Friday, 5 October 2018

Recommendation: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

I had the pleasure of being on a couple of panels with Laura Purcell at Edge-Lit this year, and in a like-the-cut-of-her-jib moment I bought her novel The Silent Companions as a result. And I'm very glad I did, because I enjoyed it immensely.

It's a story about a Victorian widow called Elsie, sent out to The Bridge, a country estate with requisite surly staff, strange noises, and locked rooms. Its structure is intriguingly modern, switching between three time-frames with ease, but at its heart this is a modern take on the gothic novel.

So, a confession: beyond the classics, I'm not a massive fan of the gothic mode in horror fiction. Something like The Woman In Black, for example, I found slightly underwhelming, the most disturbing thing being the faint but persistent sense of deja-vu its tropes induced. And The Silent Companions sure ticks all the gothic boxes: its period setting; its isolated country house; the cursed past implicit in present misfortunes; the gradual escalation of its haunting.

But there's a pleasing darkness and grit to The Silent Companions which to my mind elevates it behind mere literary mimicry. It's there in the intrusion of industrial London into its rural setting, in the way its doesn't flinch from the cruelty of the times it evokes, or draw back from the violence of its narrative. The spirit of both Henry and M.R. James can be felt, the former in the ambiguity about how much the haunting is real or psychological, the latter in the way any sense of a cosy narrative is punctured by scarily physical manifestations of the supernatural—like James, Purcell has the gift of being able to suggest such things with a single sentence or image that are all the more powerful for their compactness.

Its wonderfully done, and manages that rare trick of slowly building a sense of unease while also being a genuinely page-turner. I'd heartily recommend it.

The Silent Companions (UK | US)

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