New York Times bestselling cookbook author Mark Scarbrough lays bare on his complicated, near-obsessive relationship with books in his new memoir: Bookmarked: How The Great Works Of Western Literature F*cked Up My Life.
Intrigued? Check out the except below for a taste of what’s in store.
Excerpt from BOOKMARKED: HOW THE GREAT WORKS OF WESTERN LITERATURE F*CKED UP MY LIFE
Copyright 2021 by Mark Scarbrough. Propertius Press All rights reserved.
Caution: A Preface
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I found myself in Middlemarch!” Or “Shakespeare saved my life!”
I call bullshit. Shakespeare never saved anyone. Least of all, me. Although I sure wanted him to. Ached for him to, somewhere in the marrow middle of my bones. And not only him but all the other literary lions, like William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, and Henry James, now dead and mounted on the wall of Western culture.
I got sucked in by their promises, the best things. A once upon a time that leads logically to the end. Characters who remain true to themselves, despite what the plot throws at them. And desires that can be—ta-da!—fulfilled. Or at least understood.
And something more tangible, too. Down in my soul’s basement, where the lights are dim and my hopes are laid away in boxes, I dreamed up a mad quest through the great books to find a home. To hear the crackle in a fireplace. To feel the weight of the covers at night. To breathe in and out all that’s human and loved.
Maybe I should have lowered my sights. Maybe only the main character gets home. Problem is, I’ve always felt like a minor one: the sidekick in a baggy sweater, the wiseacre two desks down. The guy who steps into a story, pushes it along in some vague way, and gets a one-liner as his reward: Years later, I heard he died in a car crash.
Or maybe I asked so much from the great books because of my upbringing. When I was ten, my parents left the Southern Baptist church. “It is too liberal,” they said, seemingly in unison, a plainsong truth-telling that led us to the upland pastures of American fundamentalism. Letters were sent. Ministers were challenged. Friends were lost.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t latch onto the great books because they were forbidden. I never once read under the sheets with a flashlight. Oh, sure, I had to skip the sex scenes and turn a blind eye to the notion that a liberal could be the good guy. Authors! What can you do?
But nothing could befoul us. We were the true believers. We interpreted the Vietnam War, Nixon, and everything else as a story, a plot, rushing toward the apocalypse. The world sinned, it burned up, and we got out alive. Time was a straight line.
Once I started reading, I discovered that novels, stories, plays, and even poems were alternate timelines, descending and ascending like a grid. They even got to the same places we believed in: just deserts or happily ever after. For a long time, I wanted to homestead on that scaffolding, even though it kept coming apart and slamming to the ground. I just wasn’t myself without a book in my hand.
Then I wasn’t myself with one. Over time, books stopped being words outside my skin and became shadowy bits inside my brain, alternate versions of me, telling their own stories. I morphed into a bizarre body of shredded volumes, stalking the far country of my imagination. That’s how I saw a long-dead poet manifest in front of me one night. How I got a job fishing monks out of gay bars. And ultimately why I tossed the person I loved over the cliff of insanity in a hail Mary! attempt to save my own brain from dissolving like a cheap paperback in a deluge.
All of which is to say, be careful what you read. It can fuck you up, too.
But don’t worry. There’s a truth beyond the great works of Western literature. Life may seem linear, forceps to tombstone. Instead, the cosmos is round and elastic, spiraled and helixed. Atoms, galaxies, your DNA—they spin and come back around. I got out from under literature’s curse. You can, too.
So this story is a comedy, like Dante’s, if not so divine. But there’s no good news without the bad, which is part and parcel of it. In books, in life, even in the old poet’s journey across the universe, the way up starts with the way down.
Want to read more? Then I have good news for you – I have a free copy of Bookmarked to give away to one lucky reader! Simply comment on this post by midnight (GMT) or Sunday 16th January to be in with a chance of winning.
“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.” ― Danielle Bernock
It’s really hard to believe that this is Lize Spit’s first novel – if she has more in store then I have no doubt that the literary community will be well served.
The Melting was difficult to put down, but also really quite challenging to read. Reader beware, this is a very dark book, definitely not for the faint of heart, and worth a trigger warning or two. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but is at once fascinating, thrilling and disturbing – like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion.
I went into this book with my eyes half open and little more than a vague notion of what Spit had in stock. I got a general gist of the few key themes from scanning the blurb – switching between past and present tense, a journey, the promise of revenge – I also skimmed over the testimonials on the back cover – a few words stood out to me, terrifying, disturbing, challenging. That said, I wasn’t that well equipped to handle what was thrown at me.
Eva is a young Flemish woman travelling back to her hometown in rural Flanders to attend a party being thrown by one of her childhood friends, Pim. She hasn’t spoken to Pim, or her other childhood friend, Laurens, for more than 13 years – since the summer of 2002. In the boot of her car is a large block of ice. The Melting is Eva’s tale, it traces her movements, from her small flat in Brussels, to the milk shed on Pim’s farm, switching between past and present tense, to reveal the real reason for her journey.
Eva’s life is tragic. Along with her siblings, she suffers neglect and abuse at the hands of her incompetent, alcoholic parents. There is a profound sadness in the family’s existence, and despite the carelessness, and apparent disinterest with which they treat their children, it’s difficult to feel anything but pity for the mother and father. Eva has a very obvious and devastating desire for love, compassion and warmth. She doesn’t really take any joy in anything, she plods through life, desperate to be accepted, willing to do anything, to comply, to stay quiet – until it’s too late.
While The Melting is Eva’s story – it also reveals, the suffering of her younger sister Tessie. Her name the diminutive of a sister who passed away years before she was born. She is the ‘little runt’ of the family, slight, fragile, her skin practically translucent. She encompasses disfunction. While Eva internalises her issues, quietly accepting her fate, Tessie is outwardly troubled, neurotic and broken. Eva is desperate to help Tessie, without ever really knowing how, and it’s clear that she blames herself for not doing more.
I was three quarters of my way through the book when the penny dropped, and I realised what Eva planned to do with the block of ice in her boot. Eva reveals story bit by bit, slowly drip feeding the summer of 2002, alluding to the climax without ever going into detail. The effect is quite extraordinary – finally discovering what happened to Eva at the end of a summer of darkness, despair, and devastation, and immediately realising her plans for one terrifying act of revenge.
Needless to say – I absolutely love The Melting – but I would be very careful when recommending this novel.
The language is extraordinary. I’ve no doubt that the translation has been perfectly executed. The translator’s notes hint at the challenges involved in translating Spit’s mother tongue and ensuring that the minor details were not lost. Spit describes the most mundane things in the minutest of detail, focusing on features and images which most would ignore, or shy away from, and painting scenes with an uncomfortable intricacy.
The story is compelling and it’s easy to lose several hours through desperation to know what comes next. Equally, it is does make for uncomfortable reading – and there was a point where I thought I might need to put the book down and walk away. It is a work of fiction, but I feel slightly emotional writing this review, whether real or not, The Melting is explicit in its portrayal of childhood trauma and the devastating effect that this can have on adult life.
If you are intrigued by this review, then I would strongly suggest giving The Melting a try, just be prepared.
If you would like to find out more – Lize Spit will be discussing her portrayal of childhood trauma in an event as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival tonight at 6.30pm: https://bit.ly/2X2yFow
I was sent a free copy of The Melting in exchange for an honest review.
“Of course, the French have always had a certain… elegance in these matters, so it shouldn’t be a surprise how few of our jewellers measure up, but honestly you would think that she could still afford something of note. Her uncle is the Duke of Sutherland, for God’s sake, even the Viscount of Trentham’s family put on a better show.”
Arthur had a tendency to tune out the details somewhat when Elizabeth ranted about her peers, as she was wont to do after these dinners, but with the mention of jewellery his attention had snapped back to his beloveds words and he listened with growing mortification.
“I’m sure that garish, mass-produced tripe makes her feel like the belle of the ball in Dornoch or wherever it is she spends her time usually, but this is Edinburgh not some parochial little nowhere. I understand why the Duke never takes her to London.”
The main topic for tonight’s post-dinner debrief had been settled when Elizabeth had paid special note to one of the attendees’ somewhat overstated necklace, and while Arthur normally chose to cherish these stolen moments by focusing on the fine curve of her neck, the rapid motion of those gorgeous lips, and the flush that entered her face as her scorn enlivened her, it had not escaped his notice how similar the object of her derision was to a necklace sitting in her drawing room, where it was intended to be discovered tomorrow as she proceeded to her needlepoint.
“Honestly, we are living in the time of Fontenay and looking at her neck you would think that we had not yet even reached Froment-Meurice. Ghastly.”
And the more Arthur thought about it, the more concerned he grew that, while heartfelt, the poetry which adorned the box containing the jewellery may not quite be up to snuff. Frankly, the gesture that he had thought would guarantee her heart was rather turning into a disaster. Nevertheless, he held his composure until he had seen Elizabeth to her carriage and it was out of sight.
As Arthur climbed into his own carriage he fretted. The entrepeneurial young delivery lad he had used to make the deposit in the first place was unlikely to find a pretext to return to Elizabeth’s home for several days – and most certainly not before his ruse had been discovered. No, if this was to be resolved in a timely fashion, he needed to think a little outside the box.
Leaning forwards, he called to his man – “Buttress, take me to an inn.”
“At this time of night? It’ll only be drunkards and ruffians” the ginger-bearded coachman responded.
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
“Alright, I guess…”
Raibert knew he wasn’t the only one who had clocked the stranger as soon as he walked into the bar – it wasn’t unheard of for a posh lad to come here, but they normally had the decency to at least dress down a little first. He’d have to move fast if he wanted to gain the man’s confidence before someone else got hold of him.
As soon as he made eye contact though, the toff scurried over almost – looking almost embarrassingly grateful.
“Why hello there, I don’t suppose I could borrow a moment of your time?” the fop panted. A ruddy Southerner – Raibert should have known.
“Aye, I can spare a few minutes”
“I’m looking for someone who can perform a… certain task for me.”
“Oh, well certain tasks are me speciality”
“It does require a certain level of discretion”
Agreeing to meet at the fishmarket in the early hours, when it was busy enough that their movement might be undetected but not so late that they were likely to bump into anyone Arthur knew, the two left the inn together.
“Well then, ye’ve come to the right man”
“I have an item which needs… acquiring at very short notice”
“Oh, that’ll cost ye – when were ye thinking?”
“Well” – the gentleman shifted uncomfortably – “tonight.”
Raibert sucked in air between his teeth and looked at his prospective employer.
“It is rather urgent, you see. There’s a trinket – a necklace – that is in the drawing room of a nearby house, which I would like back in rather a hurry”
“And what’d ye be wanting to pay for such a task?”
“Name your price”
Raibert named. Named with ludicrous abandon, in fact, an outlandish sum which should give him a further leg up in the negotiations over this clearly desparate man – and was astonished when the gent assented with no haggling. For a necklace?
As they hunched forwards and discussed particulars, including layout, address, timing, and other similar details, the wee lordling took great pains to repeat the light touch nature of the job. “Leave absolutely no trace” – “No-one can see you” – “Nothing else can be missing” – and similar repeated motifs peppered the conversation.
Now, Raibert couldn’t say for sure that absolutely nothing else might find its way into his pocket should it happen across his path, but he got the gist of the sentiment and reassured the gentleman that he understood the ramifications for his reward should, for example, the house be ransacked.
“And sir?” Raibert called, as they parted ways. “Something less conspicuous when we meet later, please”
Elizabeth awoke with a start at the noise from downstairs. She understood that keeping a household running sometimes required a staff willing to work at these ungodly hours – in fact, she personally approved of the idea that as much work as possible be done at times when staff wouldn’t get themselves underfoot or make their presence too obtrusive – but clattering about when she was trying to get her well-deserved rest? Intolerable. She made a mental note to be particularly liberal with her reprimands in the morning.
Raibert cursed under his breath. With his eyes on the door and the hallway beyond, he’d not noticed a heavy copper kettle on the floor near the stove, and as his foot hit it, there was a perceptible “thunk”.
He crouched and froze in place – no stirring from upstairs. Perhaps his heightened senses had made the sound seem more audible than it really was – he had to admit that most of his best liberatory work had been undertaken in alleys, and a sleeping house was a much more formidable beast than he had anticipated. Not for the first time since they had parted ways, he toyed with the idea of simply meeting up with the toff at the fish market and freeing him of his purse there – but there would be too many people around. Hell, even whatever the gent had had about his person when they had met earlier would probably have been a better reward proportional to the risk – but he’d let his greed get the better of him.
Ah well, here now – he started to creep back through the kitchen, this time paying more attention to his feet than to where he was going. Entering the hall and then stealing into the drawing room, he was grateful that the gentleman had been so fastidious in his description of the location as the necklace box wasn’t immediately visible on entry – he had to shift some papers to get to it, but peeking inside he was sure that he had the right one. Not bad, but the gentleman was definitely paying above the odds for the recovery fee – he had seen others like it in jewellery store windows for a much cheaper price.
Either way, the sooner he was out of here the better. He shuffled back to the hallway and through to the kitchen – he’d originally thought about maybe looking for a little more silverware here or there, but no sense pushing your luck.
This was altogether too much. Elizabeth’s sleep had been thoroughly ruined. While she had initially had some fun planning some particularly cutting admonishments for the morning, as the movement downstairs resumed she grew increasingly frustrated. How was she supposed to be at her ladylike best with this sort of unruly staff?
Still, if anything her barbs would be even more sharp if launched now, so perhaps it was best to voice her opinions before time could dull their impact.
She crept out of bed, determined to catch some hapless maid mid-clumsy-fumble, and down the stairs. Seeing the silhouette of a shape moving through the kitchen, she sprung into the room, full of righteous indignation, making her presence known with a resounding “Excuse me!”
Raibert felt his nerves relaxing as he approached the door leading from the kitchen to the outside world, and the promise of imminent riches. However, suddenly from behind him, an outraged voice screeched “Excuse me!”
He span on his heels. An indignant young woman was visible in the light from the hallway – the jig was surely up. She would see his face – or chase him if he fled – and by morning everyone would know who he was.
Only one way out of this one. He grabbed at the handle of the copper kettle that he’d kicked earlier, springing up and swinging it at the side of the woman’s head with a tremendous wallop.
Elizabeth fell before she had even had time to fully register that this was not, in fact, a clumsy servant. Raibert dropped the kettle – an even louder clattering waking the rest of the household – and sprang for the door – leaving Elizabeth crumpled on the kitche n floor in a pool of rapidly spreading blood.
Raibert watched the gentleman standing awkwardly around in the fish market, debating whether to even go ahead with the meeting, but he was damned if he was going through all that without getting paid. Lad looked tense, but not guilty – he doubted the news would have spread yet.
As Arthur saw Raibert, some of the tension went out of his shoulders – and as Raibert produced the necklace waves of relief emanated from the young toff.
“It went well then, I take it?” enquired Arthur, reaching for his purse.
“Not quite according to plan, but we got away with it.”
“Oh, what changed?”
“Someone came into the kitchen as I was heading out the back.”
“Wait, who? That is very much not according to plan.”
“Some posh lady. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave any witnesses, like ye said”
“I’m sorry, beg your pardon, what?”
“Well I lamped her upside the head and pegged it”
“Look, we don’t have all day – give me the money, I’ll give you the necklace, we go our own separate ways and forget about it.”
“Is she alright?”
“Well, no – that was the point. Look, I know it isn’t exactly ‘no trace’ but it’s better than a witness, right?”
“Oh God Oh God Oh God”
Raibert waited another moment or two, watching Arthur mutter to himself, but as the lad started to rock back and forth – and as he didn’t seem amenable to the explanations Raibert proffered – the older man lent forward and slapped the little lordling.
“Look, we can’t stand around here, not with you like that – here’s the bloody necklace, give me the money, and we won’t ever have to see each other”
Raibert held out his hand for the purse and held the necklace in the other. Jolted by the unexpected slap, Arthur’s eyes became more clear and less distant. He looked at the necklace in its box.
“Wait, this is just the necklace?”
“That’s all you bloody asked me to get”
“There should have been some papers with it”
“You didn’t ask me to get any damn papers, I just got the necklace”
This time, Arthur wailed. Giving up on him, Raibert grabbed the purse, dropped the necklace in its place, and legged it, leaving the gentleman in a gathering crowd of onlookers. Time to bloody get out of town.
Not long later, Inspector Bell stood in the kitchen looking at the body of Elizabeth. Bloody stupid business, as far as he was concerned – who got killed by a ruddy kettle?
“Sir?” a young Constable called, leaning past the body from the hallway. “I think I have something. Might be a Clue, sir.”
“What is it?”
“Well one of the maids here says these papers shouldn’t be here. Nothing left in the drawing room normally sir. And it’s a little, well, odd…”
“Hand it over, lad.”
The inspector took the paper from the constable’s fingers and unfolded it, furrowing his brow before reading aloud:
“Without you I would feel such angst
So I would give my hearty thanks
If you would only care to deign
My love feelings to entertain
It makes me feel ever so glum
Whenever I return to London
Seeing you makes my heart go faster
I remain, your loving, Arthur”
“Well,” Bell said, refolding the paper and looking around the room, “at least she got out of it before she read the bloody poetry. Possibly a kindness. This is probably our guy though, I can’t say that he sounds the most stable.”
The cruelest part, thought Arthur as he sat in his cell, wasn’t that the judge hadn’t believed him. It wasn’t everyone thinking he was a murderer. It wasn’t even his father’s face at the trial.
No, what he regretted most about the whole affair was that The Scotsman had chosen to print his poem in its entirety. He had been willing to admit that he wasn’t exactly Rabbie Burns, but the accompanying commentary had been scathing – although not as much as the comments in the subsequent letters pages – and now every bloody guard thought that quoting lines of it at him through the bars was the height of comedy.
But perhaps art is formed through trying times. After all, wasn’t he really the victim here? And that might be the perfect theme for a truly great poem…
At the very bottom of the garden, where the wild things grow, was a little peach tree. To reach it you had to push through the dangling branches of a particularly resistant willow, balance along a very old and precarious wooden beam which served as an improvised bridge across a stream, and climb a ladder propped against a square of ivy covered walls. Inside the ivy garden, everything felt somehow just a little different from outside.
Outside, the ivy and the mistletoe and the fungi grew with reckless abandon, wrapping their tendrils and threads around every branch, every trunk. The canopy was as dense as that of a rainforest, and anyone walking there would find their boots kicking up thick piles of decaying leaves, or encountering sudden, unexpected rocks and ruts. Nothing had order, though everything felt just as it should.
But once you dropped down from the ladder into the ivy garden, you found that the ivy trailed off into a neat lawn with beds of uniform, colourful flowers, an ornate iron bench next to a sundial, and, right in the centre, the peach tree.
Despite its small size, the peach tree was strong and flourishing, with mesmerising pink blossoms in the spring, and vivid green leaves, huge and without a single imperfection, in the summer. And the peaches themselves were round and juicy each and every year, the most delicious you’ve ever sampled.
Then one year, the tree grew a green peach.
Emery Jones first noticed the green peach on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. It was a deep green, very different from the early colour of an unripe peach – and this peach was as full and ripe as any had ever been. They had first found the ivy garden when they were four years old, and all five summers since then they had enjoyed the peaches on their visits. They always visited the garden alone; they had no siblings and for some reason they never told their one good friend, Lara, about the garden. In fact, they’d never even mentioned it to their Aunt Marian; they assumed she must know about it, with it being in her own garden, and someone must have put the ladders there. But she never asked whether Emery had been there, and Emery wasn’t one to share much about what they did or where they went with anyone.
Having never seen a green peach, Emery wasn’t sure if it would be safe to eat. After a few minutes of examination, they pulled it gently towards them to sniff it and it came away easily in their hand. It certainly seemed ripe and ready to eat. Cautiously, they took a bite – and relief washed across their face as they tasted the most delicious peach they’d ever eaten. Despite savouring each bite, they found they devoured it much more quickly than they’d hoped. After pulling the last bits of verdant flesh from the stone (which was a deep emerald green) Emery stuffed it into their pocket and started to scramble back over the walls and up towards the house.
Emery lived with their Aunt in a large cottage style building; the kind that nobody seems to build any more, with lots of different levels and doors and staircases. Aunt Marian had never had anychildren of her own, but since Emery’s parents died when they were an infant she had raised them as if they were her own child, in the house that would be theirs when they turned eighteen. She was a kind woman, almost always busy with work or chores, and almost the exact opposite to Emery when it came to sharing her thoughts – she would always tell you the truth about what she was thinking and feeling, though generally softened so that you never felt bad about what she said, even if she disagreed with you. She was also very empathetic, and could always tell when something was wrong with Emery which was perhaps part of why they never really shared much – with Aunt Marian there was no need, because she already knew.
On the way into the house, Emery poked their head in to say hi to their Aunt working on some sewing in her study, and ran off to their room where they promptly became engrossed in a book and forgot all about their unusual afternoon snack. They didn’t think of it again until the next morning, when they felt something hard in their pocket whilst they were getting dressed and pulled out the emerald stone. Placing it on their shelf, they turned to go downstairs and suddenly heard a whisper in their ear. Quickly jumping round they stared about the room, looking for the source, but there was no-one there – only the quiet mess of a young child’s bedroom. The whispering hadn’t been loud enough to make out any words, so Emery assumed they must have imagined it, or else a sudden draught had arrived and then hastily left.
But as the day went on, they heard the whispering again, tickling their ear every now and then. They started to make out the odd word “Garden…”, “play…”, “come…” – and once they even thought they heard their name. But each time they would turn, and each time there was no one there. Even more worryingly, as the day went on they started to feel a strange swaying or squirming sensation alongside the whispers, as if their body was moving in many directions at once, despite being completely stationary.
Of course, Aunt Marian noticed something wasn’t quite right almost immediately. Over lunch, she asked Emery what they’d been up to over the weekend.
“Nothing much… just playing in the garden,” came the usual answer. Aunt Marian frowned.
“Nothing strange has happened then? You seem a little distracted…” she pushed, as Emery stared at their ham sandwich.
“Nope… I’m just looking forward to the summer holidays, I guess.” they answered. This wasn’t enough to satisfy their aunt, but she knew better than to push further; that would just make them clam up more.
“You know, you are so much like your father sometimes.” she said, as she started to clear her plate. Emery wasn’t paying enough attention to respond.
That night was the first night Emery dreamed about the Ivy Woman. She appeared in glimpses, darting between the trees as they walked through the woods in the garden. At first they weren’t sure she was even really there, there was so much ivy anyway, but then they caught two wide green eyes looking at them, followed by a flash of a bright red smile with gleaming white teeth.
Over the following nights they would see more of the mysterious figure, until eventually she was walking alongside them through the trees.
One night, something compelled Emery to speak to her.
“Who are you?” they asked sheepishly, before immediately regretting the decision to talk.
The woman merely looked at them and smiled. Emery supposed that perhaps she wasn’t able to talk; after all their experience with sentient plant based beings was very slim. But the next night as they walked in silence, she spoke too.
“I do not have a name. I am a daughter of the forest.”
“Are there more of you?” replied Emery, still anxious but won over by their curiosity.
“Not here. I am the only one.”
“What do you do here? Apart from walk with me?”
Emery’s imagination immediately produced images of countless magical creatures and monsters whom she could be guarding, but not being sure that they wanted to know which one could be nearby they didn’t ask any more. They’d started to find, not enjoyment, but a familiar comfort in these dreams each night, and didn’t want anything to risk turning them into nightmares.
These comforting dreams were becoming more and more important to Emery as their days slowly began to fill with more unsettling happenings and the pit of fear in their stomach grew.
On Tuesday morning they noticed their spit had started to develop a slight green tint when they brushed their teeth in the morning. It was so slight that they weren’t even sure whether it was really there. On Thursday they almost smashed one of Aunt Marian’s favourite glasses when it became inexplicably stuck to their hand for a few seconds. And the whispering grew to be near constant, if very quiet most of the time, and a lot of their focus was spent on trying to tune it out. It reached a peak in their Friday afternoon maths lesson, when they heard their name so clearly they turned and shouted “WHAT?!” at Daniel Marsley, who just stared back along with the rest of the class. Emery turned sheepishly back towards Mr Buttress, who was shaking his head disapprovingly.
“Can we have a word in the book corner, Emery? Everyone else carry on with your work please.”
Emery slunk their way over to the book corner and plopped down onto a giant beanbag, staring at the ground and panicking about what to say, though at least the whispering seemed to have momentarily paused. Mr Buttress arrived and perched on the top of one of the bookshelves.
“I’ve noticed you’ve not quite been yourself this week, Emery. Is there something going on you’d like to talk to me about?” he asked, in a gentle voice. Having expected a thorough telling off, Emery was pleasantly surprised – they looked up and Mr Buttress smiled back kindly through his bushy ginger beard. “You can always tell me if something’s worrying you, you know. Something at home maybe?” he went on.
“Um… no, nothing’s going on. I’m just a bit tired.” Emery replied. As kind a teacher as Mr Buttress was, they knew he’d probably think Emery was making it up if they told him what was really happening, or else tell their aunt to take them to a doctor who’d insist on asking way more questions.
Mr Buttress studied them carefully, and then stood up.
“Okay,” he said “It is nearly time for the summer holidays after all! We all get a bit tired around this time! But you should try and get to bed early this weekend if you can, and you can always ask me to chat again next week if something comes up, all right?”
“Okay” Emery smiled back, and they walked back to their seat, just as the bell rang for assembly.
As soon as they and Lara rounded the corner into a quieter street on the way home from school that day, Lara stopped them and demanded to know what was going on.
“What was that all about in maths?! I heard you saying you’re just tired but I don’t decide to shout at Daniel Marsley whenever I get tired… something’s up with you this week and I know it.” she said.
“No, honestly, I’m fine,” Emery replied, “I’m just bored of school that’s all.”
“I don’t believe you,” replied Lara, “And I’m not giving up until you tell me.”
They knew her well enough to know that she really meant this… they’d have to come up with something more, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to admit the truth even to Lara. It just sounded so unbelievable!
“Fine, I’ll tell you.” Lara stared back expectantly. “I ate a funny looking peach at the weekend, from this little tree in my garden, and I think it might have made me a bit ill or something.”
Lara continued staring, as if waiting for more. “That’s it. I’m just worried about that, that’s all”.
“So this is all just over a gone off peach?” she asked.
“Yes.” Emery insisted back.
“Well… you won’t mind showing me the tree then? Maybe we can see if any of the others are bad or something?” They didn’t like the idea of showing Lara the garden, but knew she wasn’t going to drop this without some kind of evidence, so they agreed that she could come over tomorrow morning and they’d show her.
The next day the two children pulled on their boots and trudged down to the ivy garden together. Emery half expected to see the Ivy Woman waiting there, but she wasn’t and they breathed a sigh of relief. They spent a few minutes examining the tree, which contained only normal peaches now, and Lara delivered her verdict
“They look absolutely fine. I’m sure there was nothing wrong with this peach, and if there was you’d feel a lot worse by now. You need to stop getting worked up over things and just ask someone for help, silly billy.” Emery feigned relief and for the rest of the morning they made extra sure to act calm and collected, so much so that by the time Lara left to go home for lunch, they had a splitting headache. Their aunt gave them some Calpol after lunch when they mentioned it, and suggested they relax in bed for a while, and they were so exhausted from the effort of pretending all morning that they fell asleep before teatime and slept right through the evening.
They woke at around 4am, sweating profusely, from their most vivid dream yet – in it, the Ivy Woman had asked Emery to come and visit her. They realised they really needed a wee, but as they moved to get out of bed they felt almost stuck to the sheets – pulling the duvet off was like ripping off a plaster. They managed to free their arm to flick on the bedside lamp, and to their horror they saw tiny pointy tendrils sprouting from the skin all along their arms and legs. Shouting, they jumped from the bed and sprinted to the bathroom, and began vigorously rubbing their arms, and a few seconds later, the tendrils seemed to have disappeared, as if nothing had been there at all. Taking a few seconds to catch their breath, Emery paused and listened… they couldn’t hear any movement, so they assumed their scream hadn’t been enough to wake Aunt Marian.
This was the final straw for Emery. What was going on didn’t make sense, but it was happening anyway, and they needed to get to the bottom of it. They knew the answer would lie in the garden, and they decided to head there as soon as the sun came up, which was in just an hour or two. But before they did, they knew that they would have to tell someone about what had happened, in case anything went wrong. They pulled on their clothes and crept down the stairs to where their phone was charging in the kitchen, and pulled up a message to Lara, and then they typed out everything, starting with the green peach and the voices, moving through the dreams, right up to the events of that night. They no longer cared if Lara thought they were lying – they finished the message by explaining their plan. They would go down to the garden and look for the Ivy Woman, sure that they’d find her there, and confront her.
Hitting send, they pulled on their boots and sat by the door, waiting anxiously. After another hour, the sky was light enough for them to set off, and they trudged purposefully through the woods until they reached the ivy garden. They trembled as they climbed over the ladder, and sure enough, the Ivy Woman was waiting for them inside, sitting on the bench.
“I’m glad you came,” she said “I knew you would.” They sat down next to her.
“Why is this happening to me?” they asked “All these strange things. Was something wrong with the peach?”
“They’re happening because you belong here now.” she replied, calmly, and Emery found themselves suddenly exhausted. They noticed a tickle on their back, and turned their head to see that the ivy from the wall was creeping over their shoulder and across their chest, but they couldn’t muster the energy to move any further.
“… what’s going on… who… who are you…” they stammered, falling deeper into a trance and feeling the ivy wrap more tightly around their limbs.
The whispers they had been hearing all week were now clear, crisp voices, and Emery realised they were the voices of other children – which they now realised were here in the garden too, somehow inside the ivy that was slowly covering every inch of their body. They had a vague sense that they weren’t going to be able to get free from the ivy, and that they were going to be taken into it, but they still couldn’t muster enough energy to try and escape. This was going to be the end.
Amongst the children’s voices, Emery started to notice one that stood out from the others.
“Emery!” it shouted, “Emery!! Wake up!!” They felt a strange prickling sensation on their arms. “Come on Emery!! Get up, now!!” Something clicked in their brain… it was Lara! What was Lara doing here?!
“Lara?” they murmured “Lara… is that you?”
“Yes!” she cried, “It’s me! You need to get up now Emery! I can’t pull you out on my own.”
Emery realised that if Lara was there, that meant that not only did she believe them enough to come to the garden, but that she was also in danger. That was enough for them. They started to push against the ivy with all the strength they could gather. Slowly but surely, it began to rip, until it was broken enough that Lara was able to pull them up from the bench and away onto the lawn.
The two children embraced.
“Thank God!” Lara cried. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to get you out!”
“I’m so sorry” sobbed Emery back. “I should have told you sooner. I guess I was just scared.”
“It’s okay, I’m here now, and you’re safe.”
Emery and Lara turned to face the Ivy Woman.
“Why are you doing this?” cried Emery, “And who are all these children?”
“Whatever you do, you’re not going to take Emery away! I won’t let you!” added Lara.
Emery took a breath ready to shout more questions, but then they paused – the woman had fallen to her knees in front of the bench and was staring at the ground.
Putting their hand out to Lara to signal for her to wait, they lowered their voice and spoke calmly
“Look… if something is wrong maybe we can help… as long as you don’t try to take either of us again.” Lara stared at them wide eyed, as if she thought they might have lost their right mind, but the woman started to speak slowly.
“I… I don’t know why I take the children. I only take the ones like me. The ones who keep it inside.”
“Keep what inside?” asked Lara, her curiosity winning over her anger.
“Everything. Everything that they think… and feel… I can’t help but be drawn to them. If we are the same, I… I always think the next one might… might just… be someone who could become a friend.”
It was clearly giving the woman great pains to speak in this way. Emery paused for a moment, contemplating.
“You’re right,” they said. “I was keeping everything inside. But that’s never good. The only reason Lara came here to save me was because I finally told her everything that had been going on.” Lara still had hold of their hand, and at these words she squeezed it tight.
“I know how lonely it can get when you close up like that. But this…” they gestured at the ivy “is not the solution. I don’t even know what’s going on here – to be honest I think I’m a little in shock. But if you have some kind of magic that put these children there… can it get them out too?”
At this, the Ivy Woman frowned and began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lara.
“She is scared of losing the children, even though they don’t want to be here.” Emery answered for her. They were starting to feel a deep connection similar to the one that they’d felt in their dreams of her. They could feel what she was feeling, and understand her fear.
“But it’s ok,” they continued “You don’t have to be alone. If you keep talking, we’ll keep visiting, won’t we Lara?”
Lara was still somewhat confused by the sudden change of atmosphere but as any good 8-year-old best friend would, she immediately gave a vigorous nod.
“Of course we will. I mean, you’re a magical woman made of ivy. This is amazing! I have so many questions! No-one at school would believe this in a million years!”
The woman smiled meekly and, saying nothing, rose to her feet and raised her arms in the air, and slowly the ivy began to shrink back up the walls, and dozens of children began to appear out of it, first appearing almost transparent, like ghosts, but growing clearer until they were fully formed. Emery noticed that they were dressed in historical clothes, some of them hundreds of years out of date, and realised the woman must have been taking children just like them for years.
“It’s time to go home, children” said the woman, and the children cheered, several of them thanking Emery and Lara gratuitously. Then, one by one, they began walking towards the walls and, as they approached them, faded back into nothingness.
“They are going back to their own times and lives,” explained the woman. “The harm I’ve caused is not irreparable.” She smiled broadly and kindly, ready to begin her new life.
From then on, Emery and the Ivy Woman met many times, and with each meeting they shared more of themselves. When Emery grew old, none of their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren really believed that they had once been shy and closed off – to them, Emery was the most open, honest person they knew.
The Ivy Woman’s friendship with Emery and Lara endured, and each new generation brought new playmates for her… always there now by choice, drawn in by the wonder of her magic and staying for the friendship.
The stone of the green peach still, to this day, stands in a small display case in Emery’s family home, and every summer the family shares a picnic in the ivy garden, joined by the Ivy Woman and Lara and her family, finishing off with a dessert of the most delicious peaches you’ve ever tasted.
They arrived at the property just a few hours after leaving home but with the unpleasant feeling of fatigue and grime that only an international flight can cause. The cool breeze wafting off the Lago di Bracciano hinted at a little slice of paradise.
The rough-hewn exterior was overrun by flora – a soft halo of azalea, gardenia and sweet-smelling freesia spread from each window ledge and balcony. The ageing wooden shutters gave the place an old-world charm. Worn stone steps, and an arched front door with stained glass panels, completed the picture.
Inside, the flagstone hallway offered a cool, calm respite from the summer heat, and the interior of the house opened up in splendour. The high ceilings and panelled walls of the entrance hall gave way to comfortable living quarters. A traditional brick fireplace and rustic kitchen complete with home-grown thyme and rosemary, lovingly plucked and left to dry, filling the room with an intoxicating aroma.
It felt like the perfect place for time with friends. Charming, rustic and just stone’s throw from Rome – a place to relax after a day of unashamed sightseeing.
Maybe a ‘stone’s throw’ was an exaggeration… It would take thirty minutes to get into the city, far too long for a small, unrelenting child. Luckily, the budget had stretched to bringing along the au pair – an Italian herself. Maria, had recommended the small town of Anguillara Sabazia as the perfect place to stay, promising to keep the child entertained during the day.
“It’s weird to be the first ones to bring a child along to one of these – don’t you think?” Jasmine said, poking her head around the doorway of the small ensuite bathroom.
Stephen looked up at her from the bed quizzically. The group had disbanded as soon as the initial awe of the property had subsided, agreeing to meet back downstairs for drinks in the courtyard as soon as the compulsory ‘freshening up’ was complete.
“Would you have preferred to leave him at home?” he asked.
“No… but, would it be much different to leaving him here during the day with Maria?” she asked.
“Yes. He’ll have a great time exploring the town with Maria – and we won’t have to feel hideously guilty when we get back to England,” he said.
Stephen put out his arm and pulled her down to join him on the bed, kissing the top of her head gently. Through the open window, they could hear the sounds of Maria showing the child the courtyard out back, reeling off the names of the local flowers, and butterflies and other creepy crawlies. Everything was new to him here, and his delight was palpable. Jasmine sighed, allowing herself to relax into Stephen’s arms.
Another sound rose up from the floors below, the unmistakable tinkling of ice on glass.
“We should go down,” she said, standing up and making a move toward the bedroom door. “They’ll think we are up to no good if we stay up here much longer.”
She paused halfway across the room, as if suddenly aware of her surroundings for the first time.
“Where does this door go?” she asked.
She couldn’t recall noticing the door on their way into the room. The smooth, dark wood looked the same as all the others, but something about it felt different. She held out her hand and gave an involuntary shiver as the handle stopped still in her hand. Locked.
“That’s weird, I wonder what’s inside…” she mused.
“It’s probably where the owner hides while he lets the house out,” Stephen joked. “Along with a jar filled with the faces of his previous guests.” He had crept up behind her and pulled her arms behind her back, making her jump.
“Very funny,” she said, wriggling out of his grasp and swinging round to bat him away, trying not to laugh. “But please, for the love of God, don’t say things like that too loudly. He’ll never sleep if he hears you. And I am not staying up with him while we’re here!” she said.
Downstairs, Kate and Dylan sat in the courtyard. Hunched over a sightseeing guide to Rome while Maria and the child explored the back reaches of the garden, poking around in the flower beds and peeking under stones and broken terracotta pots.
Dylan looked up as they walked out into the garden, smiling, he stood up and gestured towards the kitchen.
“Beer?” he asked.
All was quiet as the sun rose over the lake the next morning.
Jasmine sat outside, under the trees overlooking the lake clasping a cup of strong coffee and trying to remember what things had been like before the child had come along.
It had been so easy…
A difficult night had followed what was, initially, a very pleasant evening. He’d woken up, screaming bloody murder, in the small hours, and had refused to go back to his own bed. It wasn’t unusual for him to wake up crying after a bad dream occasionally, but this was something else. He was hysterical, almost entirely inconsolable.
Through panicked sobs, he’d choked out a few, barely legible words about a lady that had come to take him away. A nightmare, of course, albeit a bad one. He wasn’t used to travelling, and the excitement, and exhaustion of the previous day must have caught up with him.
Jasmine had sat with the boy all night, until, hours later, he finally calmed down and let sleep take hold. He lay on his side, taking up the thin space in between Stephen and Jasmine, his face pressed into the space between the pillows.
Jasmine had tried to sleep, at first, to shake off the feeling of unease that had crept in to join her exhaustion, but the room was hot and cramped, almost suffocating, and she sought solace by the lake in the early hours. The morning sun rose to wash away the ill feelings that the night had brought on.
Surprisingly, the child didn’t seem too phased by the events of the night before. As they left him behind with Maria that morning and headed out to follow Kate’s carefully planned day of sightseeing, he smiled up at his mother, full of excitement for the day ahead – Maria was taking him for gelato after lunch and had promised to show him fish that lived in the lake.
“Be good today little man,” Jasmine warned him. “If Maria tells you to take a nap you listen, ok?”
She kissed the top of his dark head.
“Promise, Mama,” he said with a smile. “I can take a nap. It’s safe now.”
“It’s always safe,” Jasmine soothed. Not wanting another discussion about the night before. Feeling terrible, but desperate once again to extricate herself from the house, and from the company of her son.
The child looked unsure, he put his head to one side and stared at her.
“It’s at night when they come,” he said, stoically. “When I’m alone, and not with anyone.”
Jasmine looked into the child’s eye when he said this. Unsure of what to say or do – he didn’t seem frightened now, but there was a seriousness in his voice that she found unnerving. The house felt heavy again, the air in the room close and oppressive, Jasmine forced a smile, and turned, half running, to leave via the front door.
It felt so good to be out of that house.
People often joke that the English enjoy a good queue – but you’d have been hard pushed to find a single person happier to queue than Jasmine on that fateful summer morning.
The journey into Rome had been uneventful. Once arrived, the four friends had made their way to the gateway of the Vatican, directed most efficiently, by eagle-eyed Kate and her trusty tourist map.
As they waited in line for the Sistine Chapel – which was to be the first stop on their Kate-led walking tour of Europe’s holiest city – Jasmine felt content. Not just content, but happy, thrilled even. The sun was shining, and the day stretched luxuriously out before them – it would be hours before they had to return to the little house on the lake.
Once inside, Jasmine was mesmerised. The group were completely surrounded by tourists, a small part of a huge, heaving mass of bodies. In any other circumstance, it would have felt suffocating, but a glimpse of the ornately decorated frescoes was all it took for the crowd to completely fade away. She felt alone, and at peace, as she took in every minute detail.
The was something unworldly about building – the entire story of the creation of man laid out in technicolour, magnificent figures representing the entire spectrum of human emotion, the complex architecture of the vaulted ceiling itself.
The group moved slowly, taking in scenes from the creation story, Adam and Eve’s temptation, fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a wrathful God’s punishment on mankind with devastating floods, Noah’s discovery of winemaking and subsequent fall from grace.
Jasmine walked mechanically through the main vault, to gaze, in awe at the masterpiece located over the high altar, representing the apocalypse of St John, and judgement of all souls left on Earth. Her eyes wandered, to pause upon the bottom right corner, to gaze upon the face of Minos, deep within the group of the damned.
Minos, the judge of the dead in the underworld. Whose mortal body had once sent the souls of young boys and girls into the labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur.
She heard sound a close by and the spell was broken.
“Careful, they say if you look into his eyes you see the devil,” it whispered.
It was Stephen, stood beside her, arms folded, contemplating the artwork. He turned to her slowly and smiled, raising an eyebrow at the all-too-serious look on her face.
“Shall we finish up here and go and find Arturo?” he asked.
Arturo was an old friend.
They had met at university, all living together quite comfortably before finding their own routes in life. Arturo was semi-nomadic, he liked to hop around, Asia, the Middle East, Europe – the world was his playground and her never stayed in one place long enough to call it home. He was currently shacked up in Rome.
The bar where they had agreed to meet was… interesting. Freni e Frizione – that’s Brakes and Clutch in English – was a bar in an old garage, serving organic vegetarian food and trendy cocktails, and had become a favourite haunt of the now ‘flexitarian’ Arturo.
The group sat outside to await their old friend, who soon came onto the scene, dressed entirely in white linen, and riding an electric scooter, his characteristic facial hair, which once he had enjoyed cutting into all manner of styles, had been left to grow wild, and fluttered slightly in the breeze.
Arturo pulled to a stop, hopping lightly off his trusty steed, and making his way around the group, giving each friend a customary one-armed hug, his mouth half-open in an excited, lop-sided grin.
“So, what’s going on guys? It’s so good to see you all,” he beamed, taking an empty chair, and conjuring a waitress with a flick of his wrist.
The afternoon passed in a blur – cocktails, shots, and heavy Italian cigarettes; it wasn’t long before they found themselves pulling up outside the little house on the lake once again.
It was late, and the house was quiet, Maria sat on her own in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting their return.
The au pair had volunteered to put the child to bed for the duration of their stay. Jasmine had refused the offer at first, having always enjoyed the ritual of putting her son to bed, but the night before still hung heavy in her mind, and she had been all too willing to give up her duties for the evening.
Of course, the night’s bedtime routine had not gone as planned. The child had grown anxious and restless as the evening had worn on, he had asked for Jasmine, over and over again, and was inconsolable when he found out that his mother would not be home to put him to bed.
“He kept speaking about a lady,” Maria told Jasmine. “A lady that would come once he was in bed – he was terrified.”
The poor girl was obviously distressed. She was used to looking after the child – but his behaviour over the last two nights had been very unusual. Jasmine relieved the au pair of her duties and proceeded to check on her son.
He lay on his side, curled tightly into a ball, having finally given up and fallen asleep – but he looked anything but peaceful. His pillow was damp from tears, and a serious frown was pasted across his small, pale face.
A sudden rush of guilt overcame Jasmine, and she dropped to her knees beside the bed, laying a hand on his soft cheek. The boy didn’t wake, or even flinch beneath her touch, but remained fast asleep.
Jasmine composed herself, not wanting to leave, but reluctant to risk putting the boy through any more distress. She stood up, and then paused, as her eye caught sight of something glinting in the corner of the room.
A key, similar to a house key, lying abandoned on the wooden floorboards. She picked it up, feeling the weight of the object, and the cold sting of the metal against her hands.
It didn’t take long for her to remember the locked door.
A sudden intense curiosity filled her veins, the need to look inside was almost primal, an energy pulling her out of the bedroom. She reached out for the door, and slowly put the key inside, turning it with a satisfying click. The door relented swinging open onto the landing.
It was the smell that first hit Jasmine. Dust and mould, like a house left empty and unloved, and something else, rotten and sulphurous, which stung the back of the palate. She held her breath and looked inside – there wasn’t much to see. It was a small cupboard, a thin layer of dust and cobwebs coated the floor and patches of damp and mould crept up the yellowed walls, other than that there was but a single occupant, covered in an ageing dust sheet.
Jasmine pulled aside the cloth to reveal a renaissance style portrait. She felt bile rise in her throat, unsure if it was the picture itself, or the smell in the cupboard, she fought back the urge to vomit. The face of a lady stared back at her, but it was all wrong, like someone had mutilated the Mona Lisa.
There was no beauty in the eyes of the fair lady, no magic, no secret smile. Hollow sunken eyes like bottomless pits, puckered cheeks, sagging jowls, a hideous sneer played across her lips. The entire thing was tinged an unnatural shade of green, like nuclear slime. The painting was alien, ungodly, ill-feeling and bad thoughts, it was malice, despair, discomfort, abandonment, fear.
Jasmine stumbled backwards, throwing the hideous image back into the cupboard, and turning at once to flee the scene, and put as much distance as possible between herself and that godforsaken portrait.
The sound of Jasmine’s frantic footfall was enough to bring the rest of the group running in from the garden, half-burnt cigarettes still in hand, and puzzled, panicked looks across their faces. Jasmine stood, bent double in the kitchen doorway, retching and gasping for breath, attempting to vocalise the horrors she had witnessed on the first floor.
Time for confusion, or questions, was cut short by the sound of a door slamming, accompanied shortly thereafter by an ear-splitting scream.
“Paulie,” Jasmine choked.
She struggled to her feet and lunged back toward the staircase, all fear of the ghastly green lady expunged by dreaded anticipation of what would await her at the top of the stairs.
A blanket lay abandoned on the floor, spilling out of the bedroom and onto the dust-strewn landing. Pushing the door aside, Jasmine saw, with dismay that the little bed lay empty, a small imprint all that remained on the tiny child-sized mattress.
The cupboard was closed. The door was locked tight. And the key was nowhere to be seen.
I’m sure you can work out what’s been happening over the last 18 months.
Anyway… I have some new content to share! Better late than never, right?
A few months ago, some friends and I set ourselves a joint writing challenge. We each had to write a short story, which we would then share together on one of virtual Saturday night gatherings.
To help get the creative juices flowing we each chose three prompts – an object, a place, and a feeling – which were then randomly assigned to other members of the group.
The prompts I gave:
A plastic plant pot shaped like a human head
The bottom of the garden, where the wild things grow
The prompts I received:
A house key
All three of our prompts had to be included in some capacity within the story, we also had to include a character that was based on, or named after, someone that we all knew – other than this we were free to write whatever we liked.
Some of the content is a bit weird / dark / NSFW for general reading, however, I have a few that I’ve got permission to share.
Up first: Belladonna – watch this space.
If you did anything similar over lockdown I’d love to hear about it – drop me a comment below 🙂
“The ghosts of things that never happened are worse than the ghosts of things that did.”― L.M. Montgomery
I really enjoyed this book.
The old saying goes you should never judge a book by its cover, but I have to confess, that I often do – and it actually normally works out in my favour. I regularly pick up a book because I am drawn to the cover artwork – admittedly, I will always check out the blurb too, and if I like the sound of it as well I will normally buy. I’m sure there are books out there with beautiful covers and stinking interiors, but so far this method has worked fairly well for me. The Constant Nymph, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Unforgotten all found their way onto my book shelf because I fell in love with their covers.
This is another one to add to the list. I was drawn to the striking full cover wrap, the slinky fox and personal artefacts hiding amongst moonlit trees. The ‘familiar’ title (I’m so sorry) let me know the subject matter would be up my street, and the blurb reinforced my decision to pop the book in my shopping basket.
The Familiars is an evocative, haunting tale, set upon the backdrop of seventeenth-century industrial Lancashire, and the loosely based on the folklore of the Pendle witches. The place time, and characters are real, though the story is one of Halls’ own – a tale of two women’s fight for freedom in an age of oppression, subjugation and superstition.
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir.
When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
There were two things I loved about this book.
Firstly, the despair – and I don’t mean this is a heartless way at all; I love to be moved by a book. Fleetwood’s anguish was palpable – her fear at losing her child, what this would mean to her as a wife, but also as a mother. The abject terror at having something so personal so utterly out of her control. Combined with this, is the creeping suspicion of her husband. What are his motives? What’s he trying to do? What is his aim? And finally, her utter helplessness when trying to save Alice.
I was anxious for Fleetwood –desperately trying to save her unborn child, and indeed herself, while fighting against the oppressive force of male privilege. Knowing that Alice awards her the best chance of survival and of giving her husband the heir he so desires, but being helpless to save her, bound by the chains of her sex. I felt connected to Fleetwood, a part of her emotions – angry, sad, afraid, anxious, with a final burst of release and acceptance.
I also loved the darker, more mysterious element which emerged through the backdrop of the Pendle Witch Trials. I was drawn into the pages by the secrets which didn’t ever fully emerge: the fleeting familiars in the woods, the oppressive walls of Malkin Tower, the waking nightmares, the unknown horrors in Alice’s prison cell. I like the fact that some questions were left unanswered. Real life is so often mysterious – and though Halls wrote the book to answer some of her own questions, there is much that is left unanswered. This is an open book, for interpretation by the reader.
I’ve been struggling a lot with reading recently, and this book was just what I needed to get myself moving again. It’s engaging, but also easy and enjoyable to read. I consumed the whole thing in a few short days between Christmas and New Year while nursing a particularly fierce head cold. It was refreshing, after a dismal 2019 spent struggling through books I felt I ought to read, to rediscover the delight of a really good book.
I used to pride myself in reviewing every single book I read. When I struggled to find the time to put pen to paper, because I was desperately and incessantly applying for new work, revising for exams, or otherwise indisposed, I diligently stacked all my previous reads aside, awaiting review, as it were.
It took me a long time to shake this habit and to recognise that it is okay to read a book and then put it away, that not everything needs reviewing. While I’m pleased I made this realisation, I can also recognise that recently I’ve gone entirely the other way, and have fallen horribly out of touch with my literary self.
Last year was a particularly bad year for my reading list – though a pretty good year in all other respects. Full time work, marriage, and new, not altogether bad, habits, have somewhat monopolised my diary. And while I still do make time for reading in the hour or so I spend in the bath of an evening – old habits die hard – I don’t ever take the time to share my thoughts anymore.
In 2020, I’d like to make more of an effort to put my thoughts to paper. I’m not one for making grand resolutions that are impossible to stick to – one blog a week is never going to happen so I won’t even think of it. If I can manage one post a month, I’ll have done myself proud. I’ve also recognised the fact that my previous reviews were really long (seriously), so going forward, I am going to try to keep my thoughts to a minimum – concise, to the point, and hopefully worth the read.
I’ll kick things off this month with an amazing book I found, and subsequently inhaled, over the Christmas period – The Familiars by Stacey Hall.
The first in a series of illustrated children’s books, aimed at encouraging children to take an interest in visiting museums, has been launched by an independent group of adventure-seeking artists, just in time for the summer holidays.
Riddle of the White Sphinx is the first of the ‘Hidden Tales’ – a series of adventure stories with inbuilt treasure hunts, where children are invited to trace the journey of characters, follow clues, crack codes and uncover a hidden artefact located somewhere within their city.
More than 300 young bookworms attended the launch event at the Historic Sedgwick museum on 29th June, where they were joined by author Mark Wells, producer Sorrel May and illustrator Jennifer Bell.
Attendees were able to get their hands on a pre-release copy of the book, as well as take part in themed activities and competitions being held across the museum – though many were seen heading into town, eager to get stuck into the treasure hunt.
Speaking about the inspiration behind the book, author Mark Wells said that he hoped the book would instil a “spirit of adventure” in all those who read it.
“When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them,” said Wells. “The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together.”
To find out more about the inspiration behind the Hidden Tales, check out my interview with the author.
The book follows the adventures of two children, Nina and Leo, who discover a dark secret lurking in Cambridge after they hear a mysterious, bodiless voice, calling out to them from a museum exhibition.
The story guides readers on a journey through the city streets, to locate secret portals in seven of the city’s historic museums, identify a trapped historic figure and discover the artefact that binds them there.
Want to know more? Click on the image below to open up a handy Hidden Tales infographic for a rundown of how the book works.
Speaking at the launch event, producer Sorrel May said: “Seeing so many children and their families gather for the launch of the Hidden Tales was a wonderful feeling. The excitement on the faces of the children as they opened up their new books made all the hard work we had put into the project over the last two years feel worth it.”
It’s not just children who couldn’t wait to see what the book had in store, check out my video review below:
The launch was also attended by a small group of lucky ticket holders chosen from schools around Cambridge, who were given a special tour of the Sedgwick with the first clues to the treasure hunt whispered to them over the museum’s audio guides.
“The launch was really fun,” said Kim Wheeler, a trained teacher, and one of the many Cambridge locals who attended the event. “It was great to see so many things for the children to get stuck into, to leave them raring to start the puzzles in the book afterwards.”
“I really love how the clues you need are embedded in the story,” she continued. “It makes you dig deeper and think about the writing more. It would be great for getting children to use their comprehension skills in a really meaningful way.”
If you missed out on the launch, you can still get a copy of the book online or from Heffers bookstore. The Hidden Tales are also planning a series of fun and immersive events relating to the launch throughout the summer – check out the website for more information.
I am delighted to be able to share with you my exclusive interview with Mark Wells, author of the new children’s series Hidden Tales.
The first book in this exciting new series, Riddle of the White Sphinx, was launched on Saturday 29th June in a themed event held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge’s historic city centre.
I caught up with Mark ahead of of the launch to discuss the inspiration behind the book, how the project came together, and more.
Where did the idea for the Hidden Tales come from?
A couple of summers ago, Sorrel and I were sitting outside her mum’s house, chatting about our childhood. We both remembered reading books like Kit Williams’s Masquerade and going on adventures with our friends or exploring different places with our parents and grandparents. Sorrel was worried about the time children spend nowadays in front of a screen and wondered if it would be possible to do a treasure hunt book for children in today’s digital age. A few weeks later, Sorrel came around for a cup of tea to discuss the idea further. In the subsequent months, we kept meeting up in the evenings around the kitchen table to chat about the possibility of turning it into a series of illustrated children’s books. I suggested that it might be sensible to test the idea in one city, like Cambridge, and Sorrel asked if I could come up with a storyline. That was probably the moment when the Hidden Tales was born.
Was it a sudden ‘aha!’ moment, or a gradual coming together of ideas?
After agreeing to come up with an outline, one Sunday morning I left home with a notepad and pen and went walking around the city looking for inspiration. I wandered into a museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child and decided to hire an audio-guide to look around the exhibits. As soon as I put the headphones on, something magical happened. The sounds of the other visitors became muffled, and a disembodied voice began speaking to me about the exhibits around me. And that’s when I thought – what if I was the only person the voice could talk to? And what if the voice was not coming from the headphones but from another entity entirely. A soul, trapped here, hiding from a sinister keeper. A Hidden.
An hour later, I was back at my desk typing away, and I didn’t stop until the early hours when I finally went to bed. The next morning, I read through what I had written, and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. I sent what has become Chapter 1 to Sorrel and asked her to tell me what she thought of it. Later that evening, Sorrel called me back to say she had read it to the girls and they loved it and could I write some more? Each weekend after that I went to another museum and wrote another chapter, sending it through to Sorrel for another reading, and before long we had our first book: Riddle of the White Sphinx.
In your bio, you speak very fondly about your time studying in Cambridge, and, in particular, about your curiosity about the secrets of the older buildings around the city – are there any buildings, in particular, that stand out in your mind as having offered the most intrigue?
There are so many! Everywhere you look in Cambridge there are iron-studded doors, archways or parapets concealing all manner of secrets, while from the rooftops, gargoyles and grotesques watch your every move. In my own college, St John’s, it’s hard to beat New Court with its Eagle Gate and cloister leading to the Bridge of Sighs as a setting for a gothic mystery like College of Shadows – particularly at night with the moon shining through its iron-barred arches. But the Fitzwilliam Museum can look equally mysterious, especially at night when its darkened windows peer out at passers-by like sunken eye sockets.
I understand that you have written several books before now, how has your experience as a writer so far influenced this latest work?
Before coming back to Cambridge, I used to work for Games Workshop, and I loved the dark gothic fantasy worlds of Warhammer. When I left, they published a couple of my short stories set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe before I decided to switch to urban fantasy and set my debut novel College of Shadows, here in Cambridge. Ever since reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel worlds, and when the opportunity came to create one for the Hidden Tales, I took it. The World of Secrets, which is where the Hidden come from, is definitely dark, gothic and mysterious, and it has been great fun imagining a place where those lost souls are trapped.
What did you enjoy most about writing the Riddle of the White Sphinx? Are there any aspects that you didn’t enjoy?
Discovering museums that I didn’t know existed has been brilliant. There are 13 museums in Cambridge, and I visited all of them before focusing on 7 of my favourites for Riddle of the White Sphinx. But to be honest, the whole project has been a joy. Working with the museums, who have been incredibly supportive, local teachers, as well as the rest of the creative team has been wonderful, like seeing the first illustrations come through from Jennifer Bell, our illustrator. One of the most memorable moments was when we applied to the Arts Council to fund the first book, and we received the email telling us they given us the grant. That was special. It has been hard work at times but in a good way.
What would you like children to take away from the experience of reading this book and cracking the codes? Is there any particular message you are trying to convey?
A spirit of adventure. When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them. What saddens me is how many people walk around this fantastic city, with their faces buried in a mobile phone, ignoring the buildings and people around them. The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together. When designing the book, for example, we included a Passport page where you can get your book stamped at each museum. These stamps each contain a word that spell a sentence that will help you find the missing artefact hidden somewhere in the city. We did this to reward those readers who make the effort to go to all seven museums. The true heroes of the tale.
I see from the website that the book has a ‘producer’ as well as an author – how did your roles differ when creating the Riddle of the White Sphinx?
There are so many aspects to the Hidden Tales, it wouldn’t have been possible for one person to do it on their own. If self-publishing an illustrated hardback book wasn’t enough, we always wanted to make the Hidden Tales as immersive and accessible as possible for children and families. This meant taking it into schools, organising events for families throughout the holidays and creating a unique launch event at the Sedgwick Museum in the style and character of the Hidden Tales. Add to that the importance of liaising with the Cambridge museums to ensure the story, illustrations and outreach activities worked for each of the venues was a massive task. Without a producer of Sorrel’s experience and abilities, it would never have happened.
Were there any aspects of writing this book that you found particularly challenging?
A couple of the artefacts and characters from the original draft had to be changed after consulting with the museums. One exhibit, for example, was only on loan to the museum, and there was always the risk that the owner would want it back, which would have been a problem! Another aspect was ensuring the level of difficulty in the clues was sufficiently challenging without being impenetrable. The Hidden language for example, which was designed by Fiona Boyd of the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, is introduced through a series of messages in the illustrations. It took me several weeks to work out how best to reveal the identity of the letters in each chapter. I even went to Bletchley Park to look at some of the techniques that they used to crack ENIGMA to get the approach right.
What stands out to you as the most memorable part of writing this book?
There have been so many, from getting the first illustration through from Jenny to seeing the colour proofs running off the press for the first time at the Lavenham Press. But for me, it was probably my first reading to an assembly hall of children and looking up at the end to see their wide-eyed faces, wholly immersed in the story. For a writer, that makes all the hard work worth it.
Where do you expect the next Hidden Tales adventure to take you?
That’s an excellent question! We haven’t decided yet, but we are open to suggestions. If it works well in Cambridge, we would love to do it in other cities. There may even be a sequel here. The Keeper of Secrets is not going away without a fight!
Is there anything else that you would like say?
One of the features of the Hidden Tales is that it is all produced locally. Other than Jennifer Bell who is based in Nottingham (though she is often in Newmarket teaching equine art workshops) all of those involved in the project live in and around East Anglia. From the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, the Lavenham Press, book designer, editors, teachers and volunteers, we are all based here. Even the cakes for the launch event came from Fitzbillies!
Riddle of the White Sphinx is available to buy online or instore at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge. If you would like more information on the Hidden Tales including the quest, events, schools programme or AHA! Club (Association of Hidden Adventurers) just visit www.hiddentales.co.uk.
Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to sit and chat with me.