Closed at Dusk, Monica Dickens
What a wonderfully creepy book, just perfect for the week before Halloween and the RIP Challenge. For me, the unease set in on the first page, when a little boy named Rob runs through an empty house, calling for Keith. I didn't know who he was, or Keith either, or why the house was empty - but I was immediately hooked. And I didn't want Rob to go down the basement stairs, in search of Keith. Nothing good ever happens in old basements.
We gradually find out that the house belongs to Rob's grandfather William Taylor, and that it is an eccentric place called The Sanctuary, the family's home for more than two centuries. The residents in the 1870s turned it into a sanctuary for animals, hence the name. Now famous for its gardens, scattered with whimsical animal figures, it draws garden enthusiasts and casual visitors from April to October. As we learn about the house, we are also introduced to William's family, including his wife Dorothy and daughter Tessa, Rob's mother (who has recently separated from her husband). The absent Keith is a nephew, living at The Sanctuary while recovering from a debilitating illness, which some in the family find hard to take seriously. Other members of the family come to stay, and I found myself making a family tree to keep them all straight, as well as the earlier generations whose stories we hear. And we meet some of the people who live and work at The Sanctuary, such as Mary Trout, known to three generations of the family as "Troutie," now almost 90 years old, who loves to talk about the days when she was nurse and cook (she reminded me of the retired Nannies in Angela Thirkell's books, always welcoming their old charges back again). Troutie's granddaughter Ruth runs the tea-room at The Sanctuary, converted from part of the old stables. Her assistant Doreen claims she can hear the terrible sounds of two horses, caught there in a fire fifty years ago. It's one of the eerie legends of the place; there are others. Ruth thinks it's nonsense, and she is glad when an enthusiastic new worker named Jo replaces Doreen.
I don't want to give away too much about the plot, which a blurb from the Sunday Express describes as "a story of love, hate, and murder, tinged with the supernatural." It isn't so much a classic "who-done-it" mystery as a story of slowly-building suspense. The narrative shifts between the different characters as it unfolds, so we know why particular things are happening, while others are still in the dark. It certainly kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out what happened next, and trying to work out how the story would end. I thought Dickens brought it to a very neat conclusion, though I would have liked to have seen justice done, someone held to account. (The image on the front of my Penguin paperback seemed to be a spoiler but turned out to be quite misleading.)
Published in 1991, this was one of Monica Dickens' last books. It felt different from the others I have read, from the 1940s and 1950s, which often draw from her own life. Having read her autobiography, I keep seeing the connections in her fiction. Not with this book, however! Nor do I remember supernatural elements in her other stories. Here, they are treated lightly, almost in passing. It isn't always clear what really happened, particularly when people start embroidering them, to entertain or impress, or to scare. But there were genuinely eerie moments, when I was glad for bright lights around me. You wouldn't have gotten me down those cellar stairs, not after what happened to Maryann Button.
N.B. This is the second book I have read for the Peril the First in the R.I.P. IX Challenge.