Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do you hear voices in the walls?

I don't like being scared.  Roller coasters have never made much sense to me, haunted houses seem like an exercise in self-torture, and ever since childhood, when Roald Dahl created in me a lasting fear of every woman wearing pointy-toed shoes (not cool, Roald, not cool), I've shied away from books with too much suspense or horror.  The one exception I'm willing to make on this is a good, meaty, piece of gothic fiction.  There's no real horror in books that can be described as gothic -- just a pervasive sense of creepiness.  (And, lest you think I'm being flip by using the word "creepy," the far-more-erudite-than-I Independent described gothic novels as having "creepiness, dark tone and [a] note of near-hysteria".)  Enter Kate Morton's new book The Distant Hours.

British book editor Edie Burchell has lived a quiet, restrained life.  When her mother receives a letter that was not delivered fifty years earlier, it sets off a chain of events that lead to Edie investigating that castle where her mother was an evacuee during World War II.  At Milderhurst, Edie begins to uncover decades of secrets kept by her mother, the three elderly sisters still living there, and their deceased father, the author of Britain's most loved children's tale, The Mud Man.   (Incidentally, The Mud Man sounds like a story that would've terrified me even more than The Witches did.)  It's a moody, dark, and creepy story.  It's full of madness, lost love, familial secrets, unrequited desires, and the occasional hint of voices in the walls.  Despite its length (562 pages) Morton kept my attention throughout, with a conclusion that ties everything together with a chillingly lovely twist.   

If you like British gothic novels, there are always classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca.  For more modern takes, check out Maggie O'Farrell, whom the Boston Globe called "a feminist avenging angel who wields the modern Gothic like a gleaming sword," or Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.  The Distant Hours is a great way to wrap up the gray, dreary days of winter. 

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