M. R. James, a master at creating subtle, creeping unease in his ghost stories believed that the "(t)wo ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo." Not only does The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James have atmosphere guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine and make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up and quiver but demonstrates a diabolical expertise at slowly unfolding and revealing events to intermingle, entangle, and intersect in a most satisfying way. That "nicely managed crescendo" in The Haunting of Maddy Clare, doesn't rely on in-your-face gore and blood to ratchet up the tension but instead lets my imagination play on and build the creeping intensity, inexorably, one subtle detail at a time. It's one that would turn Stephen King green with envy as he references the "cold touch in the midst of the familiar." The devil is truly in the details, and Simone St. Clair wields those devilish details expertly, culminating in a truly bone chillingly, hand tinglingly wonderful gothic romance. She has a remarkable ability to totally immerse me in the characters, their histories, their stories, including the, erm, ghostly ones.
Sarah Piper has a slightly insubstantial quality at the beginning of the book, a bit colorless, lacking vibrancy and vitality, as if she's slowly fading away and virtually invisible as she walks through Picadilly on the way to her boardinghouse. Seeing but not being seen. This gives her an aura of having one foot in the earthly realm and one in the spiritual. Very much like the sandpipers that forage for food along the beaches, birds with a closer relationship to the earth than the sky, awkward flyers, yet drawn to the water's edge to forage for sustenance. Then, a quick retreat as the tide comes in. Like the pipers on the beach, Sarah has her feet on the ground but is on the precipice of testing her beliefs about the supernatural. She, like a sandpiper, is a transitional figure, a bridge, between the physical and the spiritual.
No one noticed a pale girl, with cropped hair under an inexpensive and unfashionable hat, her hands plunged into her pockets. (1)
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. (14) (my emphasis)
Sarah's simple bobbed "chocolate brown" hair, falling just below her ears, is usually covered with a dark brown felt hat. She's of "medium height", "dark slashes of brows, brown eyes", simply put. . . "nondescript." She's neither flashy nor dramatic, neither beautiful nor plain. Just as the piper's coloring blends with the neutral colors along a sandy beach, Sarah's less than showy presentation has allowed her to "disappear" in London. She "flits" from job to job at the temp agency. In the presence of Alistair and Matthew she feels "a little like a finch in a den of lions." (My emphasis)
Invisible. Unseen. Unknown. Until she meets handsome, charming, wealthy Alistair Gellis, a ghost hunter, who hires her to assist him with an investigation of a haunting in Waringstoke. Alistair would be quite perfect in the role of potential love interest for Sarah, but that role falls to Matthew Ryder, Alistair's regular assistant and investigative partner.
We all went to war, all of us, and we all went to the same war. But it seems that every man went to a different war in the end. Even men who fought in the same battles—it's as if every man was in a different place. (315)
Stand by because there's more bird imagery incoming. Hey, what can I say? I just notice things like that. (I blame you, Mrs. Aiken, English teacher par excellence.) It's interesting, too, that the three of them make their headquarters at a small inn with a swan on the sign on the door. The swan's song from Greek mythology, a rare and beautiful song only heard when the swan dies, and it's connection with death adds a subtle uncertainty for the positive resolution of the task Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew have undertaken — the exorcism of Maddy the ghost. As a symbol of transformation, the swan on the door of the inn heralds a sea change for all three — Sarah's "temporary life" and stunted emotional growth, Alistair's unresolved relationship with Evangeline Barry, and Matthew's acceptance of scars, both physical and emotional, from the war. The swan on the door signals, like the sand piper with Sarah, the inn's capacity to act as a bridge between realms—a link to the earthly as a physical base of operations and shelter, the ghostly "woo woo" dreams Maddy sends to Sarah as well as Maddy's possession of Alistair under its roof, and the nascent emotions Sarah and Matthew explore.
It's in this place, the inn with a swan on the door, that these three deal with the fallout from battles within themselves, with each other, with Maddy, along with their particular histories. It's here they struggle to reconcile their past with the present, deal with the aftereffects. All three are intensely aware that "one need not be a chamber to be haunted." Sarah is haunted by her mother's death, and Alistair and Matthew are haunted by the endless, mindless death and destruction witnessed on the battlefields of The Great War. In fact, the lingering menace of that war is as much a specter throughout the book affecting and influencing the lives of all the characters as poor ghostly Maddy Clare. The inn is a place of transformation, a personalized experience for each in an elemental way and as life changing as the horror of the battlefields in the war Alistair and Matthew fought, a place of farewell to the old, signifying a new day for all of them.
Sarah's enervation is replaced with animation, enthusiasm, empowerment, a well of untapped surprising strength.
My pulse raced warm under my skin and hot in my temples. I wanted to run and shout. I closed my eyes, felt the delicate beat of my eyelids. (139)
I thought of going back to London, of my damp flat and the oppressive heat and the noise of the city, and most of all my lonely routine life. I could not go back to that, not now, perhaps not ever. (150)
Alistair's charming, easy going, joke-cracking façade in the aftermath is tinged with "a haunted look at the edge of his expression", an introspective stillness that was not present before his experience with Maddy while Matthew, who never sleeps, does find peaceful healing sleep in Sarah's arms.
I promise only one more thing about birds in The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Crows. A "morther of crowys." Hundreds of crows, approximately 317 according to Mrs. Clare, suddenly appear, covering every spare surface of the barn Maddy haunts.
The barn was covered with crows.
...I didn't need field glasses to feel uneasy, looking at the writhing mass of black as it moved and twitched. Even from here I could picture the glistening black of the crow's wings, hear the dry rasp of their feet on the aged wooden roof. And the noise—the accumulated random squawking chatter of hundreds of birds. The trees surrounding the house and the barn were laden with black, as if someone had doused them in tar. Occasionally some internal argument would send ten or twenty birds erupting into the air, like the ominous breaths of a volcano. (135-136)
Omens of death, cousin to the raven, ghoulish denizens of cemeteries and battlefields (as in, following Brutus's army in Julius Caesar), a messenger from beyond. Intelligent, cunning, sly, associated with prophecy and divination. The crows in The Haunting of Maddy Clare are all of these things and more. Here, the crows are an animate, physical, scary manifestation of the ghostly Maddy Clare, yet another bridge between the earthly realm and the spiritual. Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew are summoned to the Clare barn by a very shaken, almost traumatized Mrs. Clare. Alistair, eager to record this evidence of the manifestation, begins to take photos and soon realizes these birds are as aware of the ghost hunters as they are of the birds.
Alistair straightened. "What?"
Matthew handed him the glasses. "See for yourself."
(...) Alistair looked through the glasses, and Matthew pressed the button.
"My God," said Alistair.
I could see it in the flash of light: a plume of black birds, rising to the sky. The noise was incredible. The air filled with throaty, angry caws.
"They're moving because they see us," said Matthew.
"Do it again," said Alistair.
Matthew did, and this time I made no sound, as the fear had frozen my throat. The birds were flying toward us. In seconds I heard their wings, heard the rustle in the trees overhead as they landed heavily in the branches. They flapped and shouted at us. (137)
The horror is amped up by the sentience, the knowing, the awareness by the birds. Maddy wants a meeting with Alistair so when he doesn't come to her in the barn, she, in the form of 317 crows, forces him come to her.
...some four or five birds, bending the branches as they landed, steadying themselves with their outstretched wings. They were perched mere inches from Alistair. One of them walked gingerly to the end of its branch, it's waxy toes curling, and regarded him with bright black eyes.
(...) Alistair looked at the bird on the branch next to him again. He bent toward it a little, gazing into its face. I wanted to scream.
"Hello," he said softly.
The bird stretched out both its wings, raised them above its dark black head. It opened its beak as far as it could and emitted along, low, growling rasp, a sound I heard down the back of my spine and in the pit of my stomach. (137-138)
Uh, now, to me that growly rasp could be translated from pissed off crow/ghost speak to "Why the hell didn't you come when I summoned you, puny ghost hunter?" I know my timbers were shivering. There's just something about birds, particularly birds acting as one sentient being with a definite malevolent purpose. I mean, we know bears, snakes, and sharks are dangerous predators, right? But birds? Really!? Those common, ordinary feathered friends? Oh yeah. I know I still get nervous when I notice groups of birds gathering. Gives me flashbacks to Hitchcock's The Birds.
Simone St. James is really expert at creating a creepy gothic atmosphere. She does this by carefully selecting words with emotional impact; imbuing those words with menace, dread, panic, and fear; accenting those emotions with a corresponding gloomy setting; and firing up my imagination with sights, smells, and textures of sheer terror.
For me, Sarah's first experience with Maddy Clare ranks right up there on the "scary scale" with Pennywise the Clown, the superflu virus known affectionately as Captain Trips (cause it travelled the world with the dead like its namesake Jerry Garcia), the scary badass Antichrist "Walkin' Dude", Randall Flagg, and Room 217 at the Overlook Hotel.
The weather is "dreary and wet", a "thin mist" clings to the ground and "curled around" Sarah's ankles and calves as she walked to the barn, trees drip as "water in the air condensed and rolled down the lacquered shutters, as if they were weeping." In the distance, all is deathly quiet, no birdsong, nothing except for a "dark and throaty" call of a solitary crow. Her footsteps "scratch" on the well worn path. The exterior of the barn surprisingly looks "well built, snug, and tidily painted, placed like a backdrop of trees like a piece of jewelry in a silk setting", but inside it is "a hurricane of destruction", with only "dim, gray light" from high windows "creating only dark blue shadows and looming shapes." And then, there's the "movement from the corner" of Sarah's eye, from behind her and the "creaking" sound. Isn't that a metonymical masterpiece?
Did something move? What was that creaking sound I heard, faintly over the ringing in my ears? Why was a clammy sweat forming on my skin? Why could I not breathe? (...)
"Hello?" My voice croaked into the stillness. "Hello?"
I heard the creaking sound again; this time, I saw the source. One of the stall doors dangled from a half-ruined hinge, suspended from the upended timber of the destroyed frame. As I watched, the door began to sway, deliberately—forward, and back, and forward again. There was not a breath of air to stir it. (45)
The tension ratchets up another notch when the stall slowly stills. From behind Sarah (and isn't it always behind you?) and to the right another sound begins.
I could not turn my head; I only stood paralyzed, watching the door as it slowly swung to a halt.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. A familiar sound, but my brain was too wild to place it. It grew louder. I couldn't breathe. As I gasped silently for air, I realized the metallic smell had grown stronger. And I began to shake with terror as I finally recognized the sound.
Heels, barefoot, kicking against the wall. Something sat in the sill of the high window, and kicked its heels as it dangled its feet.
It was behind me, only six feet away.
I could turn. Now I could turn. I could see it. All I had to do was turn." (46)
Yeah. Right. Turn. She could turn. Or not. I vote for not. There are other more healthful possibilities. I vote for run. It was right about here that I switched on every light in my house.
Every now and then, once in a blue moon and when Jupiter aligns with Mars, I run across a book that is spine shiveringly, hand tinglingly wonderful! The Haunting Of Maddy Clare is such a book. This time, however, my discovery of a glittering jewel is owed not to any celestial extravaganza but to the Queen of Recs, Miss Bates of "Miss Bates Reads Romance". I've learned pretty quickly that if she read it and liked/loved it, then I most likely will too. She's a real treasure is Miss Bates. I've always loved those twisted tales of terror from the mind of Stephen King. He always delivered a ripping good scare for me, forced me to party hardy with my deepest, darkest fears, made me hyperventilate and nervously check/double check/triple check the shadowy corners of my bedroom in ways most other horror writers could not. Ah yes, fun times, those nights when I kept all the lights burning till dawn. He was the King (sorry!) of Scaring The Crap out of me. Until now. Until I read The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James.