I’m not very good at watching horror films. If I do feel brave enough to watch something scary, it’s between the gaps in my fingers or from behind a cushion and I will inevitably jump and scream throughout. Plus, I have such a vivid imagination that anything vaguely supernatural leaves me on edge for days.
That said, a perverse part of me quite enjoys the adrenaline rush of being frightened (within reason) so I’ve found a happy medium in Gothic literature. The jump-factor is much more manageable in book-form and you can simply shut the book if it all gets too much! As Halloween approached, I wanted to embrace the eeriness of October by curling up under the covers with a spooky ghost story and The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is exactly that.
Set in 1866, The Silent Companions starts by introducing us to Elsie Bainbridge who has been sectioned in an asylum. Badly burnt and mute, she is suspected of murder but cannot remember what happened. Doctor Shepherd attempts to jog her memory and gradually coaxes out her story by encouraging her to write it down.
Elsie’s account begins when, newly married, recently widowed and with child, she is sent to The Bridge, her late husband Rupert’s remote estate and the place of his death. With only Rupert’s cousin Sarah for company and a fleeting welcome from her brother Jolyon before he returns to London, she is met by resentful household staff and hostile villagers who believe The Bridge is cursed with a history of suspicious deaths and curious incidents.
Strange sounds at night emerging from a locked door leads to the discovery of a two-hundred-year-old diary and unsettling painted wooden figures known as “companions”, which bare striking resemblances to the household’s residents past and present. The diary belongs to Anne Bainbridge and details the preparations she and her husband Josiah made for a visit from the King and Queen. Having lost her sister at a young age, Anne wished for a girl so much that she conjured a pregnancy using herbs, resulting in birth of their mute daughter, Hetta. However, Anne is punished for defying the will of God and brings a darkness into the house when she purchases the companions, who Hetta becomes bewitched by before the royal visit.
Switching back and forth from 1635 and 1865 at The Bridge, a tapestry of horror, tragedy and family secrets unravels which is destined to repeat itself. There is a constant feeling of foreboding and sense of claustrophobia that escalates as the story progresses. Laura Purcell cleverly makes us question whether Elise is losing her mind or if there is a more sinister evil behind the ghostly goings on. With haunting plot twists and unnerving insinuations, you’re left questioning your own sanity along with Elsie.
With a chilling conclusion that allows to the reader to decide whether its something supernatural or malevolent manipulation at play, Laura Purcell has taken the elements of Gothic fiction and woven them into a menacing masterpiece that will leave you looking over your shoulder for silent companions – you’ve been warned!