‘The Silent Companions’ by Laura Purcell #bookreview #bookblog

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 😊

‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James #bookreview #bookbloggers #ghoststories #booklove #2018

I am certainly a braver person after completing this season’s reading. I’ve just finished M.R. James’ Collected Ghost Stories, which were originally published between 1904 and 1925, and were amalgamated in this collection by Penguin Random House in 2018.
I was dreading reading these stories almost as much as I did ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill. The reason for this, is that a few years ago, I watched a 2010 TV dramatisation of ‘O, Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’, starring John Hurt. It was a modern re-telling of the original story and it scared the living bejesus out of me.

Now that I’ve read it, however, I think I’ll give the old movies a try as well. There are sixteen other stories in this collection, but I’m not going to review them individually, as it would just take too long. (I’m WAAAY behind on my Goodreads reading challenge this year). Suffice it to say, that there are several reasons why I think these are such great ghost stories, and they are typical to each one.

Firstly, they are presented as true accounts of events. James tells these stories as though they are based on written evidence or have been told as personal recollections of diabolical happenings.

Secondly, the subject of the stories is always an academic; an expert in a particular field, most commonly antiquary. As a result, we infer that this person would not usually succumb to superstition, although they would perhaps listen to it with an academic interest. We trust them as a reliable witness; they have not become anxious, ill or dead for any reason other than because something dreadful, or inexplicable has happened to them.

Thirdly, the stories mostly involve churches, relics found therein, and religious people. Therefore, the comfort, peace of mind and faith held in such places and objects, is ripped from under the feet. There are desecrations and horrors, and no safe haven to be found.

Having said this, they are also rather different from other paranormal stories, in that the settings are more modern than usual, and so are more relatable to the ordinary circumstances in which a reader could find themselves.

There is a touch of the Blair Witch occasionally as well. Sometimes, we are left fairly uncertain as to what has happened, and the story just ends, but I like this.

If I was to make a final point, as a note to self, it would be this:

Don’t investigate any object, or undertake any task, unless it is familiar to you. So, cleaning your house, washing clothes, making beds and going to work are generally SAFE activities.

Digging things up in the garden, noticing anything at all in churches, being too well educated, being overly interested in antiquary, habituating desolate beaches, taking interest in other people’s conversations, reading diaries, doing anything whatsoever in inclement weather, and staying in hotels with windows, are NOT SAFE. I repeat, NOT SAFE.

Beware these stories, but certainly read them. Read them in the dark, and love them, like I did!

So, braver I am. I even relished watching the brilliant Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, and the first four series of American Horror Story.

But then, I watched ‘Elf’ for the first time this year (not the first time ever obvs), and now it’s going to be all about the Christmas reading list. Blog post to follow.

I’m also looking for suggestions for what to read over the festive period. I’m unlikely to be found reading a cosy and comfortable romance, but I’ll try anything! My favourite types of story are usually based on fables and legends. For example, last year, I loved ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey and ‘Followed by Frost’ by Charlie N Holmberg. I’d love to hear from you, if you can think of anything I might enjoy!

Happy reading and best wishes for the winter season,

Jill x

‘Shivers’ by Adam Z. Robinson @DarkLightBook #Shivers #GhostStories

I’m adding this feature to my blog today for two reasons. Firstly, last night, my husband and I, along with his parents, went to see a performance called ‘Shivers’ at the Cast Theatre in Doncaster. Secondly, I love theatre; the atmosphere, the story-telling, the nervousness and excitement I feel when seeing actors performing live, the kinetic potential of the props, and above all else, the opportunity to immerse myself completely, and without interruption, in another world for an hour or two. I love sitting in the dark; the anonymity of it, with the spotlight on the stage. It’s wonderful.

Shivers is a collection of three short stories taken from The Book of Darkness and Light. It is the second instalment in what I believe will be a trilogy, perhaps more. I do hope so.
It is performed with a simple stage setup, with Adam Z. Robinson as the story-teller and as various other characters. There are also some recorded roles as required, which adds to the unquiet tension. The tales are accompanied by the violinist, Ben Styles. I’m not a musician, so I will describe the music as only a layperson can. It varies between hauntingly beautiful melodies, heart-curdling ‘plinking’ and Psycho-style ‘sawing’. Better described, I’m sure it could be; however, the sound is perfectly pitched to allow the diction of what is being said to be heard clearly. It is very well produced, and faultlessly performed.

The play tells three short stories: The New Priest of Blackpines, Dead Air, and A Horror in Porcelain, and the premise of the telling is that a book has come into the possession of the story-teller and musician, and that they are charged with the deliverance of the tales to others. This is the Book of Darkness and Light, and we already, as an audience, accept that this inanimate object is possessed by a malevolence, and its evil will permeate through the performance.

The New Priest of Blackpines is a folk horror story about a small community on a remote North Sea island. A new priest has taken up position here, has fallen gravely ill, and calls for his sister, a doctor, to come urgently. This is a story about how isolated and remote communities foster their own superstitions and adopt their own, often gruesome and horrifying remedies to them. And there might just be something in the woods.

Dead Air is a different type of story. There is no monster in the woods. Here, we find a child’s fear, grown up, complete with the kind of post traumatic guilt, anxiety and terror which can result. A radio call show, hosted by a spirit medium, asks listeners to call in with their true ghost stories. She gets a good deal more than she had bargained for. It’s a brilliant story; there was palpable tension in the audience during this one.

After the interval, is the final story, which is the pièce de résistance; A Horror in Porcelain. I’m not convinced that there is anything more frightening than a lifelike doll. Numerous horror films use the diminutive human form as a medium to frighten us, usually through reanimation. Here though, the malevolence comes as a result of its origin, and is communicated to us by a character who is picking up and transporting the doll for a ‘collector’. Do you want to play? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to.

At the end of the show yesterday evening, the writer and actor Adam Z. Robinson, and the composer and musician, Ben Styles came out into the foyer and were chatting informally with the audience. There was also a team recording video reactions to the performance, for whom my excitable mother-in-law was a gift! We had all been completely absorbed in the performance and chilled to the bone by the stories that were told, but there really is no-one quite like her to put that across. The cast and crew were genuinely lovely people too and were obviously delighted that the show had been very well attended and had been enjoyed so thoroughly.

Playdead Press has published the manuscripts on book form, beginning with the credentials of the cast and crew, and then, a note by Adam Z. Robinson.

“There’s an old theory that the horror genre holds up a mirror to society. That each novel, short story, film and play reflects and reacts to what’s happening in the world at the precise moment in which it was created. The tales in Shivers are shot-through with the themes of isolationism, ubiquitous fear and selfishness. The play includes a story of a community cut off from the rest of the world in an attempt to preserve ‘the old ways’; a confession of a man who lives with daily, lonesome anxiety and a constant lurking terror of communication, a tale of an authority figure who obeys his reactionary gut rather than his rational brain. Perhaps the old theory is true”.

What better way is there to celebrate the thinning of the veil, than the embracement of a gloriously well written ghost story? Shivers encapsulates all that is great in this tradition. Adam Z. Robinson clearly loves the ghostly and gothic; he’s read so many of the great stories, and has created some more in the process. Go and see this show this season. Be brave; feed your dark side. You won’t regret it.

The tour will run up until February 2019 and conclude in Stowe. For more details, and to book tickets, go to www.thebookofdarknessandlight.com , where you can find a list of venues, add your own ghostly story if you have one, and lots more.