Even as a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, some of the most effective horror is that where a reader is kept guessing. One of the acknowledged masters of this is Henry James, whose The Turn of the Screw is considered a classic. There are perhaps too many writers active today to predict who will be considered authors of classics a century or two down the road—writing has to take a long view. Nevertheless Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is, in this reader’s opinion, quite effective. And ambiguous. I’m on the constant lookout for gothic novels that work and this is one that surely does. I’ll try not to give spoilers here, but I do recommend it for those who want a gothic atmosphere. It is also genuinely scary. A great deal of this is because the reader is never quite sure what has happened.
The eponymous companions are decorative curios purchased to impress royal visitors in the seventeenth century. Life-like cutouts of people, they are silent. Throw in an old, sprawling house in need of repair and a widow who had abusive parents and who’s inherited resentful servants and you’ve got a recipe for an eerie atmosphere. The novel splits its time between the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on the former. Elsie Bainbridge is a protagonist with many secrets, and not a few skeletons in her closet. The house she inherited also has a past that included accusations of witchcraft and cruel masters interested in self-promotion. Told from the point-of-view of the women in a patriarchal society, there is an authenticity to the victimhood even of strong women.
It would be difficult to tell too much of the plot without giving away some of the creepier moments. There’s a lot going on here and although it’s not a short book it doesn’t drag the reader down with filling too many gaps. It’s also a novel that allows imagination to outstrip rationality. Good speculative fiction will do that. Even some of Poe’s work makes the reader wonder just what is happening—is this in the mind of the observer or is it objectively real? Think “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Literature takes us into such places and gothic literature does so with more shadows and ambiguity. Throw in some betrayals, and keep a few well-placed secrets and the recipe is in place for a creepy novel that will keep you reading.