England. There she finds that more was involved in Mrs. Marline’s death than she knew. There was a tragedy, and Carmel believes an injustice was done. She decides to find out what really happened.

I remember Holt’s books as being fairly tightly plotted, but that was not the case with this novel. It is all over the place. Although the earlier scenes when Carmel is a child are necessary to the story, the scenes in Australia seem unnecessary, as if they are needed for padding. Characters are poorly developed, and some characters seem to fill no particular function.

Maybe some of Holt’s earlier novels are better. It’s hard for me to say at this distance of years. But there are better gothic romance novels around. This one seemed to be about 100 pages of novel expanded out to nearly 400.

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Day 1144: The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Cover for The Victorian Chaise LongueThe Victorian Chaise-Longue is a short little tale of the macabre in honor of the season. Its plot is simple.

Wealthy Melanie Langdon is recovering from tuberculosis, complicated by recent child birth. When she is finally recovered enough, she is carried to lie on a Victorian chaise-longue that she bought in an antique store. There she falls asleep.

When Melanie awakens, she has returned to Victorian times and is locked in a Victorian body. When she is alarmed at her situation, she is thought to be hysterical.

logo for RIPI did not find the novel terrifying, but perhaps that is my own lack of imagination. I felt I needed to care for the character more before she was put in her dilemma. I understand from the introduction that Laski moved to a remote house to induce in herself a sense of fear, just to write this novel.

This is the final book I read for the R.I.P. challenge. Happy Halloween!

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