By Chris Priestley
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 4088 0013 3
The brilliant Chris Priestley has already established himself deservedly on the bookshelves of readers interested in shivery things that go bump in the night. His three Tales of Terror collections of macabre short stories are stylish books that sit comfortably in the shadows alongside the classic spooky tales of writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
Poe and Lovecraft can be hard work for young readers, so Priestley is a great novelist to help young adults bridge the gap until they feel ready to read the classic masters of the macabre. With The Dead of Winter, Priestley has expanded the Gothic ghost story into a novel. And not before time. The Dead of Winter is a grippingly shivery tale that readers of all ages will enjoy.
Michael Vyner's father was a soldier and died in battle when Michael was a baby. He died a hero's death saving the life of an officer, Sir Stephen Clarendon, during a campaign in Afghanistan in the 19th century. Sir Stephen, on returning to England, began sending money to Michael's mother to ensure that the boy would be brought up and educated well.
When Michael's mother dies, the reclusive Sir Stephen becomes the boy's guardian and Michael moves into Hawton Mere, the Clarendon ancestral home. The house is ancient, remote and unwelcoming. When he arrives for the first time, Michael sees a bedraggled woman step out of the mist in front of his carriage. When he turns round to see who she is, the figure has disappeared. Michael senses there is something not quite right at Hawton Mere.
Sir Stephen is an odd character, ill with a nervous complaint and looked after by his sister. No one at Hawton has time for Michael, who feels isolated and lonely. He wanders around the silent corridors of the mansion and soon realises that Hawton Mere harbours many dark secrets.
Written in the clear, straightforward style of the classic Victorian ghost story, The Dead of Winter delivers chill upon chill. Priestley tells a tightly controlled tale brooding with unease and taut with suspense.
There is everything here that the effective ghost story requires, and it's all served up with unnerving expertise. Ghosts, madness, death and decay stalk the corridors of Hawton Mere as the reader is mercilessly drawn into the Clarendon family secrets.
The story of The Dead of Winter is very clever and satisfying, but it's the atmosphere that Priestley slowly builds up that gives the greatest unease. Even the concluding paragraph delivers a spooky punch. Priestley is the definitive modern master of the macabre, and The Dead of Winter is an eerie and tense masterpiece. You'll want to keep all the lights on when you read it.