Sometimes, I really think I ought to read more slowly. I find myself – and not for the first time – with two books to review in quick succession. In my defence, I’ve been on something of a Gothic fiction reading spree in preparation for my contribution pieces to the Edinburgh eBook Festival 2014 (coming soon, as they say). That entailed reading a lot, and fast. Anyway, on to business . . .
My first great self-published Gothic fiction find is J.D. Hughes’ And Soon the Song. (Disclosure time: J.D. is an acquaintance, and an occasional visitor to this blog. As always, I’ve tried not to let this influence my evaluation of the book.)
Hearthstone Hall, in rural Derbyshire, is a large Gothic-style mansion, which is described as “a mouth of darkness waiting to suck in the innocent.” Sure enough, during the course of the story the innocent – and the not-so-innocent – duly get sucked into something of a living nightmare. Hearthstone is “bursting with the acquired detritus of nine hundred years of aristocratic banditry” and “full of echoes.” Yet this is not the stereotypical haunted house; what lurks here is altogether stranger and darker. Amongst those being pulled into this heady mix are Charlie, a New York photojournalist, and Tom, an ex-paratrooper haunted by his own past. Hearthstone – or rather, perhaps, the beings that inhabit Hearthstone – seem to be reeling these disparate individuals in for purposes which aren’t immediately obvious, but can hardly be good.
As in much Gothic-style fiction, Hearthstone contains a terrible danger from the past that simply will not be laid to rest. The de Courcys, the Norman family who originally made the Hall their home, still continue to throw a very long shadow over the house and those who live there. More to the point, they continue to influence the present and those who live in it. Though dead, they still exert the power that has been their birthright for so long, and which they have bequeathed to the last straggling descendants of their line.
This, of course, will have immense implications for the ragtag group of individuals who are pulled into the house’s magnetic field, all of whom have their own unique take on the experience. Telling a story from so many viewpoints, encompassing so many characters and events, is tricky, at least if it’s to be done well. I’ve tried it, and failed, on several occasions, which is perhaps why I prefer to concentrate on the small-scale and the intimate. Hughes, much to his credit, succeeds admirably here. Each of the characters adds something vital to the equation, and all are realistic and well-drawn. Even the bad guys – Elyssia (“mad, dead, something hovering in a purgatory between death and release”) and the brutal Angel – have depths that prevent them being stereotypical villains, and have back stories that help to round them out, just as the house and the de Courcys do. All of these elements help to flesh out the story, but they never weigh it down.
For all the fast tempo of the novel, there are plenty of ideas thrown into the mix, some of them expressed quite beautifully, like this one: “Truth is a shifting rainbow that we can see from the corner of our eye. When we turn to look fully it becomes something else.” This is a novel with substance: alternate realities, Northern Ireland’s tortured history, the social structure imposed on Saxon England by Norman invaders all come in for attention here, and never seem like padding or a distraction from the story.
Hearthstone Hall itself is beautifully conveyed – the atmosphere, the threat, the history. And (again, a feature of much Gothic fiction) it is a place that dominates the human characters. The Hall is a character in its own right, influencing human actions and moods. The building sense of dread and tension is irresistible, the ending explosive. This is a horror/thriller you won’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, providing a fascinating new twist on an iconic story, is Simon Cheshire’s The Frankenstein Inheritance. Set in the year 1879, the story opens with a kindly scientist, Professor Marchbanks, arriving in London with his young charges, two eerie children known as Victoria and Albert. Victoria and Albert are unnerving simply because they are different, and inexplicable. They are highly intelligent, and yet their memories extend only to the previous few days. They are immensely physically strong and resilient, and yet their bodies are covered with what appears to be stitching. Even Professor Marchbanks, who does his utmost to care for them, is afraid of them. And yet – in an echo of Mary Shelley’s novel – this dread is essentially unjustified. Victoria and Albert have a strong sense of morality, and are capable of great kindness and loyalty. Within minutes of their arrival in London, Albert has, with great foresight and bravery, saved the lives of a woman and child.
What follows is a breathless steampunk/Gothic horror/thriller, told in the epistolary style of Dracula, and delving deep into the foetid heart of Victorian London. The premise of The Frankenstein Inheritance is intriguing: the original Dr Frankenstein’s work has not only been continued, but considerably expanded, by his descendant. Now the Frankensteins’ experiments involve far more than just reanimating the dead; indeed, the original Frankenstein’s work seems rather crude compared to that of his grandson. Wolfgang von Frankenstein has, instead, worked to perfect not just the revivification but the manufacture of biological material.
Our original insight into Frankenstein’s world is akin to our introduction to Count Dracula. His castle, in middle Europe, is “a fortress, guarded by a small band of hired thugs and almost impossible to get into or out of except via the huge iron portcullis at its gate.” The action soon shifts to London, however: the iconic Victorian London to which we all have imaginative access, the London of Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. However, this book transcends its historical setting quite easily; the issues raised here are more relevant now than ever before. Frankenstein, working in a makeshift laboratory in London, initially speaks of his work as something benign:
“The blind shall see with mechanical eyes, the injured shall have their limbs regrown and their scars healed. Pills to soothe the brain. Fresh hearts and replacement lungs . . . The clamouring masses will demand freedom from disease and disfigurement. Improvement and repair will be within their grasp at last.”
This sounds like the wholly benevolent treatments which are being pioneered by doctors all the time, and who could object to such? However, as soon becomes clear, Frankenstein’s ultimate aim is altogether more sinister:
“Soon, improvement and repair will no longer be enough for the human race. Then, I will offer them perfection . . . Artificial flesh, new bodies, from modern factories. No more death! . . . The choice will be an easy one: stay human and die, weak and broken and diseased; or become one with the new flesh, my creation, and live in health and beauty for eternity. Once Mankind makes that choice, Nature will have been defeated, forever.”
Here we are faced with a highly modern concern: at what point does the justifiable quest to improve lives cross the line into unjustifiable meddling? This is the ambivalence that informed Shelley’s classic novel; it informs The Frankenstein Inheritance, and has never been more relevant.
This is a great thriller in its own right, the kind of thing you might devour in one reading. It’s also, I understand, technically a book for young adults, though I tend to think of that as being little more than a handy label for booksellers. Adults can, and should, read it too, because there’s much here to keep you thinking. When Frankenstein’s developments meet capitalism and finance, a nightmare world erupts: a world in which greed, human frailty, and scientific advances converge in a truly unholy alliance. A world, in short, arguably not very different to our own…