Undine was the first Mrs. Cavell, beautiful and strange, with a secret so well-guarded that only her husband and soft-spoken, monstrous brother knew it.
Miranda is the second Mrs. Cavell. She learns to know her rival by a haunting that is to drive her to the limits of fear.
First published 1964 by W.H Allen & Co. This edition published 1965 by Pan Books Ltd.
Reminiscent of Du Maurier’s classic gothic Rebecca, with an added supernatural sting in its tale, Undine is a chilling novel about love and possession; a book where the haunted lives and unquiet secrets of the past toil and trouble under the supposedly calm, quiet surface of the present.
Our leading lady is Miranda , an actress who is a little too good at her job. Continually typecast into roles playing insane, suicidal women, she finds her style of method acting physically and emotionally draining. After a rather harrowing season playing Ophelia, Miranda has had enough and so decides to take some time out from her career to visit her best friend Maud for a relaxing holiday in the countryside.
Things start out good. While out for a swim in the woods, Miranda is reunited with her one true love, Clint Cavell – a man she once shared a passionate one night stand with four years back but to whom fate had cruelly intervened to separate from her, ensuring their paths would not cross again until now. Clint lives in the big house next door and is recently widowed; his wife – the beautiful Undine – died under mysterious circumstances just over a year ago. Rather eerily, Undine and Miranda bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, but this strange co-incidence does little to dampen our new couple’s ardour. Miranda and Clint are ecstatic to be together again and waste no time in getting married.
Then things start to get really bad, and what should have been the best year of Miranda’s life, very quickly sours into the worst. As soon as they return from their honeymoon, Clint is swamped with work, defending a child murderer in a sensational criminal case, resulting in him becoming increasingly withdrawn from Miranda. Even worse, the house he now shares with his new wife still shivers with the presence of the old, as the spectre of Undine haunts its rooms, refusing to relinquish the husband she loved so much when she was alive. This unquiet ghost of weddings past is hatching a plan which does not bode well for Miranda. Tippy-toeing on eggshells in her own home, isolated and overwhelmed by forces she cannot understand, let alone fight against, it all becomes too much for her and it’s not long before Miranda is playing the most dangerous role of her life…
Nevertheless, my first feeling of reassurance is gone, and argue with myself as I will I can’t recapture it. For there is a quality in the total silence around me more unnerving than anything I have experienced at Maud’s. Maud’s house is emotionally noisy, its haunting screams for attention, shreds itself to nothingness with its own clamour. Here there is only silence but it is a suspended silence, the silence of a held breath, of a cautiously arrested moment.
No amount of my florid praise can do justice to Undine so I’ll shut up (soon). If you can find this book, read it – the writing is beautiful, the chills wonderfully crafted and subtle. Told alternatively in flashback and from the first person viewpoint of Miranda, Phyllis Brett Young very successfully creates an atmosphere fraught with suspense strung razor tight right to the very end.
Books this shuddersome don’t come without their fair share of gothic accoutrements and Undine is no exception, having not just one big ol’ haunted house in the woods but two, complete with ancient bloodstains and secret hiding spaces.
And, in addition to all the shady characters, strange dreams and inexplicable happenings haunting our heroine, we also have Gerad – Undine’s grieving brother. A beady-eyed, lisping hulk of a man who spends his free time painting the kind of monstrous grotesqueries which would make Richard Upton Pickman proud. With his strange habits and unhealthy fascination for the children next door, Gerad is a wonderfully sinister focal-point for Miranda’s paranoia and inspires some of the most suspenseful scenes in the novel.
I couldn’t find out much about Phyllis Brett Young – a once acclaimed Canadian author who wrote at least six books, including the international bestseller, The Torontonians. All her novels were out of print by the time she died in 1996 and it’s a sobering thought that a writer this good, with such an original voice, can so easily slide into obscurity. However there is some good news – a couple of her novels have recently been re-issued- The Torontonians in 2007 and Psyche in 2008. As for Undine, I doubt any re-issue could beat this gorgeous candlelit cover for gothickness. Five out of five stars.