A few months ago I read Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, and was extremely impressed. I had been really disappointed in The Loney, his debut novel, but felt that he had really perfected his craft in his second book, giving us a brilliantly eerie and atmospheric read which kept me hooked the entire way through. With the bad weather recently and a few snow days off work, I was really hunting for a book along similar lines which would give me that same creepy yet fascinating feeling that I had experienced with Devil’s Day. Almost immediately I chose The Coffin Path, the latest novel from Katherine Clements. I am a huge lover of historical fiction, so as soon as I knew the book was set in the 1600’s, a time period I tend to read relatively little about, I was adamant that I wanted to get to it as soon as possible.
Even if you’re not a lover of this genre, I still think the blurb is incredibly enticing. It introduces us to Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path which leads from the village to the moor top. Strange stories are told about the place, the belief that something evil lurks there running rife among the locals. The tales hold little credence for Mercy Booth; Scarcross Hall is her home, her very life intertwined with the wilderness which reigns around her. Yet despite her determination small things begin to happen, strange occurrences which seem to have no possible logical explanation, coupled with the sense that something unfriendly is watching her. When a stranger arrives to the Hall looking for work, Mary agrees to take him in, completely unaware of the consequences of such kindness and the fate which lies in wait for Scarcross Hall.
The initial opening of this novel was a real testament to Clements skill as a writer and her ability to create a certain scene. We are immediately presented with a fierce battle against the elements, the brutal side of nature working against Mercy as she tries desperately to save the life of one of her ewes and the lamb she is trying to birth. It’s a brutal and quite graphic opening, the full force of nature depicted with glaring clarity to the reader as Mercy performs such hard labour in her attempts to keep her livestock alive. You can’t help but wonder what has brought Mercy into such a male oriented world. We see her struggling against the elements, the wind and rain pulling at the very male garments she wears for practicality, the blood staining her face and body. From this we can immediately begin to decipher that Mercy does not behave as social gender expectations would have it. It’s a thoroughly intriguing idea which pulls us further in, all the while creating a very hostile and evocative environment.
This highly atmospheric opening is something which continues throughout the majority of the book, building all the while until we are no longer certain what is real and what has been created through the characters imagination. I think it’s this sense of tension which is the real crowning glory of this book, a masterpiece in the art of the subtle suspense. Whilst I wouldn’t say this book is scary in the same sense as an outright horror, it does inspire a surprising amount of terror. We see disturbing and often unpleasant things, yet the author does not need the cheap thrills of blood and gore to frighten readers, and indeed, even her characters. Clements has this enviable ability of setting our sense alight, giving us those shivers down the back of our spines and suggesting to us that something or something is lurking behind us just outside of reach. It’s all the more eerie and unsettling because of the quite terror within it, a cleverly understated horror which is fueled by the creepy sense of the unknown.
A big aspect of this book is the heightened tension between religion and superstition. Although the book does examine religion, it is not done in a preachy or boring way but actually quite the opposite. There are characters within this who are believers in God, putting down the strange occurrences and the grisly history of the Hall to the Devil himself and his attempts to muddy your soul. There are others character who are not so religiously inclined, and who instead favour the superstitions of old wives tales, ghostly beings and the curses of witches. Personally I found that both ideas became incredibly creepy when you place them alongside the contents of the book, with both ideas providing disturbing outlets for the unknown presence which seems to linger. The tension between these two schools of thoughts really darkened the atmosphere because you just don’t know what to believe. I though the author handled such ambiguity in an extremely balanced way, giving us multiple possibilities without really giving us a clear definitive answers. There are things which seem to point more obviously towards one conclusion, but which are soon disturbed by more ironically subtler means. You can pretty much infer from the novel whatever you want to, with the ball being very much in your court as to how you want to read between the lines. What I did really appreciate though was that the ending wasn’t maddeningly ambiguous for the sake of it. It’s still partly opened ended, but its not the kind if thing which is going to drive you crazy with its artificial attempts to confuse. It felt very natural and right.
In a book which focuses so heavily on its atmosphere and the uncertainty it is provoking, you might expect the characters to dwindle somewhat in comparison. That is definitely not the case here, and I think that is what makes the book’s eeriness works all the more. The characters are very vivid and we get a real mixture across the board, with differing gender and professional perspectives, as well as purely different personalities. The greatest thing for me was that even with these great contrasts and real mixture of likeable and not so likeable individuals, they were all extremely believable in their actions and behaviours. The author has the ability to make you feel how her characters feel, most notably with Mercy and the powerful attraction she has to Scarcross Hall. You feel that same passion for the Hall and the land around it, understanding why she is so determined to go against the grain and continue despite the odds. I also thought the interaction between the characters was very well done, giving them depth and definition in a very organic way.
You could say in many ways that this book has a slower, more character driven plot, and I think the novel definitely works because of this. You’re really given the time to fully immerse yourselves in the story and to lose yourself to the strange occurrences. The tension grows naturally, becoming steadily more intense without any artificiality. Yet even to call the book more of a slow burner does not seem fair to the rich plot itself. It’s full of these brilliant details, alongside twist and turns throughout which inspire intrigue without spoiling anything too prematurely.
What actually took me by surprise, despite the very different time period, was just how closely related this book is to Devil’s Day. The styles are very different and the plot too, but there were so many interlinking theme and ideas that I almost read them as two stories running in parallel. Both books explore themes such as the Devil, superstition, traditions and family past, farming and the elements, as well as an incredible sense of ambiguity. The links are rife, and I really enjoyed being able to compare the two ways of writing as I went along. If you’ve read one of these books but not the other, I definitely would recommend rectifying that as soon as possible!
The best way I can describe this novel is by trying to emphasise how completely immersed it made me feel. From the characters themselves and what was happening, to the surrounding countryside and the ferocity of the elements; every little detail still seems ingrained in my mind and refuses to leave. The author is clearly skilled in the art of atmosphere and suspense, and I can freely admit that reading this as night did give me the shivery back sensation that made me eye my surrounding warily. This book has everything; great characters, a rich plot, suspense, terror, atmosphere and more importantly, its completely enjoyable!
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for an honest review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.