Castle Mandragora

I begin my story on my thirty-fourth birthday because a story must begin somewhere, and it was what happened on that day which led me to Castle Mandragora and involved me in an experience so fantastic that I could almost persuade myself now that I dreamt the entire episode, were it not… But I must not start by violating the story-teller’s art. The reason why I know that Castle Mandragora belongs to the realm of reality will not be revealed till the last chapter.

Written by Margaret Durham. Thriller Book Club. Printed by Ebenezer Bayliss and Son Ltd. This hardcover edition 1951.

‘Tis the season for all things topsy-turvy and for inverting the, well, uninverted, so I thought it would be fun to post some artwork featuring a man running from a doom-laden castle for a change.

And what a gorgeous cover! This THRILLER BOOK CLUB edition contains no blurb revealing anything of the story within. At least we can safely guess there’s a castle – there is even a rather nifty map of the place helpfully inserted into the front pages. The opening paragraph (which I quoted above) sounds rather promising too.

I’m guessing the cover artist must be the same Felix Kelly best known for his paintings of country houses. An introduction to a book about his paintings describes the emotional impact of Kelly’s work:

It is this element of strangeness in his work which both fascinates and eludes one… These canvasses, too, are peopled with the past, though there may be no figure in them. Here, someone has just turned away from a half-opened window. There another has just vanished from a balcony. From the round window at the top of a house, an unseen child looks down at the shadows lengthening across the lawn or observes a slender young tree-now ancient and leafless. One is conscious that, at the very moment one looks at the painting-and only at that moment-the people who are there have turned aside, withdrawn from our gaze, stepped out of the picture, leaving behind them an intensely evocative feeling of their presence…  Paintings by Felix Kelly, Falcon Press, U.K. 1946, with an introduction by Herbert Read.

I used to have another one of Margaret Durham’s Thriller Club books – The Devil was Sick. This has one of the greatest gothic covers ever known to woman, with a devil that’s pure Eric Stanton. Lordy only knows where my copy has gone but you can sneak a peak and read a review of the book HERE.

The Lady of Arlac

“FROM THIS DAY FORTH,” THE ELDEST BERTRAN SAID, “OUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE CURSED FOR TONIGHT’S DEED.”

The legend of the theft of a great church treasure by the Bertrans and its resulting curse – on the Bertrans and the village – persisted through the centuries.

No-one ever discovered the stolen treasure. As the fortunes of the village declined, the Castle of Arlac stood as a grim reminder to the country folk, whose loathing for anyone bearing the name of Bertran seethed like a rumbling volcano.

In 1892 this hatred hung like a sword over the innocent head of Maxine Bertran. She came from England to Arlac as its new mistress, ignorant of her ancestors’ deeds and unaware of the terrible fate awaiting her….

Written by Sandra Shulman. This Paperback Library Edition, first printing April 1969.

I picked this up in a local charity shop the other day and wanted to show-off the wonderful cover by Jerome Podwil.

Maxine Bertran has been living in England with her mother and has not seen her father in years. Now her mother has died she is returning to Silver Ladies – a local nickname given to the ancient, tumbledown Castle Arlac in France, her father’s ancestral home.  

We have learnt from the prologue that the Bertrans are a cruel lot with a bloodthirsty history; that the Chateaux of Arlac was the site of an atrocity which has cursed its soil for centuries. There are rumours of buried treasure from their ill-gotten gains but it remains undiscovered and so the castle, as well as the land surrounding it, has long since fallen victim to misery and misfortune.

In time, the treasure became but a dim legend. Yet the loathing and fear of the country folk for all bearing the name Bertran smouldered threateningly, like the core of a volcano. The chateau of Arlac was a grim reminder of the past; its curse was blamed for every tribulation.

Lady of Arlac backcover scan

Initially, Maxine is puzzled by the hostile reception she receives from the local peasants. And things don’t get any easier. When she arrives at the castle, she learns her father has died by that most gothic of deaths – slow, deliberate poisoning – leaving her his sole heir. This of course does not go down well with the various ingrates and hangers-on living at the castle, and it’s not long before Maxine is receiving death threats herself.

Surrounded by enemies as cold and unfeeling as the decayed castle walls that immure her, Maxine’s first instinct is to run. But where? With who? So she stays, determined to do right by her father and make amends for her family’s sordid past. If the first fifty pages are anything to go by, it won’t be easy and for now, her only friends are a rather eccentric speleologist (I love a book that teaches me new words) called Alan and a wolfhound called Cesare.

Black shadows silently crossed the moon. Two huge bats swooped above the castle, looking like messengers of evil. She understood that the intense loveliness of Arlac had a grim, sombre side. This was no mere picture-book prettiness. It was a complex of beauty, mystery and even terror. Like a person, there were many facets to the castle’s character…

I wasn’t intending to review this just yet, as I have a pile of other stuff to get through, but I started reading and so far I’m enjoying The Lady of Arlac’s gothic setting and seductive prose. (Though too many sentences… just trail off… with ellipses…). Three out of four stars.

And there’s a (not very complimentary) review of Lady of Arlac with an alternate cover at: The Groovy Age Of Horror.