I am always so blown away every time I read a book by Charlotte Lamb. One thing I know for sure: she wasn't afraid to push the boundaries of category romance. I've read enough of them to say unequivocally that by taking chances, each and every one I've had the pleasure of reading feels fresh, never tired or recycled. Each compelling in their own individuality.
HAUNTED is a weirdly wonderful gothic-y example of pushing those boundaries and has it all including ghostly communications through dreams and nightmares, a "haunted" medieval tower in the middle of the Loire Valley, and a heroine, Elizabeth Gardiner, on the precipice of what appears to be a complete breakdown. The threat to her sanity is tangled up in the death of her ex-lover, artist Damian Hayes, and her return to Flamboise, the home of his heart if not birth. Plus, there's premarital sex in a book published in 1983 when that animal stayed mainly in the shadows, still very shy and rarely coming out to play in category romance. Now don't go getting your knickers in a twist, the sex is not explicitly written, but it's very clear this gal was seduced out of hers (knickers, that is!) within hours of meeting Tall, Dark, and Dangerous. And she likes it. A lot.
But more than anything in HAUNTED, I loved the gothic elements Charlotte Lamb wields with skill and to chilling effect. The wind doesn't just blow in HAUNTED, it whispers and murmurs. Mist from the river doesn't merely rise from the river, it coils and clings around our shaky heroine. A medieval tower Damian used as his studio and home is whispered about and shunned after sunset by the villagers of Flamboise because it's . . . "haunted." There are so many excellent examples of Ms. Lamb's expertise at creating a sense of foreboding and dis-ease throughout HAUNTED, but I decided to pick just two that really showcase what a bloody brilliant job she did. I've read, reread, and reread again these two examples just to enjoy their power, admire their structure, and wallow in their effect.
Elizabeth and her younger sister, Vicky, are staying with their Aunt Fleur at her cottage in Flamboise. On the drive to her aunt's cottage, Elizabeth has, erm, an encounter with a man whose face is shadowed as he walks along the river bank beneath the sighing willows. A man she's convinced is Damian. She sees him in the dusky light just as she's about to take the left hand fork of the crossroads leading to her aunt's house, chases after him, only to have him vanish into the ether. No one saw the mysterious man except Elizabeth. Coupled with the disturbing dreams/nightmares she's experienced, Elizabeth is shaken to say the least. Can we take just a moment to appreciate all the gothic goodness in this set up: dusky light, sighing willows, face in shadow, positioned at a crossroad (that's where you meet the devil, you know), the dead walking. I mean, I just wallowed in all the atmosphere right here. But I digress.
The first scene occurs the morning after Elizabeth's return to Flamboise, after her close encounter of the weird kind with the Incredible Disappearing Man. For the first time in weeks, months, her sleep was not disturbed by bad dreams. Elizabeth wakes before her sister and aunt, peers out at her aunt's garden shrouded in white mist from the river from her bedroom window. One thing that struck me was the pregnant quality to the quietness at the beginning of this scene. As if someone had just whispered "Shh!". There was a sense of waiting, as if Elizabeth is on the verge of something, as if she were the only one in the world. After breakfasting, she decides to take a walk.
"She slipped upstairs and found her anorak, went back downstairs and out into the mist, which was just beginning to clear. Coils and wreaths of it blew around her as she wandered through a little wood down to the river. The countryside was so flat, so heavily forested, that she always felt hemmed in by trees. This morning the air was cool and damp on her face. There wasn't another soul moving, she was totally alone, except for a squirrel which ran up an oak tree when it saw her, the bushy red tail whisking out of sight among the leaves.
Elizabeth stopped to stare up at it, smiling, then froze as she heard a twig crack among the trees. A few seconds later she saw movement; someone was walking along the winding path which ran parallel to the path she stood on. She saw a blur of moving limbs, then black hair ruffled by the breeze.
Her heart seemed to have come up into her throat, and she put a hand there, breathing thickly. The sound of whistling came back to her. She knew the tune—it was an old French folk song which Damian had loved and often whistled, a haunting, birdlike melody, high and wistful.
This time it was broad daylight. This time she wasn't imagining it. She saw a man through the trees, and only one man in the world walked in that rapid, loping fashion and only one man whistled like that." (60-61) (My emphasis)
There is such a sense of unease, a feeling of expectation, created here as shown by the bolded words/phrases. Elizabeth's sense of being all alone, the only living soul around, is shattered by the crack of a twig, a disembodied voice whistling a very familiar tune. The way she only partially sees the man walking on the other side, as if there's something otherworldly, not quite solid, about his form emphasizes the ghostlike quality of the scene. Her hand at her throat, her difficulty breathing, all her movement frozen in fear and shock, perfectly play into the high emotion of that moment and ratchet up the tension immensely.
Is she having a breakdown? Elizabeth has begin to doubt her own mind, become skeptical of what her eyes show her. It's not difficult to understand that she doubts herself, wonders if she's just imagining Damian walking these woods he loved so much, whistling that wistful old ballad. The choice of words, Elizabeth's reactions, and the emotional impact evoked in this great little scene perfectly play on the "haunted" theme and is one expertly crafted example of metonymic marvel.
The second scene that really sent chills down my spine is just a little further on and adds beautifully to the creepy factor in HAUNTED. Her nightmares, Damian's death, encounters with a mysterious man who vanishes as quickly as he appears, the weird "whistling in the woods" scene takes a toll on Elizabeth. In an effort to allay the fears of her aunt and sister regarding her "hallucinations", she dons a mask of enforced cheer and persuades the other two women to play tourist with her. They decide to tour the Château de Chinon and the Donjon du Coudray. The Château is steeped in history, a silent witness to nefarious deeds throughout the centuries. A place in which Joan of Arc met the Dauphin, a place in which the Knights Templar were kept captive before they were burned at the stake in Paris the only evidence of their presence so long ago a few scribbles of graffiti on the Donjon walls. A place where Cesare Borgia strolled and perhaps planned a poisoning or three, a place where Cardinal Richelieu plotted and schemed, a place riddled with secret passages, and, of course, a dark dungeon.
"The afternoon sun was still blindingly hot, but inside the caves beneath the Donjon du Coudray she felt suddenly cold; the darkness and damp walls were oppressive. Vicky and Aunt Fleur walked slowly with the guide, listening to him, and Elizabeth felt like going back to the entrance. She hated the claustrophobic atmosphere pressing down on her, she felt smothered, unable to breathe.
The hair clung to the back of her neck, and she pushed it away with a shaky hand, pausing. The others walked on and she was about to catch up with them when she heard a faint sound, breathing, rustling—she wasn't quite sure what it was, but it came from the darkness beyond her. The voices of her aunt and her sister faded, she heard a whispering. 'Never let you go, never, never. . .'
She had her eyes shut, she didn't dare to open them. Something cold touched her face and she screamed, her lids flying back to be dazzled by sunlight." (76-77)
I'll be honest. I believe I jumped vertically about three feet from the seat of my comfy chair when I read this section. The caves, the dark, damp, oppressive atmosphere, her feeling of being smothered, her isolation, the tremor in her hand, the cold clammy feel of her hair clinging to her neck, and the menace and threat in that sibilant whisper combined to send me into a swoon right along with Elizabeth. I admit my emotions were almost as overwrought as poor Elizabeth's for quite a while, and I had to flip back to the cover several times just to reassure myself that I was, in fact, reading a Charlotte Lamb Harlequin Presents and not a book by Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart.
HAUNTED is an excellent book. Is it perfect? No. The ending is way the hell over the top, and caused some moments of serious WTF-ery in the final pages regarding explanations and wrap up. Elizabeth is tagged an "amoral bitch" at one point (though she wasn't shaken like doll as so many Lamb heroines seem doomed to endure, Damian strikes Elizabeth 'once or twice' off the page) and I'm not completely convinced of a sustained "happy ever after" for Elizabeth. But it's a damned good book. Well worth your time if you can get a copy.