Finding a TBR challenge title for July’s theme, a RITA Award winner, was easy for Miss Bates. She loved Simone St. James’ Silence For the Dead and The Other Side Of Midnight; it was natural to choose St. James’ first hybrid gothic-romance-ghost-story-mystery novel to read, The Haunting Of Maddy Clare, which won Best First Book and Novel With Strong Romantic Elements in RITA’s 2013 competition. Again Miss Bates had to read with the light on, again she read non-stop to reach the HEA, and again St. James delivered gothic romance’s promise: eerie atmosphere, a naïve, intelligent, diffident heroine, mysterious, dark hero, haunted places and unsettled spirits, and the heroine’s voice, growing in strength and understanding as she sets the world aright. The Haunting Of Maddy Clare opens in London in June 1922. Alistair Gellis, ghost hunter, seeks an assistant to help him investigate the ghostly presence of Maddy Clare in the village of Waringstoke. His request to a temp agency brings him solitary, lonely, poverty-stricken, sad Sarah Piper. While he already has an assistant in volatile Matthew Ryder, Maddy Clare’s ghost is particular in her hatred and violence towards men. With Sarah’s help in approaching and recording Maddy’s ghostly presence, Alistair and Matthew hope to rid Mrs. Clare, Maddy’s foster parent and employer, of the malevolent spirit residing and wreaking havoc in her barn.
St. James orchestrates wonderful characterization in a sexy, spine-tingling plot. Alistair, Matthew, and Sarah are young and broken: Sarah by the loss of her parents and isolation and Alistair and Matthew, by the Great War. Alistair and Matthew are physically damaged, and, with Sarah, they share deeper, psychic scars. Maybe because Miss Bates is middle-aged (sob), but she was struck how sharp St. James’ ability to convey their youthfulness was. She captured it in their fragility, yes, but also their determination to uncover the truth come hell or high water (there’s no caution in the young; Miss Bates likes it) of Maddy’s tragic suicide, in their persistence to expose the ugliness of the powerful preying on the weak. And Maddy herself, her malevolence and anger pointing to the terrible things done to her. In the end, the beauty of the gothic romance, especially crafted by a master like St. James, lies in its ability to deliver truth, justice, and love to its protagonists.
One of the reasons Miss Bates loves gothic romance and tolerates what is usually the unappealing prospect of a first person narrator is the said narrator’s engaging, modest, and intelligent female voice in moments when she must utter a great “yea” to seismic life-shifts. The narrator may be moved by a variety of reasons for doing so, but her impetus is primarily an achievement of agency for herself and moral re-balancing for the world. Sarah Piper’s “yeas” are such and, for this TBR Challenge reading, Miss Bates would like to examine them. The first is often the heroine’s, in this case, Sarah’s, assent to the call of the unknown (when the temp agency asks her to meet Alistair):
I looked out the window, where rain now streaked down. I pictured the girl at the other end of the phone, bored and brassy and fearless. A girl like that wouldn’t think twice. It was girls like me who thought twice – about going back out in our only good set of clothes, about meeting unknown men in unknown places. About everything.
I took a breath. I could go back to my damp little flat, and sit at my window, thinking and drinking endless cups of tea. Or I could go out and meet a stranger in the rain.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
It is as simple and difficult as “I’ll be there.” It may sound like there’s not much to Sarah’s life, but it is a seminal moment nonetheless. She compares herself to “bored and brassy and fearless” girls, admitting she is fearful, of course. In making that comparison and being receptive to the “unknown,” Sarah takes a step towards achieving fearlessness.
Miss Bates loves the next moment of the “great yea”: when Sarah is confronted with the reality of what Alistair asks of her:
“The dead should stay dead,” I said. I pushed my parents away. “Death is not a lark, or a hobby.”
“Miss Piper.” His voice was warm, resonant. “Look at me.”
I raised my gaze to his. He was standing squarely before me, his hands in his pockets, the wet wind gently ruffling his hair. The humor from the coffeehouse had long gone and his face was still grim. “Do you think I do not know what death is?”
I thought of his limp and was ashamed. [Emphasis Miss Bates’.]
“I will be there,” he went on. “You won’t be alone. We will work as a team. I know we have not met before today, but you are the right person for this. I know you are. You know you are.”
I could have wept. I could not remember the last time anyone had spoken to me with care, or kindness. I had walked the streets of this city, unseen and unnoticed. I had flitted in and out of jobs for a week at a time. I had no friends, no relatives, no men to notice me. I should say no; it was dangerous. And yet, now that I’d met him, the thought of going back to my flat, living my life, was intolerable. I wanted to be where he was.
I blinked back my tears and took a breath. I would have to take the risk, as he said. I could do it.
“When do I start?” I asked.
The heroine’s, Sarah’s, journey requires a descent to the underworld, a confrontation with death (a running theme in St. James’ work). Sarah is aware that this “task” will exact much of her: it will be dangerous and she will suffer. She re-affirms her participation. It’s particularly interesting that Sarah describes herself as a “ghost,” someone who “flits”. This task gives her a place, solidifies her life, gives it purpose and substance. This re-awakening of the heroine’s sense of self is one of the joys of reading well-executed gothic romance. Anything worth achieving requires sacrifice: and once gain, what makes the heroine “heroic” is her willingness to undergo trial. Another nuance to the scene that Miss Bates loved was the reference to past suffering: Alistair knows that Sarah has experienced terrible loss. And Sarah, in that moment of shame, knows Alistair confronted the most horrific of trials by fire, looked death in the eye, in the trenches of the Great War. One of the reasons Sarah stays with Alistair and his crazy mission is the friendship that is forged in this moment. Suddenly, Sarah has purpose and Sarah has shared purpose.
From the above passage, you’d think Alistair serves as the love interest. No, the love interest, to which Sarah must also utter “yea,” as it too is a call, is more vibrant, dangerous, sullen, dark, and interesting Matthew Ryder, Alistair’s assistant. In the following scene, Sarah articulates the liminal moment in one’s life:
… sometimes it is the small moments – the casual moments – that change everything. The second’s absent wandering of attention before an accident. The choice to take one road, instead of another. I could not pinpoint exactly how everything changed the second I opened that washroom door; I knew only, and instantly, it seemed, that nothing in my life would ever be the same.
Mr. Ryder stood in the washroom. He was standing before the mirror … his feet and chest were bare … Spread across his sleekly muscled back and down his right arm, which pulsed with lean, raw strength, was an enormous dark pink burn scar … It was hideous, horrible, the most terrible scar I had ever seen, marring his body so utterly that it looked as if he were even now consumed with flame …
… “I’m sorry,” I murmured.
He reached out and closed the door …
… I made my way back to my bedroom, quickly undressed, and lay on my bed in my slip … as I lay there, I knew he had misunderstood. When I closed my eyes, I could see the image of him burned behind my eyelids. When I opened them again, I could see nothing but him, standing before me. There was a deep knot in my stomach, bruised and painful, a deep tug of longing that would not go away. Again I saw him turn to look at me, and I knew the longing would never be gone. I was doomed to it. For there was no way to convince him that, with all his scars, the terrible truth was that he was still the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
This is a perfect moment: in Sarah’s awareness of its significance is the understanding of both randomness and purpose. She opens the bathroom door by chance (we all open doors by chance, don’t we? what we encounter may change us forever), but it is her understanding (and his misunderstanding) that marks their relationship … until, of course, in true HEA fashion, things are revealed and love enters. Sarah knows what Matthew means to her because she constructs the meaning. In romance, the HEA is the final and most significant “yea.” In St. James’ Haunting of Maddy Clare, Matthew must learn to ask the question to which Sarah has long learned the answer. Of St. James’ début, Miss Austen finds evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Simone St. James’ The Haunting Of Maddy Clare, published by New American Library, is available in “e” and paper from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates purchased her paper copy.