Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dare's Gift by Ellen Glasgow

Appropos of ghost stories set in the south, Dare's Gift by Ellen Glasgow. It is interesting to me on several levels. It is set in Virginia, Dare's Gift being a James River plantation type house. It has Civil War connections. And Ellen Glasgow is one of my favorite Virginia novelists. It is difficult to find, so I am transcribing it and would be happy to send a digital copy to anyone who would like to read it. It was originally published in 1917.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hannah's House by Joyce Allen

Hannah's House arrived in today's mail. I began reading it as soon as I got it out of the mailing envelope. I love it already! I wish Iris Layton was my neighbor. I know we would be good friends.

Sepulchre continued

I continue to read Sepulchre. While I am enjoying the story, I find the frequent use of French words and phrases annoying. If the action of this story were taking place in Russia, would the text be interrupted by Russian words and phrases? I think not. The frequent French strikes me as an affectation.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hannah's House

Hannah's House
by Joyce Allen

A copy of Hannah's House is on its way to me by way of the generosity of author Joyce Allen and I am really looking forward to reading it. Anyone who has explored old houses or land where significant events seem to have soaked into the soil will understand how echoes of the past can be felt today.

From Ms. Allen's web page: “For quite a lot of years I lived in a very small house in the woods of western Orange County - one of those environmentally conscious non-standard communities that sprang up around here in the seventies and early eighties. There were the remains of an old house on my land - just a couple of rotting tiers of logs, a big hearth made of large stones fitted neatly together, and a stone chimney that was mostly fallen down. From the size of a couple of trees that butted into one corner I guessed the house must have been abandoned around the late nineteenth or very early twentieth century. I was never able to find out who had lived there - although I tried - but I spent a lot of time back in there and kept trying to imagine who it might have been and what they might have been like. Eventually Hannah emerged"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sepulchre - parallel lives

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse is a story of parallel lives, parallel in that the two women protagonists walked the same ground, one in 1891 and one in 2007. It is a fascinating concept, lives intersecting, transcending time barriers.

Meredith has gone to France to do research on a biography of Claude Debussy which she is writing. She also has plans to research her family history, to try to come to an understanding of how her personal heritage has shaped her life.

In Paris Meredith is disappointed by the buildings associated with Debussy's life there. Some are no longer there, others are shabby in appearance. Meredith does feel "echos of the past", although it is not clear to her whether those echos relate to Debussy's life or to something more personal to her.

I understand Meredith's frustration at learning that some of the buildings in which Debussy lived have been demolished. I have gone searching for the homes of Betty Herndon Maury in Washington, D.C. Betty lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia during part of the American Civil War, and I have transcribed the diary she kept during those years at my other blog, The House on Caroline Street. While the house she lived in during her time in Fredericksburg still stands, her home in Washington was demolished to make way for an office building, and I have been unable to find a photo of the house before its destruction.

In Sepulchre, the stories of Leonie in 1891 and Meredith in 2007 alternate. I am guessing that the two stories will intersect in time, and it will be interesting to watch how that intersection plays out.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I downloaded Sepulchre by Kate Mosse to my Sony PRS-505 today, and I'm looking forward to a weekend of reading it. Next week, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters will be released in the US, and I will be watching the mailbox for my copy to arrive.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Risk of Darkness

By Susan Hill

The following contains some revelations about the plots of all three Simon Serrailler novels which might be considered spoilers.

The Risk of Darkness is a book about life changes and how people respond to them. Although classified as a crime novel, it is much more than that. The crime and the criminal are a focal point around which other plots move, but crime is a plot device. This is not a who-done-it.

The crime is the abduction and murder of children. The criminal, revealed early on in the book, is Edwina Sleightholme, who prefers to be called Ed, a complex character whose psychological makeup and motivation are not fully explored in this book, leaving this reader longing for more.

The Risk of Darkness is the third in the Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill. The series is a progression in time, meaning that the reader who has read the first two in the series will better understand references to the past in this, the third.

There are several concurrent plot lines and themes in The Risk of Darkness. The exploration of how people respond to death is a central theme.

Two deaths continue to haunt Simon: the death of Freya Graffham, a woman he was developing feelings for in the first book of the series, The Various Haunts of Men; and the death of his sister Martha, which took place in the second book, The Pure in Heart. These unresolved grievings have Simon feeling dissatisfaction with both his work and his personal life.

Max Jameson's wife Lizzie dies an agonizing death. Max's grief drives him into insanity.

Jane Fitzroy's mother is murdered, and Jane begins to question her own commitment to her position as an Anglican priest. The death of Lizzie Jameson and Max's plunge into insanity also factor into Jane's turmoil.

Marilyn Angus responds to the death of her husband and the presumed death of her son David with a matter-of-factness approach to getting on with life, although this reaction crumbles in the end.

Richard Serrailler, father to Cat and Simon, handles the death of his wife Meriel with a surface calmness. One suspects, however, that he is suppressing his grief and it will come to the fore at some point in the future.

Other life changes are faced by characters in the book. Simon's sister, Cat, and her husband Chris contemplate a move to Australia as an antidote to Chris's dissatisfaction with his work as a doctor, what seems in his case to be a classic case of a mid-life crisis.

Simon is contemplating changes in his life and in his career. He seems at a crossroads, not sure which way to turn. Simon is approaching his 37th birthday and so he too may be in the midst of a mid-life crisis.

By the end of the book Ed has come to the realization that she will never again be free, and the reader is left wondering how she is going to deal with this realization.

Three women are assaulted in the course of the book, and each woman deals with the aftereffects of the assault differently.

Cat, also a doctor, is assaulted while on a nighttime home visit. She is shaken by the assault and begins to reevaluate her life.

Magda, who has been assaulted in her home in London, responds by reasserting her independence and insisting on returning to her home, where she is later murdered.

Jane, who is Magda's daughter, is also assaulted in her home in Lafferton and responds by reconsidering her commitment to her career as an Anglican priest.

Mother-daughter relationships are also explored in this book.

The relationship between Cat and her mother Meriel occupies little space in this novel, although their relationship has been explored in more detail in the two previous novels.

Jane and Magda are considered from the perspectives of their very different responses to being assaulted in their homes, as well as their conflict over Jane's calling to the priesthood.

Kyra is a young girl who has been befriended by her neighbor Ed. While the reader is privy to Ed's thoughts about Kyra being safe and thus not in danger of being abducted and murdered, we do not understand why this is so. Kyra shares some personality traits with Ed, and I was left wondering if the relationship between Kyra and her mother Natalie might be similar to Ed's childhood relationship with her mother Eileen.

The relationship between Edwina and Eileen is tantalizingly short on detail. We view their past through the selective memories of Eileen only.

When I read a book, one thing that plays a role in determining whether I like it or not is whether I care about the characters. I cared a lot about Simon and Freya Graffham in the first book of the series, The Various Haunts of Men, the ending of which I found shocking, probably contributing to my very strong anticipation for the second book. I am left at the end of The Risk of Darkness with a similar longing for the next book in the series. I want to know more about Ed, her past and how she responds to the realization that she will never be free again.

Edwina Sleightholme is viewed by Simon as the personification of evil. Yet Ed is not a one-dimensional character, and while I share Simon's revulsion at what she has done, I am left wanting to know more of what shaped her personality, how she came to do the things she did. I do hope Susan Hill gives us more about Ed in future novels.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Apparition of Mrs. Veal

I read Daniel Defoe's "The Apparition of Mrs. Veal" in a volume titled The Best Ghost Stories, edited by Joseph Lewis French.

Mrs. Bargrave is visited by Mrs. Veal, a friend with whom she has had a falling out. They repair the breach in their friendship during this visit, and Mrs. Veal recommends to Mrs. Bargrave Drelincourt's book on death.

Upon reading this reference to Drelincourt, I stopped reading and went to to see if there was such a book; and indeed there is.

Mrs. Veal had died just at the time that Mrs. Bargrave said she was visited by Mrs. Veal. The reader is told that the ghost of Mrs. Veal had two purposes in visiting Mrs. Bargrave after death: "Her two great errands were to comfort Mrs. Bargrave in her affliction and to ask her forgiveness for the breach of friendship, and with a pious discourse to encourage her."

Appended to the story is a section entitled "To the Reader", apparently written by Joseph Louis French, in which it is suggested that this story was written as a means of promoting Drelincourt's book. If so, it was effective with at least this reader.

If we apply Susan Hill's definition of what makes a ghost story, this story meets two of her three criteria: there is a ghost; and the ghost has a purpose. The third element of Ms. Hill's defenition, that there be a ghostly atmosphere, is missing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Old Lady Mary

One of my favorite ghost stories is Old Lady Mary by Margaret Oliphant. I am experimenting here with trying to make the story available online. Here's hoping it works. If you like ghost stories, this is one with a twist.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Risk of Darkness - Mothers and Daughters

The mother-daughter relationships in The Risk of Darkness which come to mind as I am writing are:
  • Jane and Magda
  • Natalie and Kyra
  • Eileen and Edwina

The mother-daughter relationship between Simon's mother and his sister Martha was an important part of the second book in the series, The Pure In Heart.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

I am reading a review copy of The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill which came to me via Early Reviewers at I have read the two previous Simon Serrailler books and enjoyed them. I have read about half of this, the third in the series.

The Risk of Darkness is a very complex book, and in order to do justice to the review I will write, I am going to record here some of my thoughts. Those who have not read the book might want to skip these posts, because there are likely to be spoilers. I feel I need to take this approach, however, in order to organize my thoughts.

There are several simultaneous plots in The Risk of Darkness, one of which carries over from the second Simon Serrailler book, The Pure in Heart, concerning the unsolved abduction of schoolboy David Angus. Another child has been abducted in a nearby town, and Simon becomes involved in the effort to find the child and capture the abductor.

When I read a book, one thing that plays a role in determining whether I like it or not is whether I care about the characters. I cared a lot about Simon and Freya Graffham in the first book of the series, The Various Haunts of Men. I found the ending of the first book shocking, which probably contributed to my very strong anticipation for the second book.

The complexity of The Risk of Darkness arises from at least two causes: there are several concurrent plots; and Simon, himself, is a very complex person. In addition to his law enforcement career, Simon is an artist who spends time in Italy, exhibits his drawings and is apparently quite successful financially as an artist. He has compartmentalized his life, working to keep the two parts separate. Although he would almost certainly be an artist even if he weren't in law enforcement, there is no question that Simon uses his art as an escape from the pressures of his police work.

At least three of the subplots in The Risk of Darkness concern women who are assaulted and explorations of how each of these women deals with the assault on their bodies and the shattering of their feelings of safety.

Mother-daughter relationships form another group of subplots.

No Name - Norah

Continuing my reading of Wilkie Collins' No Name, I am revising my view of Norah Vanstone, the elder of the two Vanstone daughters. She is quiet and reserved and boring when compared to her younger sister Magdalen. I am coming to believe, however, that Norah is an example of still waters which run deep. She observes Magdalen's behavior and foresees consequences. Time will tell if Norah is right.

I am trying to avoid spoilers in my comments here. This book is a fun read, and I recommend it to readers who enjoy 19th century literature.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lavender Morning

I started reading Lavender Morning by Jude Devereaux based on the blurb describing a young woman, Jocelyn, who inherits an 18th century house on the James River in Virginia. What a wonderful premise for a book! I would love to be in Jocelyn's shoes with a James River plantation house to love and live in and experience. In my imagination my house would have in its attic boxes of letters and diaries for me to read; I would research the history of the house and its inhabitants and have a wonderful time learning about those who had lived in the house before me. Of course, in this dream I would have enough money to maintain the house in pristine condition and fill it with appropriate furnishings.

Well so far, Lavender Morning has focused not on the house but on potential romantic partners for Jocelyn, and in that sense the book is a disappointment to me. A ghostly presence in the house would help me to enjoy it more, and maybe there will be one later on. But for now I have been sidetracked by Wilkie Collins' No Name.

No Name - the fun begins

I can tell I am going to enjoy Wilkie Collins' No Name. There are several "hooks" in the beginning that keep the reader reading, wanting to learn the answers to little mysteries that Collins has created: what was in the letter from New Orleans that caused Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone to rush off to London for three weeks? What is the connection to New Orleans? What has brought Mr. Wragge to the Vanstones' home?

The younger daughter, Magdalen, is more vibrant than her older sister Norah. From the introduction written by Collins, I'm guessing that Magdalen is going to be the focus of the book, as it is difficult to believe that Norah would ever do anything of interest to the reader. Norah is 26, unmarried; Magdalen is 18, also unmarried, full of herself and life, enthusiasm overflowing at every turn.

Friday, April 10, 2009

No Name by Wilkie Collins

This evening I was bouncing around among various book blogs and ran into mention of a novel by Wilkie Collins called No Name, some 700 pages in the version the blogger had. The blog was Tales from the Reading Room.

Off I went to Google books to take a look at this "chunkster" to see if it might be something I would want to read. And of course it did appeal. Next step: download it onto my Sony PRS-505 through the link to Google books at the Sony ebook store. Now it's on that marvelous little device and I can read it - instant gratification at no cost (beyond, of course, what I paid for the PRS-505). Not only was it free, but I can now read it without my hands hurting from holding such a large book; and I can increase the font size for easier reading. I just opened No Name on the Sony reader, and it is 734 pages.

I love Google books and have spent many happy hours searching and downloading and reading. When I first read that Sony and Google had teamed up to make Google books available through the Sony ebook store for free download I couldn't understand what the advantage would be. I had been downloading the pdf versions of Google books onto the reader already, so what was the advantage? True, "turning" the pages in the pdf books was frustratingly slow, but I had learned to time pushing the turn page button so that I wouldn't have to wait. Well, there is an advantage to downloading Google books through the Sony ebook store: they are converted to text, and the frustrating page turn lags are gone.

For one who loves 19th century literature, as I do, this is amazingly wonderful. All I need now is more time to read!

Testament to Union

Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.
by Kathryn Allamong Jacob
Photographs by Edwin Harlan Remsberg
ISBN 0-8018-5861-5
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Baltimore and London, 1998

I bought this book to help me locate and identify Civil War monuments in the Washington DC area. Much to my surprise, when I began reading this morning, I discovered there is a Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery. In all my visits there I have never seen this monument, so I am planning another trip to Arlington National Cemetery to photograph it.

I was surprised to learn that Montgomery Meigs, a former Union general, a civil engineer and construction engineer, harbored such resentment toward the former Confederate states that, as Quartermaster General, he refused entry to the cemetery of families of Confederate dead. My initial reaction to this is to find it extreme. To deny family members the right to visit the graves of loved ones, to deny them this step in the grieving process, seems wrong.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Susan Hill on Ghost Stories

Susan Hill has written an excellent article on what constitutes a ghost story. Read it here. To summarize:
  • Ghost stories must have a ghost, which she defines as "the remaining spirit of a person who has existed in this life, but who is known to have died."
  • The ghost must have a purpose, and that purpose "is not usually benign. The ghost may seek revenge or retribution for what happened to it in life and the presumption is that, once this is obtained, the haunting will cease."
  • There must be a "ghostly" atmosphere to the story, an "atmosphere of real malevolence, threatening the lives, souls and sanity of the innocent". Let me intrude a comment here to say this is where Susan Hill's The Woman in Black excels. She cites Henry James' Turn of the Screw as "one of the most horrifying of all ghost story-masterpieces".
I do not fully agree with Ms. Hill's assertion that there must be an atmosphere of malevolence in ghost stories, but that will be addressed at another time.

I don't propose to discuss only ghost stories on this blog, but at the moment I am in one of my ghost story enthusiasms, and so that is what I am going to write about for now.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I have just pre-ordered The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Due to be released on April 30th in the U.S., this promises to be a good ghost story, and I do love ghost stories!

For some reason I am unable to embed URLs in this post - I'll have to figure out what settings I need to change to enable embedding URLs. As soon as I figure that out, I will put up a link to an article in which Susan Hill gives her definition of a ghost story. Her The Woman in Black is one of my favorite ghost stories.