Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The House of Dead Maids - A Review

We are very grateful to Blue Slip Media for sending us a review copy of this book.

The House of Dead Maids
By Clare B. Dunkle.
Patrick Arrasmith (Illustrator)
New York: Henry Holt, 2010.
Edited by Reka Simonsen.
September 14, 2010
ISBN-10: 0805091165
ISBN-13: 978-0805091168

The child who will become Heathcliff is already a savage little creature when Tabby Aykroyd arrives at Seldom House to be his nursemaid. But the Yorkshire moors harbor far worse. The ghost of the last maid will not leave Tabby alone, yet this spirit is only one of many.
As Tabby struggles to escape the evil forces that surround the house, she tries to befriend her uncouth young charge, but her kindness cannot alter his fate. Long before he reaches the old farmhouse of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff has already doomed himself and any who try to befriend him.
[Charlotte Brontë] was always ready to try and do what they wished, though not sorry when they called her awkward, and left her out of their sports. Then, at night, she was an invaluable story-teller, frightening them almost out of their wits as they lay in bed. On one occasion the effect was such that she was led to scream out loud, and Miss Wooler, coming up-stairs, found that one of the listeners had been seized with violent palpitations, in consequence of the excitement produced by Charlotte's story. (Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Chapter VI)
When Charlotte frightened her fellow students in their Roe Head dormitories, little did she know that more than a century later, another writer would take a similar role inspired by the same stories that she and her brother and sisters learnt at home from their father or their faithful and much loved servant Tabby Aykroyd. Clare B. Dunkle, in fact, draws her inspiration from the novel that was more clearly influenced by the Yorkshire folk lore, among the works of the Brontë sisters, Emily's Wuthering Heights(1).

Let's say it already, The House of Dead Maids is a little gem of a book. Its target audience is young adult readers but the excellence of the writing and the extensive research that the author has carried on (literally stunning in the case of Emily Brontë's novel(2) and about pagan Anglo-Saxon rituals) confer the book a quality that goes far beyond its potential target audience, so much so that sometimes one fears that some of the elements treated - the explicit disturbing elements or the elaborate language - are above the average YA reader. Or we may be wrong and as Ms Dunkle says:
My experience has been that teens can handle quite a bit more than their elders give them credit for. But I wrote my book for one audience only: those readers who already enjoy Wuthering Heights or who would enjoy it if they got to know it. If readers can’t handle my book, then they can’t handle Wuthering Heights. And if they can’t handle Wuthering Heights, then my book is not for them.
A bold statement absolutely fitting for a book that makes no concessions. And it is this cultivation of excellence and coherence that is the ultimate reason of its success. Let's take into consideration some elements of the book in order to illustrate our point:
  • The language.
Clare B. Dunkle says that she studied extensively the language of Wuthering Heights in order to reproduce it as close as possible. Any reader who reads The House of Dead Maids and Wuthering Heights will recognise Emily Brontë's abrupt and no-nonsense direct speech. The author does not avoid old-fashioned words or idioms, though. It's an easily overlookable quality that requires a lot of work and iterations and must be highlighted.
  • Pagan rituals.
The author signals that her reading of Wuthering Heights was partially influenced by Ronald Hutton's works on Anglo-Saxon paganism(3)) but we cannot help feeling that the atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. A village and its inhabitants intimately linked to an evil house with a dark secret and which contains preternatural forces are elements which unavoidably call to mind the spirit of the author of The Dunwich Horror. A reference which is totally fitting as the Providence author was an admirer of Emily Brontë's work:
Quite alone as a novel and as a piece of terror-literature stands the famous Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, with its mad vista of bleak, windswept Yorkshire moors and the violent, distorted lives they foster. Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort. (Supernatural Horror in Literature Chapter 5)
  •  Wuthering Heights.
Lovecraft's quote points to a way in which to read Wuthering Heights. Foregrounding the mythical elements, the 'fantastic' elements of he novel, Clare B. Dunkle takes up a stance opposed to several recent readings of the novel (i.e. the TV series Wuthering Heights 2009 or Yann & Édith's comic Les Hauts de Hurlevent) as she clearly connects the psychologies of the characters (in particular Heathcliff and Cathy) to their links with the landscape, being either Wuthering Heights or the moors. None of this is quoted explicitly in the novel (although it can be read in the excellent online notes) but it can be perceived through the numerous and very subtle connections that permeate both works: ghosts(4), a panelled bed, the number of times that Heathcliff repeats his indifference for Christian values as opposed to his childish but persistent need to become the master as he was promised to be. These protopsychological trends link nicely with the adult behaviour of the Heathcliff we know from Emily Brontë's pages(5).
  • Tabby, narrators and the Brontës.
Clare B. Dunkle uses a narrator which ties together Wuthering Heights and the actual Brontës biographical data: the long-time and well-beloved servant of the Brontë family, Tabby Aykroyd. The dates and facts provided in the novel, although probably unnecessary from an internal point of view, are accurate and spot-on(6). Tabby is present as an indispensable supporting character in any biography of the Brontës but little is known about her origins. Therefore it is completely plausible that Tabby would arrive in Haworth and befriend her 'sister' Susannah (spelt Susanna in the novel) as it is told.

We suppose that the author's intention was to use Tabby as a kind of interposed narrator following the path of Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. And in a way, Tabby is also as subjective in her depiction of the ways and manners of Seldom House and Heathcliff as Nelly Dean is in Emily Brontë's novel. Nevertheless, her devotion for finding the truth and for the righteousness of her actions recalls more Jane Eyre's narrative than Nelly Dean's(7).
  •  The illustrations.
Beginning with the chilling jacket designed by April Ward and continuing with the wonderfully scary illustrations of Patrick Arrasmith the drawings visualise basically the fantastic elements of the novel. There's just one illustration portraying Heathcliff and not even one which features Tabby. Tabby, like in the narrative, is the voice and the eyes telling the story.

As a matter of fact one of the few problems we can find after reading The House of Dead Maids is that the last moments where the Brontës actually appear as the background picture of Tabby's later years end all too soon and the reader wants to know more. But, of course, that could be a completely different story.

Notes
(1) But not exclusively, Jane Eyre features numerous pagan elements: the red-eyed Gytrash (explicitly quoted in The House of Dead Maids), the little Green Men, etc.
(2) The reader is invited to read her essays on the subject found on her website.
(3) And certainly the main secret of Seldom House seems to have been inspired by a particular Anglo-Saxon Sewerby burial with some gross elements which are perfectly mirrored in Clare B. Dunkle's narrative. As we don't want to reveal any spoilers, we point any interested readers to the source: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Ronald Hutton, Wiley-Blackwell (1993), page 274.
(4) Even Cathy makes an uncredited appearance in a 'loose white dress'. Not a ghost but also a figure of English dark history, the executioner Jack Ketch is also referenced.
(5) And we can understand how Heathcliff got his fortune, where he went during those years of absence... but we are doubtful about how Cathy became a dead maid... or maybe she wasn't one? There are also connections with other writings by Branwell Brontë through the figure of his Byronic hero: the Duke of Northangerland aka the Pirate Rogue.
(6) There are a few elements that are wrong or improbable, but Clare B. Dunkle is well aware of them and discusses their use here: the language used by Tabby is obviously well above the probably not sophisticated dialect that the actual Tabby would have used, the chronology of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the Brontës' lives do not match, etc...
(7) We were nicely surprised when we read that the author shared this impression too. Check out this blog interview.

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Comments :

1 Comment
Vickie Ramage said...
on  

I never knew just how much research Clare put into this book. I definitely felt like I was in the world of Wuthering Heights when I was reading it!

★ Under The Mountain's Review of The House of Dead Maids ★

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