Chris Priestley‘s The Dead of Winter is a haunting and deeply disturbing ghost story. His previous series, the three volumes of the the ‘Tales of Terror’, were haunting when the protagonist turned out to be a child’s guardian failing in their duty somehow with the dispossessed needing to find some peace.
The Dead of Winter is the tale of Michael, a recently orphaned boy, who is taken in by Sir Stephen, more out of regret for seeing his father killed under his command than anything else. When he moves into Hawton Mere, Michael sees the ghost of a lady in white, dripping wet and moving across the grounds and soon the stories of the priest hole and the untimely death of Sir Stephen’s wife come out.
As with the earlier Tales of Terror, Priestley uses the landscape as an echo of the internal emptiness. There is no emotion in the house, just an empty space. Having lived in a Fen-edge village and cycled across them to go to school, I can appreciate the close description of the flat landscape which stretches for miles (given the landscape is about sea level and there really weren’t that many trees or bushes).
Sir Stephen’s inner terror is exposed in the ghost in the priest hole, growing and developing. The house, certainly in the Gothic, can be read as a psychogeography and the ghost has been following Stephen around, linking him and Michael’s father together. He has never quite got over his father’s control and his own failure to stand up to him. Even his one act of defiance turns out to have been orchestrated by his sister, Charlotte, whose desire for control of the house instead of her brother (whom she considers weak) is total.
I do wonder if Priestley if playing with the Woman in White or the inverse of the Madwoman in the Attic. Charlotte’s desire for power is all consuming, leading her into murdering Sir Stephen’s wife and the conflagration in the end. Her passion is all consuming and destructive. Even at this moment though, one story, Sir Stephen’s is laid to rest but Michael, the narrator, finds that he also needs to confront his own fear f Charlotte. Having failed to do so in the bedroom or the ruins some years later, the ghost comes for him.
So is Michael any stronger than Sir Stephen? That’s an issue that is left open but it does reflect the Lemony Snicket ending where the lawyer entreats the children to face life rather than run away from it. Perhaps in that sense Michael is stronger than his erstwhile guardian.
What is fantastic is the gradual way that Priestley builds the tension and the terror in a very Jamesian ghost story. I look forward to being scared and unnerved by him in the future…
Update: I notice from a post on Chris Priestley’s blog (read after writing this post) that he discusses Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations of MR James’s ghost stories which influenced him. I must dig these out at some point and watch them.