Black, macabre book cover? Check.
Intriguing, sinister title? Check.
Enough budget to buy? Check.
Damnit! Malevolent forces pulled me in again!
The Silent Companions promised so much; a front-page testimony from Susan Hill, whose Woman In Black remains one of the most terrifying books I’ve read to date, and the quote from the Times reads, “a sinister slice of Victorian gothic”. Perfect…
….and yet, during the first fifth of the book, I was toying with not finishing it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. Possibly ghost story fatigue? I’ve just finished The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, and I’ve also read a few stories over the last year where an incarcerated woman needs to write her account of past events in order to either damn or exonerate herself. I found the character of Dr Shepherd irritating, and I wasn’t sure if the writing style suited me.
However, by page 60 or so, I had managed to thoroughly get over myself, and really began to enjoy the story. There are some great bits of writing, and the author did a sterling job of showing the creeping menace, and of casting doubts everywhere.
The premise of The Silent Companions is that a doctor in a mental hospital attempts to elicit information from a female patient who has been struck dumb by some horrific past event for which she is being held responsible. She is coerced into writing her account, which she does in the third person.
We are taken back to 1865, where newly widowed and pregnant Elsie Bainbridge is travelling by coach, with her dull-witted, spinster sister-in-law, Sarah, to her late husband’s family seat in the foreboding backwater village of Fayford. The house is called The Bridge, and well, it’s on a bridge. Her husband’s body is lying in the Great Hall, awaiting his funeral.
After the entombment has occurred, Elsie and Sarah take up residence at The Bridge, and this is where the horrors begin. The villagers are superstitious, hostile and seemingly impoverished. Elsie decides to try to make an inroad with the tenants of the estate using produce from a farm animal, until she learns that the source of their fear is The Bridge itself.
This is a frightening tale, and I don’t think that any lover of ghost stories will not find something to enjoy in The Silent Companions.
I wasn’t too convinced that Elsie’s position as a woman who felt she had married above her station, and the anxiety of managing the staff in the house and being the new lady of the village, came across very markedly. However, she was awfully distracted, which could then have been partly a result of this or have caused her to have forgotten about it almost entirely. Elsie’s family history is distressing and heart-breaking and is well told.
The story is told over two separate years; 1865, which is the present, and 1635 (told through the medium of diaries found in the garret, although far more than this emerges from this place). I raced through it, in the end, and couldn’t put it down. Throughout, it reminded me of several other stories – this is not an exhaustive list, but they are: The Turn of the Screw, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Miniaturist, the garden scenes in The Shining (book, not film), and the Woman in Black. It’s good, it’s creepy and in some places, downright terrifying. It’s worth a read.
It made me look around my home and worry about how much wood we have, furniture and floors. While I was reading, I jumped out of my skin when I heard the ‘hiss’ of a chair moving in the kitchen, until I realised it was my five-year-old attempting to reach snacks. I also had a moment when I was scared to pull the shower curtain back, just in case I had my own Silent Companion. Mission accomplished, The Silent Companions; you scared me, thank you 😊