Legacies of Despair

Author: Laura Purcell

She’s locked away now. Silent. Allegedly crazy. She did, after all, kill everybody. That’s what they say, anyway. They need her testimony for the trial. Her psychiatrist is convinced that he can get her story, that he can unlock her soundless lips. What he forces her to remember – what she writes to him in her little cell – is beyond what he expected. It’s beyond what the mind can handle.

Elise had a checkered past. One that already had a lot of blood in it. But that’s all secret, all behind her when she marries Rupert Bainbridge, a rich man with a country seat. But when he dies, she is stranded in his old manor home with Sarah, his cloying cousin, forced to restore the old house, to deal with her grief, and to carry her secret pregnancy.

The residents of the nearby town say something is wrong with the house. Elise dismisses it as the holdover from old tragedies. She herself knows that blood can be hidden. That it doesn’t always show, and that it never tells. But when she and Sarah unlock the old garret and find the companions, things start to go very bad. That’s when people start dying and when Sarah unlocks her ancestor’s horrifying secret.

The Silent Companions is a serpentine story, subtle yet horrifyingly addicting. The timelines alternate, giving us multiple perspectives as the truth behind the companions – wooden statues meant to look like persons – proliferate across the house. We have Elise in the asylum, broken, no longer haughty, terrified, and yet compelled to tell her story. Then we have Elise and Sarah in the past, as the events unwind, as they move into and explore the house, as they discover the companions and the diary. Finally, we have a far older tale of the original Bainbridge’s – of a wife desperate for a daughter, and of the strange, silent, flame-haired girl she brings into this world. It all works together, this story of deceit and desire, of the supernatural, of things created by the will and of the punishment and danger of intervention. It starts subtly, but it escalates until there is blood, and insanity, and despair.

Original image by Petr from Pixabay; filters added by yours truly.

I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t heard of this book before. It perfectly captures an older world, one far more suited to creeping horror. There is no one to call. No help to be had. And these women – helpless and constrained by society and their own secrets – are intelligent, yet taught not to fight, not to question. It’s an eerie mix, the perfect combination of a family legacy of evil, of a slow build that talks about things like abuse. What haunts Elise is not only the movement of the companions, who themselves are both omens and harbingers, but of everything she saw and did before this new life, this second chance at an aristocratic future away from the factory, from her own broken family.

Laura Purcell writes well, knowing when to step fully into the gore and gut-wrenching horror of loss and when to step back, to rely on the quirks of the mind and the depravity of the imagination. Her characters are imperfect, yet relatable, prone to heroism and villainy, products of their time and yet, also, desperately, weakly human and filled with sorrow and regret. The ending is a powerhouse, a classic twist that we see coming and yet cannot resist. It’s perfect and horrible, perfectly horrible, and a phantasmagoric extravaganza that horror readers shouldn’t miss. Highly recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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