Gothic Done Well: ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver

Book cover

Continuing with my modern Gothic reading, Wakenhyrst is one of those joyful books that combines contemporary themes and genre awareness with a totally traditional setting. Like Sarah Water’s wonderful historical novels, it manages to give an authentic presentation of complex lives that are relevant and compatible with modern sensibilities, while remaining convincingly entrenched in an earlier time period.

In Wakenhyrst, the modern element is set up through the most traditional of gothic conventions. A smug 1966 article ‘Only in The Sunday Explorer Magazine’ introduces us to a ‘witch’s lair,’ an ‘ancient‘, ‘ivy-choked‘ manor house inhabited by the reclusive Maud Stearne. The reporter promises us that his exclusive insight and journalistic acumen has solved the mysteries around the brutal murder and madness in Wakenhyrst’s past. While the article is a teaser (ending with a reader discount for the full book ‘Murder in the Orchard‘), it does give us tantalising clues and a sensational conclusion. At the very end, we’re told that Maud is a witch.

In true gothic style, we then get further framing, with an exchange of letters ending in the present day Maud’s promise to discuss ‘the sale of my ‘story’‘ with a Dr Robin Hunter. Then after a short epigram by Voltair, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities‘, we’re taken 60 years earlier to a distressing miscarriage scene and the horror begins.

I started this book late at night, and for all the flippancy and genre ticking of the opening pages, I found the tone, a combination of realistic horror and hatred in the past with the promise of madness and murder still to come all too much. I knew that at some point I’d be staying up late to finish reading. On the first night, howeer I decided to put the story aside for daylight hours. I had no trust that Paver would protect me from the worst of witchcraft or from the excesses of Edwardian toxic masculinity, two nightmarish topics set up from the very start of Maud’s story.

‘Wakenhyrst’ fully delivers on its the nightmarish premise, and in doing so, is one of the most satisfying gothic novels I’ve read in a very long time. Maud’s repressed isolation, her father’s domineering obsessions, and the mysterious power of evil in and around them is compellingly human, while remaining true to the supernatural premise set up in the prologue. The worlds of our narrators are chillingly unreliable, not because they consider themselves deceitful, but because we know how much they misunderstand and cannot see in themselves and in others. And there is indeed menace, though the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the exact nature of devil that haunts one strand of the story.

It’s books like Wakenhyrst that make me return to this genre time and time again. The supernatural gives us insight into human nature and the distance of historical perspective only allows greater focus on our own society and condition. But alongside these intellectual enjoyments, gothic books also contain wonderful, enthralling stories. I cannot wait to see what Pavel publishes next, if it’s anything like a wonderful as Wakenhyrst, I’ll be looking forward to the sleepless nights it will surely cause.

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