THE COFFIN PATH ~ A GHOST STORY BY KATHERINE CLEMENTS...


 


The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements is a seventeenth-century ghost story . A story in which the oppression and wild beauty of the Yorkshire moors provides a compelling backdrop, where a sense of encroaching malevolence seeps like a ‘winding sheet of fog ... silent, still, watching’ through the very stones of Scarcross Hall, and the fates of all who live there.

Scarcross Hall is claustrophobic, grim and gothic to its core, with its “... days of grandeur long faded. There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads, and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor.”




At the centre of the story, and residing in this wreck of the house, is the admirable character of Mercy Booth who, almost from the very start when walking on the cold dark heath has a sense that she is being watched by something that chills her to her soul ~ that perhaps her family is cursed by the treasure of three ancient coins, ‘worn and warped, decorated with pagan symbols’, that her father says he found one day within The White Ladies circle of standing stones ~ “the rugged stones pale on the skyline, heights pointing to Heaven, roots buried Devil knows how deep.”




Mercy’s father used to tell his child that the coins held the magical gift of protection. In those days she had often played with them, rattling the coins in her two cupped hands. But now, as the years of youth have passed, Mercy thinks of darker tales, of ... “folklore and fancy, handed down to us young ones, whispered by firesides on dark winter nights. After that I sometimes wondered if, rather than protection, the coins offered an ill omen.” She also thinks of chanted songs known to the local community. The warnings she perhaps should heed...

“One coin marks the first to go.
A second bodes the fall.
The third will seal a sinner’s fate.
The Devil take them all.”

Mercy’s fate is to run her father’s farm, enduring the personal agony of witnessing his rapid decline into old age and dementia while also striving against the elements and the cruelty of the landscape. Her hands are hardened, stained with mud. Her nostrils are filled with the stench of blood, and yet she is utterly at one in this world to which her soul belongs, revelling in the feel and the odour of peat and moss beneath her feet, and describing such glorious visions as: “Silvery water ... a thousand year path...dropping from the fells, freezing into icicles, glazing the mosses and hazing into fine mist where it meets the valley bottom.”




The Coffin Path’s settings are beautifully drawn, with the book divided into parts that echo the seasons of the year, and in which Clements’ vivid and visceral landscape provides a reflection of Mercy’s soul. There is almost an animal element to the wildness of her existence ~ whether washing her own bloody rags in a stream, or delivering a lamb out on the moors; even in the moments when she finds a dead sheep blown with maggots and flies exuding the putrid stench of death. 

Such connections with flesh, with birth, and death are described with the rawest honesty. Indeed, many aspects of the lambing work was so vividly described I felt compelled to ask Katherine Clements if she’d ever experienced such things first hand.  She had, which did not surprise me, because this novel exudes authenticity, with even the yeasty scent of dough rising in the kitchen bowls imbued with a stench of sour dread, rather than being comforting. Candles stink of mutton fat. The night-time house is unnerving, whether in its abandoned dusty rooms with the lingering memories of the dead, or in the terrifying fireguard, carved and painted to look like a little boy. And then, there is also the real child, Sam, often visiting the house, who is frail and in need of protection, and yet with a presence increasingly linked to our own chilling sense of dark unease - such as when Mercy watches him one day and thinks ~“Our Sam has his eyes open, staring into the far corner, smiling to himself as he watches cloud patterns dance across the plaster. Something in his expression is unnerving - knowing, almost triumphant. Is he laughing at us?”




Added to this growing fear is the spiralling tension we witness resulting from Mercy’s sensuality. She is no longer the carefree girl who once ran wild across the moors. Neither is she the virgin with naive hopes to be wed one day, to produce a family of her own. Here is a real woman who experiences real sexual needs, even if she does not live in an era when such behaviour is admired. 

This is an age of political turmoil, with the aftermath of the Civil War causing enormous social distrust and economic turmoil. A time when many women are still accused of witchcraft, when people believe whole-heartedly in the existence of a Heaven and Hell ... and perhaps even damnation for one whose independent life and power as a landholder is poisoned by evil suspicions and fears, by sexual tensions and jealousies. 

Mercy's peace is then unsettled more by the unexpected arrival of a stranger known as  Ellis, who Mercy employs as an extra hand when the farm is beset by troubles, and to whom she is strongly attracted despite an initial sense of distrust ~ though never for one moment can she begin to imagine the influence he will come to exert on her future life.

The starkness, the gritty honesty, the often alluring brutality at the centre of this novel has many echoes of Wuthering Heights. Scarcross is also a house that’s cursed, set alone in a rural setting where Nature is raw in tooth and claw. From the moment we enter its doors we are immersed in a sense of impending doom where simmering tensions and darkness of shadows gradually reveal the truth in a violent and moving climax.

Oozing with gothic symbolism, this brooding and beautiful ghost story is guaranteed to haunt your dreams long after the cover has been closed.





The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements will be available in February 2018, published by Headline Review.






SUGAR MONEY: NEW HISTORICAL NOVEL BY JANE HARRIS ...


Here’s the thing, whenever I’m reading Jane Harris' work, it’s not that I don’t enjoy every single finely-crafted moment, but it’s only when the novels end that I tend to look back and find myself truly immersed in the stories’ themes, the settings, the plots, the characters. Moments come back to haunt me. Images flood into my mind. And, I think, what I’m trying to express, is that the work has a certain quality that is ‘classic’, lasting, and profound. 

Her latest novel, Sugar Money, is certainly no exception. 

Set in 1765, this is a story based on fact, following the adventures of two slaves, Emile and Lucien, the brothers who are sent away from their island home of Martinique to Grenada, with the secret task of smuggling 42 stolen slaves back to their original master; the Frenchman, Father Cleophas. 

The novel is vibrantly alive with a cast of engaging characters, but throughout it is narrated in the voice of the younger Lucien, whose bawdily unique language is as joyous as his spirit, albeit with a naivety that eventually will be addressed ~ because Jane Harris is not an author afraid of pulling punches. How could she be when the theme of this novel is slavery, theft, brutality? A scenario in which some dreadful horrors have to be endured. But what endures above all else is the humanity, the love and hope, the instinct for survival, for freedom, also dignity. 

That message is as important now as it was 200 years ago. Black Lives Matter. This book matters ~ as you will soon discover, when it’s published by Faber & Faber on October 5, 2017.





For more information on Jane Harris and her novels, please see her author website

AND ERE TO BED GO WE, GO WE ... DOWN ON THE ASHES WE KNEEL ...





Having recently come across old books once belonging to elderly family members, I was moved to find this book  of Prayers, Written at Vailima by Robert Louis Stevenson, with an introduction by Mrs Stevenson.

It was given to Great Aunt Toby - as the family members nick-named Miss Rachel Dorothea Fox -who trained as a family doctor but who never went on to marry. 

Toby was a lesbian who received this book as a gift for the Christmas of 1916. It was from her brother, Francis. The two of them were very close.

I was lucky enough to meet Toby somewhat later in her life, when she lived with her companion, Gwen. They remained together for many years, only parted in the end by death. Before that, we went to visit them and my daughter, Letty, very young at the time, managed to break a precious fossil from a collection that they had in two. They were very understanding!

Below are some images from that book, and then the full poem from which Francis took his dedication ...







OLD SONG ~ Edward Fitzgerald


TIS a dull sight
To see the year dying,
When winter winds
Set the yellow wood sighing:
Sighing, O sighing!

When such a time cometh 
I do retire
Into an old room 
Beside a bright fire:
O, pile a bright fire!

And there I sit 
Reading old things,
Of knights and lorn damsels, 
While the wind sings—
O, drearily sings!

I never look out
Nor attend to the blast;
For all to be seen
Is the leaves falling fast:
Falling, falling!

But close at the hearth, 
Like a cricket, sit I,
Reading of summer 
And chivalry—
Gallant chivalry!

Then with an old friend 
I talk of our youth—
How 'twas gladsome, 
but often Foolish, forsooth:
But gladsome, gladsome!

Or, to get merry,
We sing some old rhyme
That made the wood ring again 
In summer time—
Sweet summer time!

Then go we smoking, 
Silent and snug:
Naught passes between us, 
Save a brown jug—
Sometimes!

And sometimes a tear 
Will rise in each eye,
Seeing the two old friends 
So merrily—
So merrily!

And ere to bed 
Go we, go we,
Down on the ashes
We kneel on the knee,
Praying together!

Thus, then, live I
Till, 'mid all the gloom,
By Heaven! the bold sun 
Is with me in the room
Shining, shining!

Then the clouds part, 
Swallows soaring between;
The spring is alive,
And the meadows are green!

I jump up like mad,
Break the old pipe in twain,
And away to the meadows, 
The meadows again!

GEORGE SAUNDERS EXCITEMENT...

I love the short stories of George Saunders, and can hardly wait for his novel ~ Lincoln in the Bardo ~ coming out in the UK next week. While waiting, I'm watching this short film. Around seven minutes of  George Saunders giving invaluable insights on writing ...

BLACK BOX ~ HIROSHI SUGIMOTO AT AMSTERDAM'S FOAM GALLERY ...



On a recent visit to Amsterdam I caught up with some artist friends and was taken along to the FOAM gallery to see the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto (born in Tokyo 1948).

This exhibition ~ curated by Philip Larratt-Smith ~ is a survey of the last forty years of Sugimoto's finest work, since he left Japan in 1970 and travelled to New York, where he studied the art of photography.

Having rejected digital technology Sugimoto works with traditional methods. However, by thinking outside the box he has created some astonishing art. His large format images investigate the natural world, but also perceptions of history, or the complex microscopic views of electrical impulses when they're charged against blank photographic plates. 

This exhibition ends on March 8 2017. It you are in Amsterdam it is well worth a visit.


Hyena-Jackal-Vulture. 1976. Gelatin silver print.


This, and other diaramas, are photographs of stuffed animals displayed in museums. The transition from reality to an image on a photograph seems to create some alchemy, as if bringing the creatures to life again. These photographs were oddly disturbing to me.









Lightning Fields

These iconic images of electricity charged against blank negative plates are simply astonishing. They seem to contain the essence of life, and could be representative of the root structures set down by plant, or the nervous systems beneath our flesh.

When Sugimoto made these images he was paying tribute to photographic pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot.








Photographs of wax models of Henry VIII and some of his wives. Again there is the alchemy of a waxwork becoming surreally  alive when viewed through the lens of these photographs. 

If only those faces could look back out and speak to us about their lives. 

THE LODGER: NOVEL BY LOUISA TREGER ...



Not so very long ago I saw Louisa Treger speaking about H G Wells on a programme screened by the BBC. Future Tense: The Story of H G Wells can be seen here on Youtube, and is highly recommended. But I also very much enjoyed  Louisa Treger's novel based on her research about the man. 

The Lodger includes a great deal about the personal life of H G Wells. However, the focus of the book is on one of the women in his life - specifically Dorothy Richardson, the lover who became a writer, at one time as well-respected as her contemporary, Virginia Woolf.

The Lodger paints the picture of the life of a single working woman who resides in a London boarding house. This is no romanticised Downton Abbey but an honest and gripping depiction of the harsher realities of the time; including the vicious treatment often handed out to suffragettes who were arrested and then imprisoned. However, this is not to say that the novel lacks elements of romance. After all, the central theme of the book is the dramatisation of the affair between Dorothy and H G Wells. 

When writing about what had to be an essentially covert relationship, Treger shows great skill in depicting the excitement and sensuality of its early days -

They would take long walks though London and have dinner afterward at a restaurant. Or Dorothy might buy cold meat and salad and they'd picnic in their room; alone in infinite time, full of a sense of their liberating difference in relation to a convention-bound world. She experienced a keen pure happiness that was surely absolution? They talked about everything and nothing, their conversation made luminous by a bottle of wine. Bertie said his imagination was in a fertile state, and new ideas were blooming in his mind. He felt he was developing a new creative life.

Dorothy wants absolution because she knows this infidelity is cruel and unfair to Bertie's wife. And yet she is utterly charmed by the man; until later in the novel when his attitudes to certain events force her to stand back and take stock of her life. 

Again, this is where Treger excels in exploring the sexual honesty and growing independence of so many women at this time. In fact, I wanted to shout 'hurray!' when Dorothy finally decides she will no longer live in the shadows as the secret subservient lover, only there to stroke the ego or fulfil the sexual needs of a man. No, she will be true to her nature. She will also become a writer  - but a different kind of writer who embraces the modern changing world -

She would have to smash the old way of writing and make something entirely new. The part of her nature that flailed out and destroyed things would have no problem smashing the novel. But could she successfully remake it? Did she have the courage and the talent? She hadn't told Bertie about her writing. He would want to see it, or at the very least have it described to him, and she was afraid taht his forceful reaction would destroy it. Her work was like a frail young seed germinating deep within the earth; it would disintegrate if it was exposed to daylight too early. She was struck by the contrast between her writing, snatched in nooks and gaps of the day, and Bertie's. He had a whole household attending to his comfort and well-being; everything in it geared toward catering to his needs and nurturing his talent. Dorothy envied and half-resented the single-minded concentration this allowed him.

Much in the mood of a character who broke through the restrictions of her times, whether social, financial, or sexual, this is a novel that offers the reader a great deal of truth and integrity. 

If you also read The Lodger, I wonder if - like me - you will come to the end and find yourself yearning to know what the future might have held in store for Dorothy. I'm glad to say it worked out well. But that is a tale for another day...

Thank you, Louisa Treger, for introducing Dorothy to me, and for telling her story so vividly. 

Louisa Treger



If I have one complaint about this book it has nothing to do with the writing. It is simply the fact that the cover doesn't seem quite right for the period. I prefer this version, which seems more appropriate to the time and the essence of the story told.









  

CELL 7 ~ BY KERRY DREWERY. A TENSE YA MURDER MYSTERY



"A life for a life. Save our Streets..."

This is the slogan chanted by a future dystopian society who sit in their homes while texting votes to the programme, Death is Justice - the reality show where criminals are tried and judged by the audience, with a cruel and manipulative female host who’d do anything to keep her show at the top of the TV ratings lists.

In Cell 7 Kerry Drewery has taken the fake morality of the TV shows we watch today and developed that theme into something that is truly chilling. It provides a clever vehicle for this YA thriller mystery as Martha, the girl who has been accused of murdering a beloved celebrity, is locked in a number prison cells. 

The final one, Cell 7, holds the electric chair in which Martha may soon be killed herself ~ unless her innocence is proved and the voters decide to let her live. But just how much are the voters told? As the seven day TV trial goes on, with the clock ticking down to a travesty, we discover the true dramatic events that have led to Martha’s current fate.




Tense, and thought-provoking, and packing a big emotional punch, this novel set in a future world presents disturbing echoes of the worst of the one we know today. 

Published in the UK by Hot Key Books.



Kerry Drewery