Written by Lauren A Forry — London, spring 1947. Bombed out houses stand like rotten teeth in an old man’s jaw, and the city is recovering from the harshest winter in memory. Youngsters have returned from the countryside to which they were sent during the War, but some find that their homes – and their parents – are no more. Two such girls are Eliza and Rebecca Haverford. Their mother was killed by an incendiary bomb, and their father, driven to drink and madness, has taken his own life.
They are looked after by their eccentric Aunt Bess. Eliza is relatively normal, has a job at the London Palladium and a steady boyfriend named Peter. Rebecca, however, is clearly suffering from a grievous mental condition. Nowadays she would be the proud owner of an acronym or, at the very least, a syndrome. But it is 1947 and back then people made a circular motion with their finger in the direction of their head, and muttered “bonkers” under their breath.
For reasons which are not immediately obvious, the girls are packed off to rural Wales to work as housemaids at Thornecroft, a decaying mansion owned by the Brownawell family. The sinister housekeeper, Mrs Pollard, is a stern task-mistress who presides over whatever dark secrets are hidden down Thornecroft’s gloomy corridors. The present Mr Brownawell is, at first, heard rather than seen, but when he does put in an appearance we meet a blind, decaying, dribbling and crippled old man whose behaviour is as disgusting as his appearance. The Abigale Hall of the title is, by the way, a large central atrium of the house, which sits beneath an elaborate glass dome, and for Eliza it is a metaphorical and literal source of light amidst the gloom.
Those who enjoy an over-the-top scary read will love this. Half of the characters are borderline insane, and mystery hangs over events like a London smog. Thornecroft is Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley meets Bates Motel, and Forry has left no Gothic trope unused. You may well say, “All well and good, but is it crime fiction?” The answer is a resounding yes, because as Eliza picks away at the layers of mystery, she discovers a shocking tale of abduction, abuse and… murder most foul.
After a couple of attempts to escape, Eliza is horrified to observe that Rebecca is no longer keen to join her but is, instead, becoming stranger by the day. It’s a case of so many secrets, so little time. Is the ghostly apparition of Victoria real, or just a bad dream? What is the relationship between the nearby village and Thornecroft? Why are the books from the library disfigured with obscene graffiti?
At points the extravagant events threaten to throw the narrative out of kilter, but in the end the novel works. Initially, Forry uses the more humdrum world of London to balance out the crazy goings-on in Wales. But then Eliza’s boyfriend Peter, back in the smoke, becomes as mad as a box of frogs too. In Wales, Rebecca enters Whatever Became of Baby Jane? territory, and has gone from disturbed to downright lethal. How can all this possibly resolve itself? Clue – like many Hammer horror films in the 1960s, it involves a box of matches!
So, you have been warned. This is wonderfully creepy and lurid stuff. By the end, though, you may feel like one of the voyeurs who has paid a guinea to go and stare at the unfortunate lunatics in Bedlam Hospital back in the 1700s. Even the comforting presence of a good old-fashioned serial killer might have offered some reassurance. My verdict? I’m not certain that this book adds much to the archive of great crime fiction, but hats off to Lauren A Forry for a vivid and compelling display of literary fireworks.
Black & White Publishing
CFL Rating: 3 Stars