Lair of the Geek

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Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling


Oct 31, 2012

Author:  Michael Boccacino
Publisher: Titan Books
Price: £7.99
Review by: David Stonehouse

Michael Boccacino’s debut novel is subtitled ‘A Victorian Gothic Tale’ and he’s not wrong. From the outset this is the dark and unsettling world of lonely manor houses, strange servants and glowering shadows familiar to every reader of classics such as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Charlotte Markham is a young widow who has taken up a post of Governess to two young boys at their great house, Everton. This is a tragic place. The boys’ mother died slowly of a withering disease and they haven’t coped well with their loss, their father has become silent and reclusive in the depth of his mourning for his lost love and all three are afflicted by strange and macabre dreams. Charlotte is no less bleak in her own spirits as she is wrapped up in griefs of her own. Her husband died in a fire and both her parents were taken too soon. In each case Charlotte witnessed a strange dark figure as they died and she has become obsessed with this stalking figure of death.

The plot kicks off in fine gruesome style with another death, this time the brutal dismemberment of the boys’ nanny, Nanny Prum. This outrage is followed by more sinister apparitions and visions which threaten inhabitants of the nearby village of Blackfield. Unsurprisingly the dreams of Charlotte and her two young charges become even more vivid and distressing, leading her to encourage them to write down and share their visions. This in turn leads to the creation of a map of a place that they all recognise and soon the three of them are off on a journey into the woods. One short stroll through an unnatural mist later and the three of them arrive at the mysterious and impossible House of Darkling where the boys’ lost mother is waiting for them and the master of the house, Mr Whatley, lurks above in a forbidden study controlling events like a spider in a web.

As the plot unfolds Charlotte and the boys must journey back and forth between the real world and the House of Darkling, uncovering the truth about the eternal beings that live in the other realm and trying to prevent any other humans from suffering the terrible fate of Nanny Prum.

As a feat of imagination this novel really is very impressive. The Darkling world is full of nightmarish and surreal characters and locations and many of the things Boccacino describes are genuinely disturbing and, pleasingly, there is a sort of hideous logic to it all that makes the unfolding story and final resolution both touching and satisfying. The character of Charlotte, our narrator, is very well established, being a sort of grown up Alice stumbling on another sort of Wonderland. Her grief at her own losses, her affection for the children and her burgeoning feelings for the handsome master of the house, Mister Darrow make her a very winning and sympathetic first person guide.

At its heart this is a story about death and mourning. Characters cling to the memories of their loved ones and the impossible hope of bringing them back. Boccacino asks many philosophical questions about the effect of such emotions and the cost of refusing to allow the natural cycle of life and death, no matter how painful, to take its course.

There is a great deal to enjoy here. Boccacino has a very attractive style with some sequences being breathtakingly beautiful and some character moments are deeply moving. He also does a good job of capturing the slightly laboured eloquence of the real Victorian Gothic writers. However, it isn’t all perfect. There is frequently a headlong rush to race from event to event leading to sections were things happen so quickly that you feel jolted from place to place. Conversations are reduced to the bare minimum of crucial information and some of the minor characters, particularly the fascinating eternals of the Darkling world are never given chance to fully develop as much as you would like them to. It’s hard to see where the blame lies for this. Either Boccacino himself is nervous of losing the reader by letting the pace flag or else his text has been brutally edited to keep the page count down. Whichever is the case it feels odd that some scenarios are allowed to develop slowly and bloom in the imagination while others are dismissed so quickly you hardly have chance to register that they are there. Interestingly, Boccacino cites Susanna Clarke’s wonderful ‘Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell’ as one of his influences. I can certainly see the connection as his novel touches on many of the faerie world ideas as Clarke’s. For me the magic of that book was the way Clarke slowly built her totally immersive world, confident that atmosphere and authenticity are every bit as important as a great plot. There are touches of this in ‘Charlotte Markham…’ but too often the vision is stifled in the rush to race the plot along.

However, as a debut novel, this is a fine achievement and an engaging and rewarding read for any lover of magical fantasy writing. Boccacino is certainly a writer to watch out for in future if this is a fair reflection of his imagination, energy and literary skill.

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