This is what happens when I’m in a hurry. Late for my poetry group meeting, I buzzed through the audio books section of the library, picking up a couple of—I thought—mysteries to keep me entertained during my long commute. I suppose some might consider this book a mystery, but I was surprised and disappointed when it veered off into the supernatural. I kept hoping that these paranormal manifestations were just indications of psychological complexity, but finally had to admit that I’d landed myself with a horror story.
I’m not a fan. I avoid horror movies, whether supernatural or slasher. I’ve never read a Stephen King book or—knowingly—any other horror story. I did see Rosemary’s Baby as a teenager and was deeply perturbed, not so much by the fear that any woman might actually bear such a child as by the duplicity of the people surrounding Rosemary. I myself have always been appallingly gullible, so the idea that such innocent-seeming people could harbor such evil intentions troubled me.
And then I don’t like being scared. The real world is scary enough without agitating myself further with scary stories. I don’t even like roller coasters or any but the most gentle carnival rides, like a merry-go-round. That’s partly physical: wild rides don’t give me an adrenaline rush so much as a whoopsie stomach. But also emotional: I find them disturbing rather than thrilling. My idea of a thrill is to drive a bit over the speed limit (shhh) on an empty highway. Call me a wimp; I don’t mind.
You might ask why I read mysteries, then. The reassuring thing about mysteries, at least the ones I like, is that the puzzle gets sorted in the end. Usually the murderer gets his or her comeuppance, but it’s enough for me that someone knows who the murderer is and what he or she has done. Also, as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I like mysteries where the sleuth, amateur or professional, has a strong moral compass.
And I did like the main character in Erskine’s book; she was the main reason (along with inertia) that I kept listening to it. Emma has what many would call a perfect life: a rewarding career, a loving significant other who is starting to talk marriage, a gorgeous London flat with a rooftop garden, friends, family. Then she sees an ad for a cottage for sale in Essex and recognises it as one she knew as a child on summertime visits to the country, the one everybody called Liza’s Cottage.
Piers, her S.O., hates the country and makes it perfectly clear that if Emma continues with her scheme to buy the cottage, he will not join her there even for weekends, meaning their relationship may have to end. However, caught in an irresistible compulsion, Emma goes ahead and buys the cottage, not for weekends, but to live in year-round, quitting her job and leaving her London life behind.
I enjoyed the description of the village, including its inhabitants, such as the rector, a single man being relentlessly pursued by one of the village spinsters who also happens to be one of his lay readers; Alex and Paula, he being a house-husband while she commutes to London; and Lindsay, who babysits for them and calls herself a witch. In addition, a film crew has set up in town to do a segment on a shop that seems to be haunted.
All very interesting and well-written. I’d have been happy if the book had stayed at that level. However, when paranormal events started taking over, the characters began to seem increasingly unrealistic. Not because of the supernatural aspects, but because they were behaving in ways that were not consistent with their characters as previously presented. Why did Lindsay, a good Wiccan, suddenly start espousing Satanism? Why did Paula, an intelligent modern woman, suddenly go off the deep end and believe—based on nothing but the word of one woman—that babies were being killed in Satanic rituals? I remember the hysteria that swept Britain in the wake of the Hindley trials, but I found Paula’s reaction unbelievable.
It’s a shame, because the first part of the book was so good, and there’s some terrific writing. I’ve said this before in critiquing books in this blog and I guess I’ll end up saying it many more times: the book started out to be very good indeed, with strong and convincing characters, but then the plot took over and twisted the characters out of recognition. Doesn’t matter if it’s a horror story or a mystery or a literary classic, I’d rather see the plot grow out of the characters than the characters shaped to suit the plot.