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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Day 1015: Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

Cover for Tales of Mystery and the MacabreAs I am familiar with an Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote relatively realistic (for a Victorian) novels about ordinary people in different stratas of society, I was surprised to find this collection of strange and gothic tales. That shouldn’t have surprised me, though, because the supernatural and the fantastic were preoccupations of the Victorians. Séances were popular, and many reputable people believed in the supernatural.

That being said, these stories are not Gaskell’s best. When I looked them up, I was surprised to find that she wrote them later in life. They are about what you’d expect from the genre, though less fantastic and not really scary. Straight narrative dominates over dialogue and scenes.

In “The Old Nurse’s Story,” a little orphaned girl goes to live in a relative’s house that is haunted by the ghost of another little girl. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a new neighbor is found to be a robber and murderer. “The Poor Clare” is a story about a woman who inadvertently curses her own granddaughter.

I found three of the stories too tedious to finish. “The Witch Lois” is about an unsuspecting English girl who arrives in Salem, Massachusetts, to live with relatives just in time for the witch scare. “Curious, If True” seems to be about a lost traveler who comes upon a party of fairy tale characters. And “Disappearances” is a string of short anecdotes about people vanishing that did not seem to link up.

So, a disappointing book this time. Almost all of the main characters are women, and them so virtuous and retiring that they weren’t very interesting.

Happy holidays!

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