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 Devil on Lammas Night

When Tristan Poole moved into Colwyn Court, in a remote Welsh seaside village, was it to form a nudist group? Or was it, as Nicola Morrison suspected, for something much more sinister?

What was the hypnotic effect Tristan had on Lisa, Nicola’s glamourous young stepmother?

What was the explanation for the sudden illnesses, accidents and deaths at Colwyn?

And what was Tristan planning for Nicola?

As Lammas night approaches, and the true, supernaturally evil nature of the group is revealed, Nicola is drawn into deadly danger…

First published in Great Britain 1973 by Hamish Hamilton ltd. This edition second Pan printing 1974.

Tristan Poole worships Satan and is the enigmatic leader of a ‘nature cult’ that fronts for a Black Magic coven. In exchange for his devotions, Satan has blessed Tristan with mesmeric powers over animals and a way with the ladies, but, unfortunately, very little in the way of money. So Tristan and his coven survive by cuckoo-ing themselves into the lives of the rich and the vulnerable, manipulating their way into gaining control of their land and assets.

Tristan is currently staying at Colwyn Court, an estate in Wales owned by Walter Colwyn. Walter is more than happy to allow Tristan to use his house as a base for the ‘Society for the Propagation of Nature Foods,’ since Tristan is showing great success at curing Walter’s wayward daughter, Gwyneth, of her ‘nervous disorder.’

Fawcett Crest edition

Walter’s son, Evan, is not so happy. Working as a Doctor in Africa he is becoming increasingly alarmed by the letters from his family, detailing the goings-on at Colwyn Court. He decides to come home and makes it his mission to rid his family of these pagan interlopers. However, when he returns, things are much worse than he realises. The love of his life, Nicola, has caught the eye of Tristan too – or rather her enormous inheritance has. (Tristan has already bumped-off her millionaire father and started an affair with her mother thinking she was the one getting all of the money. Now he knows who the real heiress is, he has moved on to plan B – hypnotising Nicola into falling in love with him so they can get married and he then can legally steal her cash). As Lammas night draws ever closer and Tristan prepares his bride-to-be for their satanic wedding, Evan himself falls into a suspicious fugue state, leaving him helpless to defend his home or fiancée….

As you’d guess from the title, The Devil on Lammas Night is packed full of all sorts of supernatural shenanigans – with vivid descriptions of black magic rituals, spells and incantations. There is even a demon possessed cat, hell-bent on carrying out its new master’s every command. 

The devilry is all very polite and refined, in that quintessentially English ‘More wormwood with your tea, vicar?’ kind of way and as such reminded me of The Witches written by Peter Curtis (aka Nora Lofts). There is some great attention to detail and these touches really add credibility and depth to an otherwise fantastically over-the-top story.

The ending was a little predictable, with the almost comically sudden demise of our chief villain threatening to ruin the climactic showdown, but the quality of writing and characterisation just about pulls things together. This novel was great fun. Susan Howatch creates a near-perfect blend of the mundane and macabre, therefore making the evil goings on all the more sinister. Four out of five stars.

Oh dear, before posting the above I was just going to add how much I love the cover art on this one. Then I went out, had a few glasses of wine and now I’m back I can’t help but fixate on that humongous hand of hers holding the candle! It’s hideous! There is something very creepy about the perspective here, or maybe my eyes are just a wee bit wobbly and it’ll all be ok in the morning…

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.

Related articles

  • Rebecca (