Review: “The Prince of Mist” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1993]; translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves [2010]

The Prince of Mist is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s debut novel and the first of his back catalogue to be translated into English. Although Zafon’s earlier novels, before The Shadow of the Wind, are group as Young Adult, I don’t think there should be a problem appealing to the rest of us.

Set in Spain, 1943 in the midst of WWII, thirteen year old Max Carver’s father decides to uproot his family and move away from the city and to a sleepy seaside town. Max’s father, Maximilian, an eccentric watchmaker, had purchased an abandoned house with a sad history. It’s previous owners were an unhappy couple who had trouble conceiving throughout their marriage. Eventually, they managed to fall pregnant and produced a son, Jacob. When the boy is eight, he disappears one morning and is found drowned in the sea.

From the moment Max enters their new home, he gets an uncomfortable feeling. The clocks in the house are perpetually slower than their watches even after careful examination of the mechanics by Maximilian and constant turning. A stray cat that Max’s younger sister picked up at the train station and adopted continually stalks and watches them. Max also discovers an overgrown garden at the back of the house with statues arranged in a strange formation:

The figures seemed to be arranged in concentric circles and Max realised that they were all facing west. They appeared to form part of something resembling a circus troupe. As he walked among the statues, Max recognised the figure of a lion tamer, a turbaned fakir with a hooked nose, a female contortionist, a strongman and a whole gallery of other ghostly characters. In the middle of the garden, resting on a pedestal, stood the imposing figure of a clown. – p. 27

The mystery of the statues, when Max finally realises that they are arranged to form a six-point star, deepens when his father finds an box of old film in the garage, revealing to be amateur footage of the house and the mysterious garden – except that in the film, the statues were in a different position and pose. Forming a strong friendship with a local boy, Roland, who takes him diving to explore an old ship wreck, the Orpheus, which had sunk twenty-five years ago¬† while carrying dubious passengers, Max see the six-pointed star again on the ship’s flag. More about the mysterious wreck and origins of the statue, particularly the ringleader Clown is revealed when Roland takes Max and his sister to see his grandfather who has been the lighthouse keeper for the last twenty-five years.

As a debut novel, Prince of Mist is a fantastic read. It’s so atmospheric and Gothic, elements Zafon later fully employs in his subsequent bestsellers. While this is book is marketed as YA, this is truly one scary and frightening read – or perhaps I’m either a complete wuss when it comes to scary books and movies or the fact that I find clowns terrifying. One downside of the book was the beginning. I’m not sure if it was the translation or the writing but some words were repeated over and over again and it just pulled the reader out from getting into the moment. Other than that, once you’ve broken in, it’s one thrilling read.

Review: “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters [2009]

As usual, I’ve come late to the party of popular books. This Booker short-listed title is a strange and creepy Gothic story set in England in the years after the second World War. This period is one of transience – where century old social customs, hierarchies and grand family estates that have been in families for generations are crumbling down everywhere.

The Little Stranger is narrated by Dr. Faraday, the only son of a maid and grocer whose parents have invested all their energies and money into their son’s education so to give him the chance to rise up in the world. Faraday’s mother, once a nursery maid at the majestic mansion called Hundreds Hall, first takes Faraday to the mansion as a boy and who later returns as a middle-aged bachelor (this point is strongly emphasised). Called to the hall one day to look over the Hundreds Hall only maid, a fourteen year-old girl named Betty, Faraday is shocked to see the mansion in such disarray. Half the mansion has been closed off, a lot of the estate’s land has been sold off to developers for Council houses and the Ayres family seem to live in constant poverty. The remaining occupants of the Hundreds are Mrs. Ayres, who is nostalgic for the old days, and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick, who is physically and mentally scarred by war. As the ‘master’ of the house, Roderick does whatever he can to save the crumbling estate.

As Faraday becomes more involved with the Ayres family and the sorry state of the house, strange things begin to happen. After a little girl is bitten on the face by the Ayres’ usually gentle and goofy dog at a party one night, Betty is convinced that there is something unnatural in the house:

‘There’s a bad thing in the this house, that’s what! There’s a bad thing, and he makes wicked things happen!’

I stared at her for a moment, then lifted my hand, to rub my face. ‘Oh, Betty.’

‘It’s true! I’ve felt ‘m! … It wasn’t an accident! It were the bad thing, whispering to Gyp, or — or nipping him.’ – p. 130

Other strange and unexplainable things begin to occur that suggests that Betty may be right and that there is something in Hundreds Hall. Queer scorch marks are found under the paint in Roderick’s room, phones begin to ring in the middle of the night even though the telephone exchange has no record of anybody ever calling the Hall and strange, incessant noises lead them to bizarre childish handwriting on walls. While there are creepy elements to The Little Stranger, it is not essentially a ghost story but rather an exploration of the quickly disappearing social classes, their wealth and sweeping new modern reforms such as the Health Service and affordable housing for all.

While I did enjoy Little Stranger, I was expecting more of a ghost story and was slightly disappointed it wasn’t more so. The creepy parts were really quite frightening even though the ‘stranger’, whatever was in that house, is never identified as anything more than a dark blur at the corner of the eye and as a ‘he’ by Betty. Other reviews have compared similarities to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where the fear and creepiness comes from what you’ve imagined yourself, and I have to agree. Dr. Faraday got on my nerves more than a few times by his sheer inability to open his mind and his stuffy attitude towards everything. I did wonder though, how easily accepting readers are (or at least I was) to the supernatural aspects rather than the rational. While there was no concrete proof of a ghost, I was more ready to believe the Ayres’ stories than Dr. Faraday’s explanations. The book was a tad too long and I thought some parts were sloppily edited. It could have easily been shorter.

Review: “The Seance” by John Harwood

The Seance is the second novel from Australian writer John Harwood. His first was the amazingly creepy and wondefully gothic The Ghost Writer and his second novel carries on the gothic theme. Unfortunately, and most disappointingly, the novel largely falters and the writing never quite captures the atmosphere it deserves.

The novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century where mesmerism, spiritualists and seances were at its height of popularity. A young girl, Constance Langton, is emotionally shunned by her mother who is overwhelmed by grief after the death of Constance’s younger sister, Alma, and is ignored by her father. Constance grows up lonely and detached and wonders if she is really a foundling, an orphan or child put up for adoption, since her parents never appear to hold any love for her. When her father abandons the family, a desperate Constance takes her mother to a seance where there is an understanding between Constance and the medium. Her mother is momentarily happy again when she thinks she has spoken to Alma but Constance’s mother soon tragically dies.

Not long after the death, a lawyer named John Montague, gets in contact with Constance who has now inherited a mysterious and desolate manor called Wraxford Hall. She is advised the hall is a place where dark misforgivings has occurred in the past and to burn it down as nothing good has ever come to anybody who has owned the hall. The hall is also the site of a twenty-year-old mystery which has never been solved.

In order for the story to be told, the narrative has been broken up into several sections from several different characters as it skips through the century. While it does work to some extent and it draws out the suspense, it never quite meshes and it jarrs the story. Constance’s narrative is not particularly interesting and it takes quite awhile to work into the story.

It’s a good read but, unfortunately, it’s nothing memorable.