Title: The Dead of Winter
Author: Chris Priestley
Genre: Gothic, Horror, Historical, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury (US & UK)
Publication Date: January 2012
Hardcover: 218 pages
An orphaned boy, a desolate house, and a poltergeist with a terrible itch for revenge…
After Michael’s parents die, he is invited to stay with his guardian in a desolate country house. He begins to suspect something is not quite right on the day he arrives when he spots a mysterious woman out in the frozen mists. But little can prepare him for the solitude of the house itself. His guardian is rarely seen, and there’s a malevolent force lurking in an old hallway mirror. As the chilling suspense builds, Michael realizes that the house and its grounds harbor many more secrets-both dead and alive.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I recently read and loved Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black (I loved it so much that I made Ana read it); then I saw the movie, which was also pretty solid. So, when I was perusing the Internet for another delicious gothic ghost story and I saw this novel (for about $5 as an ebook, too!), I knew I had to have it.
Young Michael Vyner has had a rough lot in life – his father died heroically in the first world war saving the life of a fellow soldier, leaving Michael and his mother pressed to make ends meet. After his mother dies of illness, Michael is orphaned and left adrift in the world when he learns that Sir Stephen Clarendon – the same soldier his father died rescuing in the war – has become Michael’s legal guardian. Whisked away from his home, Michael is sent to stay with Sir Stephen for the Christmas holiday, at the remote and imposing mansion of Hawton Mere.
There is something not quite right about Hawton Mere and its owners. First, there’s the terrified woman in white that disappears into the nightupon Michael’s arrival. Then, there’s the fragile mental state of Sir Stephen – heartbroken and driven to the verge of madness since his wife’s suicide – and the imposing attitude of his sister, the beautiful Lady Charlotte. Most unsettling of all, though, is the feeling of malevolence and the stink of despair that surrounds Hawton Mere and all those who live there. Soon, Michael finds himself the target of sinister, impossibly ghostly, attacks. It is up to Michael to discover the secrets of Hawton Mere, before he is claimed as another one of the desolate home’s victims.
I was cautiously optimistic going into The Dead of Winter because of my recent hot streak with Victorian-ish gothic horror, and I was delighted to find that the novel completely lived up to expectations. Part haunted house tale, part good old fashioned revenge-driven ghost story, The Dead of Winter rocks.
Chris Priestley’s novel has many similarities to the aforementioned The Woman In Black – both are retrospectively narrated; both are preoccupied with spectral appearances, haunted marshland manors in a post-Victorian England; and of course, both feature a lurking, pervasive sense of malevolent evil from beyond the grave. Most importantly, just as I did with The Woman In Black, I absolutely loved the ominous, traditional ghost story of The Dead of Winter. As a haunted house story, the sense of setting and atmosphere is paramount to the success of the book, and Hawton Mere is deliciously creepy with its isolation (of course), its marshy frozen landscape (another staple), and its many dark halls and secret passageways.
Also of major import is the ghost at the heart of the novel, itself. Unlike the pure force of malevolent hatred that drives some ghost stories (though it has an ample dose of this type of ghost, too), The Dead of Winter builds on a mystery and a wrong that needs righting by young Michael – a crime has been committed, and someone must be brought to justice. Though the mystery at the core of The Dead of Winter is fairly obvious (if not who the perpetrator is, it is obvious who the ghost is and why it is haunting the grounds), it is beautifully executed.
The other great strength that this novel has lies with its sympathetic main character, the orphaned Michael. Emotional and direct with his narration – essentially the novel is reflective and epistolary in style – Michael is a young man that has a good head on his shoulders. He’s not afraid to cry or to run for help when things get terrifying, and that’s always refreshing in a horror novel protagonist. Plus, as this is very much an introspective novel with minimal dialogue, Michael’s emotional intuitiveness helps move the story along wonderfully.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say this last bit – I love it when a ghost story ends on a terrifying high note – and The Dead of Winter certainly does that. Absolutely, enthusiastically recommended.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
My name is Michael: Michael Vyner. I’m going to tell you something of my life and of the strange events that have brought me to where I now sit, pen in hand, my heartbeat hastening at their recollection.
I hope that in the writing down of these things I will grow to understand my own story a little better and perhaps bring some comforting light to the still-dark, whispering recesses of my memory.
Horrors loom out of those shadows and my mind recoils at their approach. My God, I can still see that face – that terrible face. Those eyes! My hand clenches my pen with such strength I fear it will snap under the strain. It will take every ounce of willpower I possess to tell this tale. But tell it I must.
You can read a full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
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