Robyn Reviews: Plain Bad Heroines

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ is a complex novel set across two timelines: the early 20th century, where both students and staff at Brookhants School for Girls are captivated by a new, audacious book by Mary Maclane; and the present day, where a film is being made about the events at Brookhants over a hundred years ago. Told by a mysterious narrator, it switches back and forth between the timelines, emphasising the parallels between the past and modern day events. The comparisons and clever interspersing of gothic elements are enjoyable, but the exceptionally ambiguous ending isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

Brookhants, an exclusive school in Massachusetts, was set up by Libbie Brookhants after her husband’s death. With the help of her close friend – and lover – Alex, it became a huge success – until the death of two students, Clara and Flo. Thus began a series of events ending in the school’s permanent closure, passing into legend – until a precocious young writer, Merritt, decided to write a book about the tragedies at Brookhants. The book was subsequently optioned, and two actresses at very different stages of their careers – Harper Harper and Audrey Wells – were signed on to star. These characters make up our plain bad heroines – in the past timeline, Clara, Flo, and their classmate Eleanor, along with Principal Brookhants and Alex; in the present timeline, Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt.

Each character is complex, and the relationships between them are highlights. I especially liked Libbie Brookhants – a bold and independent woman never given the freedom to be as independent as she’d like – and Audrey Wells, a child star struggling to grow out of the shadow of her infamous mother and show off any talent of her own. The relationship between Libbie and Alex in a time when such things were not accepted is brilliantly portrayed, and it’s fascinating seeing how each of them view it – even when those views don’t align. The interplay between Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is also excellent, although I did feel that the changes in Audrey and Merritt weren’t always written with the subtlety of the others.

Unusually for a book with multiple timelines, both the past and present stories are equally strong. Jumping between them never feels unnatural or out of place, and there are some truly beautiful moments of mirroring. The only weakness in either timeline is the pacing. This is a long book, with a great deal of build-up before each new event happens, and I feel like it could be edited down without losing any of the gorgeous atmosphere and tension.

My main issue with this book, however, is the ending. The past timeline is more-or-less wrapped up – not everything is answered, but then some mystery adds to the atmosphere – but the present just ends with no resolution. The reader is left to decide for themselves what happens to the plain bad heroines – which will suit some readers well, but I want a few more answers. The ending also leaves the reader knowing a lot more than the protagonists, which is interesting, but definitely a situation more could be done with.

Overall, this is a clever piece of fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and gothic. It’s filled with sapphic relationships and intriguing characters, and the writing is gorgeous, evoking beautiful imagery across its multiple timelines. Recommended for fans of gothic literature, dark academia, and stories with real atmosphere.

Thanks to NetGalley and Borough Press for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Borough Press
Hardback: 4th February 2021

Book Review: London Gothic

Nicholas Royle has been described by a Sunday Times reviewer as a ‘craftsman of disquiet’. London Gothic, his latest short story collection, provides a fine example of why he deserves such praise. Across fifteen deliciously disturbing tales, written between 2000 and the present day, he offers glimpses of contemporary London as seen through the lenses of artists – and other residents the aspiring and successful brush up against. Settings include: flats carved from once spacious houses, hipster style art galleries, and a ‘country house’ hotel. Alongside an undercurrent of the macabre there is much humour. Royle is not afraid to poke fun at his peers and those they may venerate.

The collection opens with Welcome, an apparently jolly letter to new home owners that quickly sets the scene for the author’s ability to summon unease.

There follow a number of stories that explore how little can be known of other’s reasoning – the perturbing methods they employ to solve troubling issues.

The Neighbours tells of a burgeoning relationship that stalls when the man feels shadowed by another couple paying too close attention. Much is inferred but the reader is trusted to reach their own conclusion.

This lack of spoon-feeding is a strength in these tales. Undertows pervade with questions hanging over what is real and what a product of a character’s history, personality and concerns.

The Old Bakery is something rather different, and a strong addition. In it, a sub-editor is working on a piece commissioned for a Sunday Supplement in which a wealthy couple are showing the space they have created from the titular building. The tone of the interview is faux-humble, exacerbated by the writer’s collusion and sycophancy. It is a wonderful take-down of smug artistes, nepotism, and the jealousy of those not included within inner circles.

Another story that strays from the themes of hauntings, doppelgängers and murder is Constraints. It harnesses a form that is somewhat experimental yet has been made to work.

Lesser known histories of the city add to the colour and flavour of many of the tales. Buildings referenced may or may not exist in real life but are still familiar. Changes have been made over time to structure and interior but they retain glimpses of what they once were. Incomers will try to cash in on the nostalgia this generates.

The author frequently plays with his reader, most obviously in the story, London. This includes a description that appeared to meander into rather boring detail, followed by a rejoinder for the inevitable lapse in attention.

“Go ahead. Skim. I’m just telling you what I saw. It might be important. It might not.”

Suitably chastised, I reread the paragraph. I will not spoil by saying if this were necessary.

Several stories contain elements that could be regarded as self-referential, challenging the reader to admit to a conceit that they believe they might know something of the author. I enjoyed the playfulness with which these were introduced.

London plays with many aspects of mise en abyme. The tale told is not always straightforward but provides much to reflect on.

The collection concludes with The Vote. Set in a hotel it is an allegory for Brexit but avoiding the usual bile and blame. Characters were pigeon-holed by newspapers. The Times man may have been ‘a former Guardian reader’ who ‘tired of that paper’s obsession with certain issues’. He can socialise with the Telegraph man, if only for their brief stay in this shifting space.

“The Times man was still in the game, still a player, a stakeholder. But he knew that he and the Telegraph man were basically from the same stock. They could get on. Their wives could get on. This was how the country worked.”

Mostly though the stories in this collection avoid any hint of politics, reflecting more on class and culture – and the chasms these create. They offer up a dark underbelly lurking within everyday situations. Fabulous, at times chilling, storytelling to curl up with as the evenings draw in.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cōnfingō.

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020

 

Book Review: The Loney

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The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, is a masterfully written gothic horror which disturbs without the need for graphic detail. Set in a remote village on the north west coast of England it takes beautiful countryside, mixes it with inclement weather, and creates a dark and brooding setting. Religious extremism and the rumour of historic witchcraft stir up a cauldron of emotions as visitors cross paths with locals and grapple with belief, ritual, fear of truth, and change.

The narrator of the tale is a man named Smith. When the book opens he is middle aged, living in London, and recalling events from his childhood. His mother barely noticed him except as a conduit for her ambitions.  Her elder son, Hanny, was a mute who was mentally impaired. She believed that Hanny’s problems were a test for her faith, that if she could prove herself before God then he would be cured.

From the first page this book is chilling. When the religious ferocity of the mother and her friends are introduced it becomes clear that reason is unlikely to prevail. What draws the reader in is the use of language as each scene is brought to life.

The brothers meet a drunk at a bus stop:

“Hanny and I couldn’t take our eyes off him. We gorged ourselves on his dirtiness, on his brutal, alien smell.”

Driving through what their mother considered a bad part of London:

“aproned women stood and screeched obscenities at the men stumbling out of corner pubs. It was a safari park of degradation. What a world without God looked like.”

As a child, Smith and his family spent a few days each year on a religious retreat up north with their parish priest and a handful of other parishioners. When the old priest dies these trips cease until his replacement is appointed. The group then return to the setting of this tale for what turns out to be a final time.

It is important to Smith’s mother that the habits of previous visits are maintained but the new priest struggles to meet her expectations. Her husband seems more interested in a hidden room discovered within the old house where they have always stayed than in her preparations for their son’s cure. With emotions running high they encounter locals who resent their presence, especially when the boys stumble upon their secrets.

I enjoyed the interplay between the varying beliefs, how threats and lies were deemed acceptable if they kept disciples within the fold. It is interesting to consider where the evil lies, what a blinkered mother may be willing to sacrifice to achieve her own ends. After all that had gone before, the macabre denouement was perfect.

A dark and spooky read where not everything is fully explained. As in life, revelations may be ignored if they do not fit with the desired narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray.

Book Review: The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb

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The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb, by David John Griffin, is a surreal mix of love, madness and gothic horror. On finishing I set it down and wondered at what I had just read. The book has been recommended for fans of Mervyn Peake, an author I am unfamiliar with. I was put in mind of how Dickens may write with a dose of the psychedelic.

The story revolves around the Stubb family who live in Muchmarsh village near the towns of Grinding and Smudge. The patriarch, a widower named Theodore, is a former actor who possesses the power to hypnotise. He uses this skill for his own cruel amusement, and to have his wicked way with attractive young women. Theodore lives in a run down manor house, served by a motley crew of staff who each have an important role to play in the unfolding drama.

The book opens with Theodore’s son, William, a recently unemployed coffin maker, collecting his wife from The Grinding Sanatorium for the Delusional. She has spent the past twelve months here, recovering from the death of her baby son, Alastair. Eleanor is beautiful and mentally deranged. She considers herself a queen and others to be mere vapour shadows. She communes telepathically with insects who will alert her to the return of her baby. She believes Alastair is being kept safe in the darkness. In order to escape the sanatorium she tells the vapour shadows whatever they wish to hear and thus seems cured.

William and Eleanor move into the manor house with Theodore. Eleanor spends her days in an abandoned church, bringing Theodore unusual insects which she finds there. Collecting insects has been his life’s work. William hates his father’s collection, believing that Theodore has paid more attention to it than to him.

The first half of the story introduces us to the cast of characters and plays out to a climactic night: a birth, a fire, a death, a disappearance. There is blackmail, coercion and the Stubb family must leave their home. There is drama aplenty but the more perplexing aspects are subdued.

The second half of the book is set thirteen years later. Alastair is living in the village with his father, an unhappy drunk who tries to keep the family secrets from his son. Alastair longs for a mother’s love. He helps out his neighbours, doing jobs to earn a few pennies, but lacks friends.

When the teenage boy starts to act strangely there are those who are not surprised,

“Alastair has lost his brains, though what with his mum round the twist, it must run in the family.”

What they do not realise is that his actions are beyond the boy’s control, and that he is to be the conduit for a series of dreadful acts of revenge.

Alongside the Dickens like names, the over the top personalities, and the supernatural elements of the second half of the book; is a writing style which paints pictures in the mind. The plot is intriguing, the telling evocative, the imagery stunning.

“A pious hush still pervaded the countryside. Alastair felt that somehow it would have been wrong to make any sound; for worry perhaps of a disturbance to the praying bushes that huddled together along the verge. The moisture and frost had rendered them flexible and drooping and they hung their heads in worship.”

Each setting is depicted to make the ordinary appear dark: the sleepy village with its shadows and flawed characters, dirt pervading, secrets oozing; the run down manor house with its creaking staircases, creeping shadows, dust and insects; the abandoned canal with its black glass surface, all around rotting and disintegrating.

The denouement in the catacombs pulled together many of the plot threads although much was left open for interpretation. The red balloon floats by, the insects remain.

This is a book full of curiosities, written with artistry and imagination. I am still not sure how I should define such a creation, but am glad to have read it and would recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.

 

Book Review: The Blackheath Séance Parlour

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The Blackheath Séance Parlour, by Alan Williams, is a deliciously macabre gothic horror. There is no reining in of detail to protect readers of more delicate sensibilities. The story is brutal, disturbing yet is told with panache.

The central characters are two middle aged sisters who, when the story opens, are in dire financial straits. The chocolate shop that they run barely makes enough money to feed them let alone support their copious drinking habits. They realise that a change of direction is required.

The elder sister, Maggie, is a determined character who is used to being in control. Her younger sister, Judy, acquiesced to her demands but has grown tired of their poverty. She has had an idea, to turn their shop into a séance parlour. Despite her many objections, vociferously and repeatedly articulated, Maggie agrees to Judy’s plans.

Alongside the main narrative is a further story, presented as the text of a novel which Judy is writing. This plot involves two wealthy, beautiful and enigmatic siblings who harbour monstrous secrets on which their lives depend. Their background is presented in searing detail. They are the creation of a brilliant, abominable scientist who believed his work was more important than other’s lives.

The séance parlour is a sensation as is Judy’s book. Suddenly the sister’s lives are transformed but at a terrible cost.

There are many strong and skillfully developed characters within this book. Even the abhorrent among them have presence and clarity which inspires awe alongside the loathing. Despite the gore, the horror, the unleashing of powers from beyond the grave, at no point does it feel gratuitous.

The author has taken age old ideas and injected them with originality and depth. The historical detail is fascinating, the gentle mocking of the masses delicious. A skillfully written story which I enjoyed reading immensely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cutting Edge Press.