Climb The Dark Mountain

Climb the dark mountain close up

Dream… Or Nightmare?

Paris! Anita could not believe it. Her every dream had been of the glories of the City of Light, and now, thanks to aunt Emily’s legacy, she was really here.

Anita had one goal: becoming a successful artist. And what better place to study art than in the world capital of art? When Alexis Binaud agreed to accept her as a student, she was ecstatic… but her idol soon proved himself nothing more than a man. And Anita found she had opened the door to a dark secret… and that door was closing, locking her prisoner in a private hell!

Climb the dark mountainCopyright Press Editorial Services.

This edition published by Zenith Publications, London. (No date). 

It’s been awhile since my last post, I know… so thanks to everyone who has stopped by and left comments & emails – I promise to start replying soon! Bear with me as my beleaguered brain relearns its way around WordPress – I have been doing things the old fashioned way these past few months and am slowly refamiliarising myself with the internet.

Having reviewed a couple of Julie Wellsley novels on this site before – House Malign and Chateau of Secrets – I thought Climb the Dark Mountain would be a good book to start the summer off with since it’s been lurking on my to-read pile for ages.

The story starts when Anita Morris inherits some money and uses it to fulfil her long time ambition of becoming an artist. Thanks to a small legacy left to her in her aunt’s will, she now has enough cash to fly to Paris and study under the tutelage of renowned painter Alexis Binaud.

Lancer Edition

Lancer Edition

Montmartre is a long, long way from Maida Vale and everything Anita imagined it would be – all cutting edge glamour crossed with bohemian insouciance. As for Alexis, well, if drinking Pernod and chain-smoking Gitanes didn’t single him out as a genius, his moody charm and ruggedly handsome good looks sure do – so it’s no wonder Anita has fallen helplessly in love by the end of chapter 3.

When Alexis offers her a part time job illustrating a cartoon strip he is creating for a local paper, she jumps at the chance of spending more time with him. There is one slight catch however – for a mysterious fire at the art school means Anita will now be living and working from the artist’s home.

And it’s not just any old house. Alexis lives with his mother in an old French chateau with a dark past. Occupied by the Gestapo during the war, it is a place impregnated with evil, haunted by the ghosts of prisoners of war who were tortured and buried in its dungeons.

As soon as she moves in, Anita knows something is terribly wrong – strange accidents, a sense of being followed, shadowy figures creeping into her bedroom at night… someone wants her dead… and though she can not know for sure, the sinister, skeletal finger of gothic romance is pointing very much in the direction of one troubled artist with mad glittery eyes…

Climb the DM insert

Fast-paced, action-packed, Climb the Dark Mountain was a lot of fun crammed with whole heaps of gothicness – including eerily painted murals with eyes that follow you in the dark, an artist’s incestuous love for his dead sister, Nazis, secret rooms, madness, murder and much, much, more – I really sensed Julie Wellsley must have had a lot of fun writing this one.

But with so much going on, I found the story did get a little convoluted at times – with a confusing subplot about a spy ring or criminal gang that did not make sense to me at all – although that could be because I was far too engrossed with Alexis’ tortured love for his embalmed sibling to take much notice of other such minor fripperies.

Three out of four stars, with bonus points for this lovely cover which could have been painted by Alexis Binaud himself!

Climb the dark mountain

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Stranger in the House

The Sedgwick mansion was hidden in the shadows by ancient elms and maples. And long ago its inhabitants had retreated into secret lives of their own.

But Letty Gaynor was unaware of the family’s mysterious past. And so, innocently, she agreed to visit the dark, foreboding house and to play the part of Chris Sedgwick’s fiancée. But when she began to suspect too much about the living and learned too much about the dead, her role took on new and terrifying dimensions.

Written by Serena Mayfield. Pocket Book edition published December 1972. Cover art Gene Szafran.

Letty Gaynor ‘star of tomorrow’ is a struggling actress living in midtown Manhattan whose life changes dramatically when she is asked a favour by handsome television agent, Chris Sedgwick. He wants her to accompany him on a visit to his family mansion and pretend to be his fiancée. All this in order to appease his rich, dying grandmother, who apparently worries too much about his philandering ways.

Against her better instincts Letty agrees and soon finds herself a houseguest amongst the usual cast of eccentric ne’er-do-well relatives – best of the bunch for me being ‘perky’ Uncle Harry, a pernicious gossip who knows all the Sedgwick’s dirty secrets and has a fondness for long walks in the family cemetery.

It is during one of these walks that Letty discovers there is more to this family – and the marriage-shy agent – than meets the eye, but of course by then, as far as her own life is concerned, it may already be too late…

Stranger in the House is a short, fun, engagingly written gothic. The cover art is by Gene Szafran (11 April 1941 – 8 January 2011), a well known American artist and sculptor who created a lot of striking science fiction covers in the 60’s and 70’s. I’m not sure if he illustrated many gothics but I’d like to see more; I love his bold colour sense and those spooky-effect tombstones.

I do have one slight quibble about this cover – although the heroine in the foreground looks suitably glamorous, I am not so sure about her pursuer. Is he meant to be scary? Or just scared? Bewitched, bothered or bewildered? Maybe all three. Looks to me as if he has just stumbled into the graveyard by accident and is asking for directions to the nearest exit. My other half says he is most likely practising his Morcambe & Wise dance moves. Hmmm. Gothic or gormless? You decide.

Thinking about it, I guess most of the male cover stars on this blog are a little less than magnificent in the scary or sexy stakes and it’s no wonder they’ve been eclipsed by those bare-chested Fabioesque hunks beloved by today’s romance readers. Three out of four stars.

A Stranger in my Grave

What happened to Daisy Harker on Decemeber 2,1955? That was the date she had seen on the tombstone and yet she was still alive. The name on the grave was hers but whose was the body? Regardless of the lives that would be shattered by the truth, her implacable search for a single day in her past leads back through a maelstrom of hatred and remorse to the single catastrophic fact that underlies a lifetime of deception.

Written by Margaret Millar. First published 1960 by Victor Gollancz. Hodder paperback edition 1967.

Cover design Tom Simmonds. Photography Thomas Simmons.

My beloved Daisy: It has been so many years since I have last seen you…

We meet Daisy Harker one bright sunny morning in February as she sits down to breakfast with her husband Jim. At first glance they seem the perfect couple – young, affluent and good looking, enjoying bacon and eggs in their nice house, situated in a nice part of town. But something is wrong. Behind her brittle smiles and perfunctorily answers to her husband’s questions, Daisy’s peace of mind is becoming increasingly disturbed – she is suffering from panic attacks leaving her feeling out of control and helpless, triggered by a vivid dream in which she visited her own grave, the date on the tombstone marking her death as December 2nd 1955.

This letter may never reach you, Daisy. If it doesn’t, I will know why.

The good news is Daisy is still alive and, since it is now 1959, this dream cannot be a presentiment of her death. Even so, she intuitively knows someone or something close to her died that day and this is what holds the key to her increasing anxiety and unhappiness with her life. So, with the help of sceptical bail bondsman / private detective Pinata, she sets out on a journey to rediscover exactly what happened that fateful day in December over four years ago.

Memories are crowding in on me so hard and fast that I can hardly breathe.

I can’t say too much as I don’t want to spoil a cracking story beautifully written by an author with an amazing talent for bringing to life the little things – those seemingly offhand gestures and turns of speech that give away a character’s innermost thoughts and motivations. Suffice to say, this was a compelling mystery right from the start which I was very quickly drawn into.

Shame? – It’s my daily bread. No wonder the flesh is falling off my bones.

Another great thing about the structure of this novel – each chapter is headed by a couple of lines of prose which we gradually learn are extracts from a letter written, but never delivered to, Daisy herself. Who wrote it and why isn’t revealed until the final pages when she at last reads the entire letter- with the reader learning the whole truth behind her disturbing dream at the same time she does.

It’s powerful stuff and though some of the themes in this novel struck me as a little out-moded, the impact and skill of Margaret Millar’s storytelling more than makes up for this. I also love the eerie cover art; not sure if it’s a co-incidence or a typo but the names of the designer and photographer are strikingly similar, which made me wonder if this isn’t in fact the same person?

Anyway, a better review of this novel, along with some great cover scans, can be found over at the Pretty Sinister Books blog HERE.

The Rest is Silence

 DEAF, DUMB…AND DEAD?

Nona O’Carty was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was her first visit to England, and it should have been a festive vacation. She was looking forward with delighted anticipation to the royal wedding procession, and then…

She witnessed a brutal and seemingly senseless murder. At the same time, she was struck by a bullet which left her alive – but totally deaf.

She was completely unable to communicate what she knew – and she was not even sure how much she had actually seen and how much she had imagined. She was terribly, dreadfully alone. And there was no place to run – because now the murderer was stalking her, to ensure her silence… forever.

Written by Virginia Coffman.

Lancer Books 1968. Cover art Lou Marchetti.

Just when I thought I’d seen most of what Virginia Coffman has to offer gothic-wise, along comes another one! Of course Deaf, Mute and Dead would be the more politically appropriate, though far less alliterative, by-line for today’s back blurb, but I guess this was 1968.

I’ve had a quick flick through the first couple of chapters – the heroine, Nona, has a golden ticket for a royal wedding and she has travelled to England on a once in a lifetime trip from her hometown in Ireland. She is staying at the ‘little’ Richmond Hill Hotel, and this made me smile, for when my family first moved to the UK, we actually lived in this hotel for a few months – and I remember it as being very, very big! (Though I was quite little myself at the time and buildings do have a habit of shrinking as you get older).

Anyway, along with Behind Locked Shutters and The Twilight Web, this cover gets filed in the ‘shady-looking men wearing shades’ section of my bookcase.

This Rough Magic

“Even now with the sun directly in my eyes, I could hardly be sure. Sick and shaken, I hesitated: but of course I would have to look. I sank to my knees at the edge of the pool, and shaded my eyes to peer downwards…”

Distressed by a disastrous West End debut, young actress Lucy Waring was only too happy to accept her wealthy older sister’s offer of a holiday on the Mediterranean island of Corfu. Once there the caressing sun, the warm sea and the thrilling revelation that the nearest neighbour to her sister’s villa was none other than Sir Julian Gale, idol of the London stage since his mysterious disappearance two years ago, soon banished the whole miserable fiasco from her mind!

Equally calculated to stir the curiosity of any woman, were Max, the actor’s handsome, but strangely unfriendly son, and attractive artist Godfrey Manning with his tame dolphin and his intriguing midnight sailing trips. Altogether, the stage seemed perfectly set for a fascinating holiday in blissful surroundings…until a sniper’s bullets and a horrifying discovery on the beach shatters Lucy’s idyll, pushing her into the most terrifying role of her career – as a leading lady in a real-life drama of treachery, dark passion and cold-blooded murder!

Undoubtedly one of this country’s most successful literary ‘exports’ to America and reputed in some quarters to outsell James Bond, Mary Stewart is now known to a still greater audience through the recent filming of her superb romantic thriller, The Moonspinners. Not surprisingly, her latest book, This Rough Magic, is confidently expected to outshine even this success!

 Copyright Mary Stewart 1964. Originally published by Hodder & Stoughton London, England at 18/-This edition published for members only by the Companion Book Club. Cover art Victor Bertoglio.

Ooooh, for a gothic romance blog, there just isn’t enough snogging gracing these pages, so let’s rectify such an appalling oversight with this lovely gothic penned by Mary Stewart

I was first introduced to Mary Stewart’s writing through her Merlin trilogy – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. My mum had all three novels and I must have been about 12 or 13 when I first read them. Retelling the legends of King Arthur from the perspective of Merlin, the author deftly interweaves legend and historical fact with her own imaginings to create a story that is believable, absorbing and enchanting.

Hodder paperback 1966

The Merlin of Mary Stewart’s novels was portrayed as a more human, more fallible character than that of his usual mythical persona –  I remember there was always a question in her books as to whether the sorcery performed by this most favoured magician of King Arthur was indeed achieved via genuine supernatural ends, plain old trickery, good fortune or a combination of all three. And, far from deadening the magic of legend, her unique style of storytelling enhanced the wonderment of these tales.

 It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I read any of Mary Stewart’s gothics, which I enjoyed just as much – The Ivy Tree and Wildfire at Midnight being two favourites that spring to mind – and shame on me for not having done any reviews of her work here, a situation I hope to put right over the next few months.

For now though, I thought I’d post this gloriously dark take on your typical romance cover. Published in hardback by the Companion Book Club, I love how at first glance you might mistake this scene for your average moonlight romantic embrace. Even better, the publishers not only credit the artist, they give him a little space to say something for himself. To quote the blurb on the dust jacket –

This month’s jacket design is by VICTOR BERTOGLIO who provides a characteristically tongue-in-cheek introduction to himself! “Born in Hampstead in 1911; father Italian, mother English. A seventh child – this means I’m psychic as well as brilliant!” Educated at seven schools and St Martin’s school of Art, he is a prolific and gifted artist whose reputation belies his final, amusingly wry comment “it is now a race between eyesight and senile hand tremor!” 

Hmmm. For romance, intrigue and passion, I’m giving this cover a 5 out of 5. And it certainly looks a lot more fun than running away in your nightie!

House of Tombs

THE SARCOPHAGUS

…held the key to her passion – archaeology. She had come to this house of tombs on the windswept Maine island to learn from the greatest scholar of them all, Professor Scot Wiegand.

DAYS PASSED. WEEKS.

First she discovered the secret passageway in her room. Then the golden leaf which nearly caused an ‘accident.’ Then the buried cigarette case engraved with the initials L.M. Its owner had also an accident, a fatal accident.

Denise Stanton was beginning to think the Weigand family was not what it seemed.

AND THEN SHE FOUND THE MUMMY…

 A gothic novel by Caroline Farr. Copyright 1966 by Horwitz Publications Inc. First printing December 1966. 

Bizarre ritual murder, a love-starved madman and two beautiful women? Sounds an explosive combination and I was looking forward to getting stuck into this one over the holidays. 

Set in 1966 on an isolated island off the stormy coast of Maine, House of Tombs follows Denise Stanton, a young secretary starting her new job as a live-in assistant for the famous archaeologist, Professor Scot Weigand. Her destination is Werewold House, home to the professor and his extensive collection of encrumbled artifacts.

On the ferry over, Denise learns a bit more about her employer – that he has spent the last year under psychiatric care, having had a breakdown over the mysterious death of his one-time friend Meredith, a man rumoured by locals to have been having an affair with the professor’s (much) younger wife Karen and who met his untimely end when he fell off the cliffs near Werewold.

Denise is naturally uneasy by these stories, and soon finds she has even more to worry about once she arrives at the house. The professor seems a nice enough man, but his wife Karen and son John are giving her the heebeegeebees. Then there are the strange scratching noises emanating from behind the sliding panel in her room, as well as the torn up note, hinting at insanity and murder.

Amidst a backdrop of Sumerian myths, ancient Egyptian burial rites and dusty, sarcophagi-strewn museum rooms, House of Tombs is an enjoyable enough read if a little confusing at times. (The back story about Denise being related to the Weigand family disappears almost as soon as it’s mentioned, making me wonder whether the author just forgot about this part of the plot, with the nutty professor himself becoming a complete nonentity after chapter 2).

Plot holes and vanishing characters aside, there were enough gothic trappings in House of Tombs to keep things interesting and the burial rite towards the end of the book, in which our heroine finds herself the unwitting handmaiden to ‘evil queen’ Karen in Werewold’s very own death pit, provides a suitably suspenseful climax to the adventure. 

As for who wrote this book, well, if lines like – “A love of surfing and the sea has given me a better-than-average figure, with long slim legs and good breasts,”  hadn’t already given away the author as a man, Romancewiki confirmed this in their entry on Caroline Farr by stating:

“Caroline Farr is the pseudonym of Richard Wilkes-Hunter (1906 – 1991), a prolific Australian writer. Under this name, he wrote a number of Gothic romance novels. He used over a dozen pseudonyms and wrote war stories, romances, spy novels, westerns and pornography. Sometimes this name is incorrectly attributed to Allan Geoffrey Yates.”

However, Fantastic Fiction lists Caroline Farr as a pseudonym used by at least two other writers – Carter Brown and Lee Pattinson, as well as Richard Wilkes-Hunter, so I’m not 100% sure who the credit should go to.  Whoever it was, I’m guessing this was a book written to order rather than a labour of love.

Overall then, I’d say this is a slightly better than average gothic-by-numbers but not one worth being buried alive for. 3 out of 5 stars. 


Undine

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.

The Ancestor

The Drury House Was Empty, Haunted – and Damned!

But writer Jill Abbott doesn’t mind – at first. The sinister house is the perfect place to do research on her legendary ancestor, Biddy Comfort, who is said to have been a witch.

Jill’s work goes well, especially after she meets and falls in love with Dr. Dick Reeves.

Dramatically, her pleasure ends with the disturbing appearance of her twin sister, Jennifer. They have been estranged for years – ever since the day Jennifer tried to kill her.

Then Jill discovers that her sister is a witch, the reincarnation of Biddy Comfort herself. She is gripped with terror. When Jennifer, in a jeaous rage, decides to use her fatal powers on Dick Reeves, Jill must try to save him- even at the risk of discovering that she too shares her sisters kinship with Satan.

Written by Robin Carol. Paperback Library edition, first printing December 1968. Cover art Jerome Podwil.

The back blurb says it all really. Set amidst the backdrop of a old, haunted mansion, somewhere in the rustic wilderness of Piker’s Bluff, this is the fight between two sisters, one good one bad, for the love, life and soul of one man.

Drury house – built on the edge of a cliff the locals have a strange habit of falling off of – has lain empty for decades but is maintained in reasonable condition by an old family trust fund. Jill Drury is the first sister to return home. She is a writer researching a book about her ancestors.

Not just any old ancestors mind, for Jill is descended from witches – a good witch, Daisy Drury and a bad one, Biddy Comfort. Information on Biddy is relatively easy to find, since the discovery of her journals and an old portrait in the attic, but the life story of Daisy is proving to be a bit more elusive.

Jill isn’t too bothered, she’s loves staying at the old house with her nose buried in mouldy books and family history. She is also enjoying a whirlwind romance with the handsome local doctor, Dick Reeves. Soon they fall madly in love, spending long winter nights curled up by the fireplace, planning their wedding and the rest of their lives together.

Then… just as life couldn’t get any better, it doesn’t. A knock on the door heralds the arrival of Jennifer Drury, Jill’s gorgeous, green-eyed sister who looks uncannily like Biddy. Needless to say she soon proves herself to be just as wicked.

To make matters worse, it transpires that Dr Reeves is the re-incarnation of Biddy Comfort’s very own beloved husband, Amos. Which means Jennifer / Biddy has no intention of allowing Jill to marry him, for she wants the Doctor and Drury house all to herself. To prove her point, Jennifer casts an evil spell, sending Dr Reeves into a feverish fugue that leaves him perilously close to death.

So what can Jill do to save her man? She knows she has the latent ‘witch substance’ in her body inherited from her ancestors, and that this is the only way to fight the vengeful Biddy Comfort, but she also knows that conjuring her latent powers could result in losing her soul…

There is a lot to like about The Ancestors. The back story is quite complicated but nicely told in eerie flashbacks and the author has obviously taken the time to dream up a suitably well drawn, witchy theme, creating a dark gothic mood.

On the down side, the story is narrated by a male character, Dr Dick Reeves, which confused me a little at the start (I’ve not come across many pipe-smoking heroines enjoying a round of golf between appointments) and, since he spends at least a third of the book in a coma,  created problems with the point of view at times.

But the best and most surprising thing about The Ancestor is the ending. By chapter thirteen our villainess has been suitably dispatched and the good Dr Reeves is making a miraculous recovery. I was all geared up for a happy wedding under a glorious sunset when wham! – possession, madness and wild, weird transmogrification ensues. One of the characters ends up locked away in an asylum, while another one’s face starts painfully remoulding itself. I think you can guess where this is heading – seems like you can’t keep a bad witch down after all…

Four out of five stars. (and thanks again Tom!)

The Waiting Sands

“I feel so strongly as if everything here was waiting. The house, the shore – and now these sands are waiting.”

Rachel had been waiting, too. Waiting for an end to the nightmare that had already taken two lives and now threatened more. Someone Rachel knew and loved had become a murderer and had turned the handsome old Scottish manse into a place of horror.

But which face, which dear familiar face, was the mask of the killer?

Rachel did not know – yet.

Written by Susan Howatch. First Fawcett Crest printing, February 1975.

Another day, another gorgeous Harry Bennett cover. And another cracking read from Susan Howatch. Set within a remote castle in Scotland, The Waiting Sands tells the tale of six people whose fates become forever intertwined when two of them are murdered at a birthday party.

The story opens with Rachel receiving a letter from an old school friend called Decima, inviting her to Decima’s 21st party at her home in Castle Roshven (renamed Ruthven in later editions?). Situated on an isolated Scottish island surrounded by quicksand, Roshven is a bleak place – accessible only by boat and bereft of modern conveniences like hot running water. But Decima loves her crumbly old home and is more than happy to forgo a few creature comforts in exchange for the peace and quiet Roshven provides her.

Decima’s new husband Charles is not so taken. A scholar, and far too much of an English gent to actually work for a living, he wants Decima to sell the castle so they can travel the world,  living in luxury on the proceeds of the sale.

Not surprisingly this has caused a rift in their relationship, with both partners seeking solace in the arms and hearts of others. Enter siblings Rebecca and Daniel, fellow academics and students of Charles. This dynamic brother / sister duo had popped into Roshven on their way to the Edinburgh Festival and have now ended up living there, since their presence seems to help ‘ease the tension’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) between our feuding couple.

Dark & Brooding Ace Edition

To further complicate matters, there is a catch in Decima’s parent’s will. (Isn’t there always? Why are parents so cruel?) Decima is set to inherit Castle Roshven and all its land outright as soon as she reaches twenty one. However if she dies even one minute before then, her husband is the one who ends up with everything. 

So by the time Rachel arrives with best friend Rohan, she is met by a house heaving with paranoia and not so petty jealousy. Decima is sure her dearly beloved is out to kill her — all she need do is survive till Midnight when she officially turns twenty one and she will be free from Charles and his threats forever. Oh if only it was that simple, if only…

Though the premise of this novel is very similar to The Dark Shore, another Susan Howatch book I reviewed earlier on this blog, it still kept me engaged right up to the end. What makes her books so readable is the depth and complexity she manages to bring to her characters and the relationships between them. I tend to get a bit lost with stories told from multiple viewpoints but the voices in this one are all so distinct it wasn’t a problem, in fact it made trying to suss out who the murderer was all the more enjoyable.

I noticed The Waiting Sands got pretty bad reviews on Amazon and I’m not sure why – as well being an enjoyable murder mystery there’s a great gothic setting, with full use being made of the gloomy castle and its surrounding storm-swept coastline. So I’m giving this one a big fat four out of five.

The Dark Shore

Did the ghost of evil still hover over Clougy House?

Soon after Sarah Hamilton stepped into her new home as the bride of charming, enigmatic Jon Towers, a cold shock of instinct warned her to run for her life – too many ‘accidents’ were beginning to plague her.

Clougy had seen violence when Sophia, Jon’s first wife, mysteriously fell to her death from a cliff. Now someone was trying to kill Sarah, to keep a ghastly secret.

Was it Jon’s beautiful, tormented cousin, Marijohn who had sought refuge in a convent after Sophia died? Or his son Justin who was out on the cliff the night his mother fell? Or his old friend Max, who seemed to be confusing the two Mrs Towers?

Or was it Jon himself, panicking because Sarah was getting too close to what really happened that terrible night…?

THE DARK SHORE is filled with the ingredients that made a bestseller out of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Written by Susan Howatch. Copyright 1965 Ace Books.

A story with echoes of Rebecca, based on the love triangle between a rich, successful man with a past, his newly wed, innocent bride and the spectre of his first, much sexier wife – who may or may not have been murdered by him.

Jon Towers, a Canadian property millionaire, has returned to Britain to patch things up with his son Justin. Recently married to Sarah, he has not set foot in the UK since the untimely death of his first wife Sophia, who fell (or rather was pushed) over a cliff at their Cornwall Home, Clougy, some ten years ago.

Told from multiple viewpoints, the first part of Dark Shore brings together the same six characters who were present at Clougy that fateful weekend Sophia died. Each has a secret and a reason for wanting her dead. One by one they are reunited at the same isolated farmhouse where Sophia was killed – much to the increasing alarm of Jon’s new wife Sarah. She is already feeling trapped under the shadow cast by the violent death of her husband’s first wife and the more she learns about what happened to Sophia, the more she fears she could be heading for the same fate. But why would anyone want to kill her?

For a short book, Dark Shore packs in a fair amount of gothic suspense, with hidden motives, dark secrets and all sorts of skeletons falling out all kinds of closets (though not literally unfortunately). I particularly liked the mysterious relationship between Jon and his ‘cousin’  – the beautiful telepath Marijohn.

Susan Howatch has enjoyed considerable success with her gothics. She began writing from an early age and submitting work for publication as a teenager. The Dark Shore is her first novel, published when she was in her mid- twenties. I have quite a few of her books and I think her writing works best in the longer novels, where she has room to explore the development of her characters and the impact of their actions on those around them. The Dark Shore is a cracking first novel but, like many gothics written during this period, the ‘shocking’ secret when revealed isn’t all that scandalous to the modern reader, so the drama built up in the first part of the book fizzles out with a bit of whimper towards the end.

On the plus side, Susan Howatch isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of her character’s natures and she achieves a high degree of depth and complexity within this concise and well-paced murder mystery. Three out of five stars.

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