Fresh Blood

Name: Laura Purcell

Title of Book: The Silent Companions

'There were times here when I had to close Purcell’s book as the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end'

Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge.

With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure - a Silent Companion - that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself...

Silent companions are wooden figures painted to look like real people. They can be stood in a hallway, or in front of a window so people are shocked when they bump in to them. They were fun when Anne Bainbridge bought them in 1635 to humour King Charles I and his Queen when they came to visit The Bridge. A weekend that was to elevate her husband, Josiah to the King’s court, but the laughter died when something terrible happened to spoil all their best laid plans.

In 1865 the companions are still in the house, but they are no longer a source of fun and mirth.

This novel has all the wonderful ingredients for a Gothic horror tale. Purcell delivers strange noises in the pitch dark of a rambling house stranded in barren countryside. Slowly, but without losing pace, Purcell ratchets up the suspense, the hysteria of not being quite sure what you see out of the corner of your eye.

The idea of the silent companions is creepy and Purcell is wonderful at slowly peeling back the menace of these wooden figures as more and more of them appear and seem to take over The Bridge, stalking their prey. But don’t think I have given away the whole book. There is much more to this book than just monsters in the night.

Weaving the present (1865) and Elsie alongside a diary written by the first mistress of The Bridge, Anne (1635), we see how things came to pass in the past and how the horrors of back then impinge on Elsie’s present. It all makes sense when Purcell shows her final reveal.

Having said that, there is a last sting in the tale for Elsie who from the beginning we know is in St Joseph’s hospital. Is she about to be saved or is the evil of the silent companions more far reaching than even she could imagine? There is a wonderful sense of ambiguity about the conclusion, which is right with any story involving the macabre. Even now as I write this review, the possibilities are swirling around my head as I consider different scenarios of what exactly did happen in that house? Is Elsie such a reliable narrator? That is the true worth of a book, when it makes you think after the last page, rather than close the book and forget about it.

There were times here when I had to close Purcell’s book as the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end as a constant chill covered my shoulders and upper spine. I am sure that many of the Gothic writers of the 1800’s like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole will be pleased to see the Gothic novel is alive and well… maybe not in the sense of alive and well, but at least we still enjoy being chilled to the bone. And be careful of seeing inanimate objects move out of the corner of your eye as you read this book. I know I did!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) I had never heard of ‘silent companions’ before I read your novel and was surprised to find these companions actually existed. How did you hear about them and what was it about them that made you want to feature them in a Gothic ghost story? Do you know the origin of these wooden companions?
I first came across silent companions when a friend sent me a picture message of one from a stately home she was visiting. She wanted to know if I had any idea what this strange wooden figure was.

The National Trust Treasure Hunt blog revealed that it was a fire screen or ‘dummy board’, known as a silent companion. As I scrolled through more and more examples, I found myself unnerved by the shadowy painted faces. In particular, the child companions spooked me with their serious expressions and adult clothes.

I had never written a ghost story or anything remotely in the horror genre before, but I decided to give it a try just to draw attention to these interesting antiques.

As I explain in the book, the wooden dummy boards originated in Holland during the 17th century as part of the art movement known as Illusionism. They usually represented people, but sometimes animals as well. A range of uses has been suggested for the figures: they could be fire screens, elaborate practical jokes, or even company for the lonely.
2) The main of your book takes place in 1865 in a creaking old pile called ‘The Bridge’ in a hideously barren part of the English countryside. What is it about manor houses and ghosts that go so well together? Do you feel that the stark landscape also helps with the atmosphere of unease?
I wanted to write a homage to the Gothic genre, so of course a crumbling country house was essential! A key part of the Gothic atmosphere is a sense of decay, echoing the corruption of the grave itself. I tried to draw this out through my use of the landscape and the village of Fayford. Manor houses are ideal for ghost stories because most have a long history, increasing the likelihood that a good many people have lived and died there. They also represent rich, established families. Family secrets, and the vices of the aristocracy, are other common elements of the Gothic genre, so it is the perfect setting to explore these themes.
3) Your tale swings from 1865, telling the story of newly widowed and pregnant, Elsie, to 1635 and Anne Bainbridge who is the first lady of The Bridge. Both women hold the same position of lady of the house, but over two hundred years apart and yet, are very different in personalities. Was it interesting exploring these different characters and their motivations?
I needed the voice of each mistress to be distinctive, otherwise there was no point in including two. And whilst I wanted their lives to echo each other in points, it was important to understand their attitudes would have been very different, living so far apart. It’s always interesting to play with the idea of how separate characters respond to fear. You need to remember, as well, that the belief system alters depending on the era, not just the individual.

I thought it would be a great contrast to show The Bridge at the beginning of its life, new and splendid, filled with an atmosphere of hope. In a way, the house itself has a character arc, and we see how it has reached its current neglected state.
4) In the mid 1800’s you had the Victorian Gothic with many writers of the time such as Charles Dickens and Sheridan Le Fanu writing to thrill their readers and a huge fashion in spiritualism. Is this why you based your Gothic thriller around this time when spirits and ghosts fascinated the populace?
Yes, this was entirely deliberate. My preferred era to write in is the Georgian period and that is certainly where my expertise lies. It also has a great Gothic tradition with writers such as Anne Radcliffe. But the Victorian years are just perfect for a ghost story – not only because of the gas lamps and the fog, but the shift that was taking place in society. Scientific discoveries were blurring the lines between the possible and impossible. It was difficult to know exactly what to believe. When you consider the advent of the telegraph and sending messages ‘through the ether’, as Victorians would say, it does not seem surprising that early Spiritualists believed they could communicate with the dead using a similar tapping method.

This feeling of uncertainty, of a space between two worlds, is exactly what you need for a spooky tale.
5) Horror/ghost stories of any kind were very much in decline a few years ago and is now enjoying a renaissance. Do you think there is a specific reason for this sudden interest in particular with old writers such as M.R. James and Le Fanu?
I have to admit, I didn’t really notice any kind of decline in the market or signs of resurgence. I simply wanted to write a ghost story. But I think tales of the supernatural are important for us in the modern age as a way of exploring our secret fears and spirituality. Fear is something you often face alone, and death is a taboo subject. Books are a great way of helping us confront these subjects in a way we struggle to with the spoken word.
6) What do you have planned for your next novel?
My next novel is called ‘The Corset’ and will be released next autumn. It is about a vengeful teenage seamstress, who believes she has a supernatural power to hurt people with the clothes she makes.
7) If you had a choice of three Gothic books to take with you to a haunted house, which ones would they be and why?
Firstly, I would never stay in a haunted house! I much prefer my ghosts firmly inside stories. But if I was setting out to scare myself, I would probably take The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Shining by Stephen King and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. They are all great, genuinely frightening, atmospheric reads that have you questioning every strange sound that you hear.