A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect—much like the companions themselves.
Part Victorian ghost story, part Gothic narrative, and part exploration of the interaction between sanity and reality when they collide with the supernatural, Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is the kind of novel that slowly simmers to a boiling point while transporting readers to a different time and place. At once gloomy, creepy, and brutal, this story—which spans a few generations—pays tributes to classic eerie novels while also pushing the Gothic genre further into the realm of hardcore horror.
When Elsie married Rupert Bainbridge, a handsome young heir who treated her very well, she was convinced that the rest of her life would be spent in the lap of love and luxury. However, those thoughts vanish quickly when her husband dies unexpectedly a few weeks after their marriage, leaving Elsie alone, incredibly sad, in charge of everything, pregnant, and on her way to a new, unknown place.
Her new servants—all of whom loved her husband—are resentful of her, and the local villagers are hostile and refuse to work for her or in the house she’s come to because they are convinced something evil inhabits it. Elsie is forced to deal with all this with only her dead husband’s cousin for company.
As they explore the new place, they find a locked door, and what hides behind it will change their lives forever. Rooms that change all by themselves, strange noises at night, deadly accidents, a strange atmosphere, and a succession of deaths follow—and all seem to be tied to painted wooden figures, which they learn are called silent companions, one of which eerily resembles Elsie herself. The things that start happening are incredible, and getting rid of the figures seems like the only solution—but it’s one that proves to be impossible. As violence, strangeness, and horror escalate, Elsie is caught in the middle of a strange curse that threatens to take away everything she ever loved along with her sanity and even her life.
Purcell is a talented writer with a knack for carefully crafted narratives and atmosphere. In The Silent Companions, the wealth of details is outstanding, and the descriptions of the place add a lot to the unsettling atmosphere in which Elsie finds herself:
She took four steps into the room, her hem sweeping up a cloud of dust. The garret looked as if time had stood still for centuries. Cobwebs festooned the corners but no insects writhed within them; all were dead in cocoons or shriveled and dry. By the far wall slumped a clock that no longer ticked. Its face was smashed and the hands hung at odd angles. Holland sheets covered square shapes that might be portraits.
While the atmosphere is pure Gothic, there is something unique about this novel: it pushes into terrain that is darker, bloodier, and scarier than most narratives in the same genre. Purcell takes her time setting up the story, presenting her characters, and building the atmosphere, but once everything is in place, she constantly jumps back and forth between writing that is unnerving and passages that are downright horrific. In this regard, she demonstrates a mastery of language and a deep understanding of the economy of language. Take, for example, this description of Sarah, Elsie's dead husband’s cousin, doing something as normal as placing her hand on top of Elsie's belly:
A curious sensation: Sarah’s heat on the surface of her skin; the child pushing back on the wet, slippery side within. Horrible, in fact. One Bainbridge on the outside, one locked away behind flesh, and she was no more than a thin barrier, a wall through which they could communicate.
And it’s not only in thought that the novel dips into the horrific; there are plenty of instances where death makes a savage appearance. The body of a child under the frozen river screaming into eternity, a saw biting into flesh, accidents where the wooden floor collapses, blood on the floor, a ghastly occurrence involving Elsie, wooden splinters, and her baby; those are just a few of the gruesome events that the author describes in detail in the pages of this book. The result is a Gothic novel that transcends its genre and occupies a new, bloodier space in contemporary literature, an interstitial space between the Victorian ghost story and hardcore horror:
Ribbons of black material lay heaped together with dead leaves. Thistles prickled up, sticky and congealed with blood. In the midst of it all rested something black, white, and furry, dotted with flies. She made out lumps of mangled flesh, bone. Veins like skeins of red silk. Then the drooping ears, the closed eyes. Blood smeared down the fur at the forehead. A cow’s head.
The Silent Companions is told in three different times. One is Elsie’s present predicament in a mental institution; the second is her recollection of the events that lead to here being there; and the third is the story that took place 200 years prior, when everything started and things happened that were so profound they still have supernatural repercussions two centuries later. Despite these intertwined chronologies/narratives, the novel is easy to read. In fact, it demands to be devoured rather than savored over a period of time.
There is an undeniable power in novels that manage to be simultaneously immersive, atmospheric, and unsettling, and this one does it all. Purcell is a perfectionist who likes to get the details right, and that is very obvious in this book. Anyone with even a passing interest in uncanny stories would be remiss to skip this one.
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Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. His reviews can be found in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Verbicide, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, HorrorTalk, The Brooklyn Rail, and other venues. Iglesias is PANK Magazine's book reviews editor, Entropy Magazine's film/television editor, and a columnist for LitReactor and Clash Media. His novels include Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter @Gabino_Iglesias