Having read and enjoyed some of Andrew Taylor’s historical crime novels, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Fireside Gothic, a hardback collection of three novellas which had originally been published separately in ebook form as ‘Kindle Singles’. The stories are all quite different but, as Taylor says in his author’s note, they do share some common themes.
Broken Voices, the first of the three, has the feel of a classic Christmas ghost story. Set in an English cathedral city just before the First World War, it follows the adventures of two schoolboys whose circumstances mean they have to stay at school in the care of a retired teacher over the Christmas holidays. After listening to the teacher’s tales of mysterious happenings in the nearby cathedral, one of the boys begins to hear ghostly music and persuades his friend to sneak into the cathedral with him late one night to investigate.
Broken Voices gets the collection off to a good start. Although I would describe it as an eerie story rather than a scary one, with its haunting atmosphere, winter setting and vivid descriptions of the deserted cathedral, this is the most obviously ‘gothic’ of the stories in the book.
The second story, The Leper House, is my favourite. Set in the modern day this time, our narrator is driving home from his sister’s funeral when his car breaks down on a lonely country road near the Suffolk coast. Setting off through the rain and wind in search of help, he manages to find shelter for the night and during his stay he has a brief but unforgettable encounter with a woman who lives in a neighbouring cottage. In the morning, he discovers that both the woman and the cottage have disappeared – and becomes obsessed with finding an explanation for his strange experience.
I can’t say too much, but the story then goes in a direction which was completely unexpected and which I loved. It raises a lot of fascinating questions and some of them are still unanswered at the end. There are some ideas here which I would have liked to have seen developed further; this story has all the ingredients of a full-length novel and I was sorry it had to come to an end so soon!
The collection finishes with The Scratch, another contemporary story. Unlike the first two, this one is narrated by a woman. Her name is Clare and she lives in the Forest of Dean with her husband, Gerald, and their pet cat. At the beginning of the story, their orphaned nephew, Jack, comes to stay with them on his return from fighting in Afghanistan. Jack’s time in the army has left him with a fear of cats, a dislike of enclosed spaces and a scratch on his arm which won’t seem to heal.
This is an interesting story, but the focus is mainly on the complicated relationships between Clare, Gerald and Jack, so the supernatural elements are much more subtle than in the other novellas. This is my least favourite of the three, although there are some clever little twists at the end which took me by surprise!
Fireside Gothic is an entertaining and unusual collection. The title and cover had led me to expect something slightly different – something spookier and, well, more gothic – but I did still enjoy these three novellas, particularly the middle one. While it’s still winter, this would be an ideal time to get yourself a copy of this book and spend a cold, dark evening reading it by the fire.
Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of Fireside Gothic.