He’s an Artist. His Medium? Wings, Tails, Scales, Beaks and Claws.
“Byrne Hall had a listening, whispering air.” This description of the Queen Anne-style mansion at the center of Elizabeth Brooks’s eerie and addictive Gothic novel THE WHISPERING HOUSE (Tin House, 378 pp., paper, $16.95) could also be applied to its heroine, the eavesdropping, willowy Freya Lyell, who becomes entangled with Byrne Hall and its inhabitants. Freya, bookish and sensible, has always lived in the shadow of her “frightening and beautiful” elder sister, Stella, and never more so since Stella’s body was discovered near the seaside village of Bligh. Five years later Freya, now 23, travels to Bligh from London for a wedding reception at Byrne Hall, only to discover a portrait of Stella hanging on a wall. This portrait, and the artist who painted it — Cory Byrne — launch Freya into the mystery of what really happened to Stella.
Byrne Hall looks “as if the place had been plundered,” and in fact it has been stripped bare by Cory and his once glamorous mother, Diana, who have sold off its art and furniture to survive. Still, the house casts a spell over Freya, as does Cory, a dashing, damaged artist with whom Freya begins an affair. Cory reveals himself to be something other than what Freya initially believes, and the slow uncovering of his true nature is a chilling, masterly study in all the ways love can lead to misery. Like “Wuthering Heights,” “The Whispering House” is a melancholy novel, its characters filled with dark longings. Cory and Freya are in thrall to the past: Cory to his mother and what Byrne Hall used to be when it was “still crammed with treasures,” and Freya to a time when her sister still lived.
While Freya’s struggle to make peace with the past grounds the novel emotionally, I was swept up in Brooks’s expert pacing and her ability to create a terrifying yet wholly believable relationship between Freya and Cory, whose affair maps the dangers of falling for a psychopath.
Passion takes an even darker turn in Polly Hall’s twisted debut, THE TAXIDERMIST’S LOVER (Camcat, 256 pp., $24.99). The story is narrated in one long address from Scarlett to her lover, Henry, a wildly talented taxidermist with a penchant for the surreal. From Henry’s imagination spring stuffed creatures such as the “stox,” a stork crossed with a fox, and the “swoodle,” a swan stitched together with a toy poodle, and (my favorite) the “crabbit,” a crow’s head affixed to a rabbit that looks like “‘Alice in Wonderland’ gone wrong.” Henry’s mind is bizarre and unsettling, as is — it turns out — his relationship with Scarlett, and Hall’s novel celebrates and mimics this, luxuriating in the fever of Henry’s creativity, then cutting in to focus on the particular, much in the way Henry might shape “wings and tails, beaks and claws, feathers, fur, scales and eyes” into “a carnival of organic matter reformed and staged under spotlights.” Hall’s writing is lush, filled with startling conclusions about the nature of art and love and death. “Love transcends all,” Scarlett believes. “Even death.” She’d better hope so, considering how the story ends.
In Christina Henry’s new novel, NEAR THE BONE (Berkley, 336 pp., paper, $14.99), there are two monsters: William, a religious extremist in his mid-50s who kidnapped his “wife,” Mattie, when she was a child and brought her to the remote mountain where he’s kept her captive for more than a decade, and an enormous, bearlike creature with a habit of eviscerating animals and hanging their body parts from trees like pieces of laundry. Both are out to kill Mattie, and it is hard to decide which is more frightening.
We meet Mattie as she struggles to survive William’s daily beatings, rapes and psychological abuse. William is prone to hitting her, then forcing her to read from Ephesians: “Wives submit yourself to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” William’s greatest wish is that Mattie give him sons, but she’s had a number of miscarriages, perhaps because of malnutrition, a brutal workload and a lack of medical care.
When Mattie discovers enormous footprints in the snow, she assumes they are the paws of a grizzly. Then she notices that they are strangely shaped, and arranged as if “the bear was up walking on its hind legs like a person.” Clearly, this is no bear, and Mattie is thrown into a crisis.
It’s easy to hate William: He is a one-note villain, without depth. Never do we see more than the Bible-quoting brute who believes that Mattie is his “vessel,” never does he reveal himself to have any real motive for his sadism. This unrelenting flatness makes him an exact parallel to the creature: Neither seems real, nor does either rise above stereotype. What’s utterly gripping about this story is Mattie — whose real name turns out to be Samantha — and how she overcomes the most terrible obstacles to escape these monsters.
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