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Meredith nodded as she thought. ‘You know, I often wonder whether this place – the villages, the moors – has a certain mystical quality that draws people back – or which won’t let them go.’

There has been an interesting attempt to revive interest in classic novels lately. Not only do we have the fitfully amusing mash-ups of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with fantasy, or horror staples, but there was also a recent marketing push to design the covers of the likes of Wuthering Heights to appeal to fans of Twilight.

Today’s book not only carries an opening quote from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, it refers to the book itself frequently within the text. The contrast between the metropolitan lifestyle of protagonist Grace in London and her feelings of  isolation on the Yorkshire moors indicate that there are places in this world where the clock can be turned back to the periods described by these classic novels referred to in Beneath The Shadows.

Grace and her husband Adam left behind their hectic lives in London to raise their newborn child Millie in a cottage inherited after the recent deaths of his grandparents. Hawthorn Cottage is an opportunity to escape from the pressures of paying exorbitant rents and nights of blaring traffic, as well as give Millie a proper childhood in the fresh air of the countryside. If the change is too drastic, Adam promises that after six months they can leave.

Then one night Grace returns to an empty home, finding only a cryptic note from Adam telling her he has something important to tell her. Hours pass without any sign of him and then she discovers Millie safe in her pram outside the house, but no sign of her husband.

Adam’s disappearance is treated by the police as an apparently intentional abandonment of his young family. Grace is unable to accept this and returns to the cottage a year later secretly looking for clues as to her husband’s vanishing. Grace’s parents are unhappy with their daughter’s decision to return and her sister Annabel agrees to visit to make sure she is not slipping back into despondency. Once back in the Yorkshire village of Roseby, Grace sets about trying to renovate the old cottage to make it more attractive to a buyer. She is determined to provide her daughter with a proper inheritance. She meets a stoic man named Ben, a one-time native who has only recently returned to Roseby after years overseas who agrees to help with the renovations.

Local woman Meredith acted as caretaker for the cottage in Grace’s absence. Through her she learns more about Adam’s family, the history of the area itself, as well as much of the local folklore about spirits and ghosts. Grace becomes disturbed by a recurring nightmares involving Adam and supernatural creatures inspired by Meredith’s stories. When Annabel arrives and takes a fancy to the kindly yet mysterious Ben, she also cannot help but feel disturbed by how her sister’s flirtation affects her.

Then winter comes to North Yorkshire, covering the vast landscape outside the cottage with a blanket of snow, but also completely isolating Grace and her child, with no company save for the buried secrets of Roseby. The more she learns, the more she begins to question what she knows about Adam. She becomes convinced there is someone close to her, someone living in Roseby, who knows what really happened to her husband.

Sara Foster has followed up her debut Come Back to Me with a winning evocation of novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, – each namechecked along with Rebecca in the story – as well as the natural sights and sounds of the Yorkshire landscape. Ben makes for an entertaining reincarnation of Heathcliff, whose past is indelibly linked to Grace’s. I enjoyed how Foster updates the themes of these classic novels to a contemporary setting. The hints of supernatural forces dropped throughout the texts, with copious mentions of ghosts and barghests, add to the prevailing mood of menace. Grace and her sister’s relationship is also well established, comic sibling rivalry a more contemporary concern than classic naturalism.

All this is combined with the literary trope of a family with too many buried secrets to produce a work that casually merges classicism and contemporary to winning effect.

With thanks to Random House for my review copy.

“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

Do I dream? Cried Manfred returning, or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why does thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for – Ere he could finish the sentence the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him Lead on! Cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition.

The Castle of Otranto is a book that has achieved immortality courtesy of first year English students in college. It is a literary virus, passed on from one generation to the next, thanks to this –

It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Castle, and Walpole by extension is arguably the forerunner to such authors as Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.(wiki)

It is a footnote, a book no one ever reads outside of completionists and academics. So while I knew of it, I never bothered to investigate. I was surprised to find that I liked it.

Walpole’s tragic tale begins with Manfred the lord of the castle Otranto preparing for his son’s wedding. He is eager to continue his family line and despite the sickliness of his heir Conrad, rests all his hopes on his union with Isabella, the daughter of a missing lord with a rival claim to his lands. Manfred’s grandfather inherited the castle and its territories from Alfonso. His claim to it is weak and he fears the return of Isabella’s father from the Crusades. He is also aware of an obscure prophecy, which hints at a dire fate for his family line.

On the night of the wedding tragedy strikes when Conrad is found crushed beneath a giant helmet. The castle is thrown into confusion – although secretly Isabella is relieved as she felt little love for her arranged match. Manfred flies into a rage when a mysterious peasant points out that the helmet belongs to the statue of Alfonso. He orders the stranger to be kept captive beneath the helm that crushed his own son. This macabre command shows how his rage has begun to warp his judgment. Manfred in desperation to avoid fate decides on a new course of action. He commands his pious wife Hippolyta and daughter Matilda to remain in their chambers and asks Isabella to join him. When they are alone he attempts to force her to consent to marry him. He blames his wife for producing an unsuitable heir and has decided to divorce her. Isabella refuses and flees in terror. Manfred becomes a man possessed and orders the castle searched to find her. As the night continues there are further signs of the supernatural within the grounds. Spirits and agents of God’s divine will makes themselves known, condemning Manfred’s desperate madness.

Reading Walpole’s novella it is obvious the influence it had on books such as Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are corrupt lords and foul deeds hidden behind castle walls. Unnatural portents and the very real threat of damnation. What surprised me was the influences contemporary readers can detect in Walpole’s own novel. The plot bears a slim resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, once again due to palace intrigues and lordly haunts. Furthermore though there are occasional comic scenes, with servant girl Bianca and the idiotic duo of Jaquez and Diego stretching Manfred’s patience to breaking point with their babble. These scenes of aristocrats growing increasingly impatient with their ‘domestics’, owes a lot to Shakespeare’s comedies, such as the encounter between Dogberry and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

There is also doomed romance and melancholy princes, as well as a silent knight whose presence threatens Manfred. All in all a gripping yarn.

It deserves better than to be a footnote in a college text book. Jan Svankmajer appears to agree.

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