It’s 1866. Elsie Bainbridge is a patient at St Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane. She’s barely survived the fire that destroyed her home of the last several months. The home that the inhabitants of the nearest village keep well away from. And where, before the fire, four people died under mysterious circumstances. Could Elsie have killed them? Could she have set the fire? A sympathetic doctor must get her side of the story, but Elsie has lost the power of speech. So he gives her pencil and paper, and she starts writing. Starting with when she first moved, newly widowed and pregnant, into her husband’s ancestral mansion in rural England, The Bridge. Her first night there, she is woken up by a strange hissing noise, which seems to be coming from the attic… what, or who, lies on the other side?
The Silent Companions is one of the creepiest books I have ever read. I don’t think this constitutes a spoiler, but if you want to dive into this book blind, be warned that, in the next paragraph, I will explain what the titular silent companions actually are. Personally, I would have benefited from knowing in advance, as I had some initial trouble visualising them. And it’s not like this is a big mystery in the book–Elsie figures out pretty quickly what it is that’s stalking her along The Bridge’s corridors. But I realise that spoiler preferences are personal, and that is why I am warning you.
“Silent companions”, then, were a kind of painting-sculpture hybrid, popular in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century–made out of a piece of flat wood in the shape of a person, they were realistic depictions of men, women, and children. The wealthy Dutch liked to place around their houses for general amusement and trickery: because of the poor lighting of houses at the time, a guest running into them might well believe, at first, they were real people, and/or briefly die from fright. Silent companions could not be more perfect for horror. Think of it! Stumbling on a person you weren’t expecting, then realising it’s not a person. That in itself is pretty spooky. If you then move the action to a big old house with a million rooms, and have the silent companions move about of their own will, making an eerie hissing noise as they drag themselves over the floor… I mean, they are such good horror fodder, I would suspect Purcell made them up completely, if it weren’t for all the articles I could find about them online (unless of course she wrote these articles herself, each under a different pen name, as an elaborate ploy to trick readers… which, I realise, is extremely unlikely).
Still, no matter how great silent companions are as horror fodder, only a good writer can manage to keep them scary for the span of almost 300 pages. Fortunately, Purcell is an excellent writer, and the companions were consistently unsettling. No matter how many time a new one appeared out of nowhere, gazing malevolently at Elsie or one of her maids, it never got old. Similarly, I completely bought the way Elsie and her various relatives and servants reacted to the book’s strange events, and how the way they reacted shifted over time. It’s unfortunately common for characters in horror stories to be improbably dumb, a classic example of this being splitting up when they should stay together, or refusing to acknowledge the truth even when it’s staring them straight in the face. Here, I think the character’s actions always make sense given how they understand the world and their relationships to each other.
I only have one nitpick. Some of the book’s chapters are excerpts from a diary written in the seventeenth century by the lady of the house at the time, Anne Bainbridge. I enjoyed these bits, but I never bought them as something that had been actually written in the 1600s, and I often found myself wishing Purcell had made more of an effort at linguistic authenticity, and not been content to simply put a “perchance” here and there. Then again, the diary’s straightforward, unpretentious style never gets in the way of plot and characterisation. Perhaps a faithful reproduction of seventeenth-century English would have been too much of a distraction, and taken away from this story-within-the story’s own, subtler eeriness.
Overall, though, this was a fantastic read. Perfect for reading aloud around a campfire at night, or perhaps a little bit every night in the week preceding Halloween.
The Silent Companions is out on October 5th, 2017. I was given a free ebook copy from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.