“There was a hear, whispering air in Byron Hall.” This description of the Queen Anne-style mansion at the center of Elizabeth Brooks’ terrifying and addictive Gothic novel WHISPERING HOUSE (Tin House, 378 pp., Paper, $ 16.95) Her heroine, Eavesdropping, will also apply to Willow Freya Lyell, who becomes entangled with Byron Hall and its inhabitants. Freya, bookish and sensible, always lives in the shadow of her “sinister and beautiful” older sister, Stella, and has never been so since Stella’s body was discovered near the seaside village of Bleach. Five years later Freya, now 23 years old, travels from London to Bligh for a wedding reception in Byrd Hall, with only a portrait of Stella hanging on the wall. This painting, and the artist portraying it – Corey Byrne – launched Frye into the mystery of what had actually happened to Stella.
Byron Hall looks “as if the place was robbed”, and is actually stripped bare by Corey and his once glamorous mother, Diana, who sold their art and furniture to survive. Still, the house casts a spell on Freya, as does Corey, a dicing, damaged artist, with whom Freya begins a detour. Corey reveals himself to be something else that Frye initially believes in, and the slow reveal of his true nature is a chilling, all the way master study in love can hurt. Like “Wuthering Heights,” “Whispering House” is a melancholy novel, with its characters full of dark red. Cory and Freya are in adventures of the past: what else Cory used to do for her mother when it was “still full of treasure,” and Freya was a time when her sister still lived.
Although Freya’s struggle to make peace with the novel’s emotionally past, I was swept up in Brooks’ expert pacing and her ability to forge a terrifying yet believable relationship between Freya and Corey, whose affair led to a psychopath. Shows the dangers of falling.
The passion deepens in Polly Hall’s twisted debut, TAXIDERMIST’S LOVER (Camcat, 256 pp., $ 24.99). The story is narrated at a lengthy address from Scarlett to her lover Henry, who is Henry, a genius genius who is a real girl. Spring from Henry’s imagination filled creatures like “stocks”, crossed with a stork fox, and “piggy,” a goose stitched together with a toy poodle, and (my favorite) “crab,” Affixed to a crow’s head. A rabbit that resembles “Alice in Wonderland” goes wrong. Henry’s mind is bizarre and unsightly, as it is – it turns out – his relationship with Scarlett, and Hall’s novel celebrates and mimics it, luxuriating in the fever of Henry’s creativity, then focusing on the special Cutting for, the way Henry might shape “wings and tails, beaks and claws, feathers, fur, scales and eyes” is “improvised in the Carnival of Organic Matter and staged under spotlights.” Hall’s writing is succulent, full of startling conclusions about art and the nature of love and death. “Love affects everyone,” Scarlett believes. “even death.” She better hope to see how the story ends.