By Saket Suman
(Book: The Silent Companions; Author: Laura Purcell; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Price: Rs 599; Pages: 364)
Set in Victorian England, the offering at hand is an extremely creepy and menacing Gothic horror novel. Just released in the Indian market, it is perhaps the most anticipated novel from the horror genre this year at a time when horror and mystery genres seem to have taken a backseat.
The cover of this novel displays far too many objects drawn all around the page — two wolves, a child, an elderly woman, the head of a deer, a cage with a bird locked in it and another empty cage, three other birds, a scissor and an ink pot — and it is quite a task to comprehend the entire picture.
But it is perhaps done to draw your attention to the little hole just above the title of the book. From within that tiny hole is a haunting eye staring right at the reader. You turn the jacket to open the page from where the eye is staring out into eternity and the complete image of a child, dressed in rather unusual clothes, comes to light.
From here on, the reader plunges on to a journey of many discoveries, populated by ghosts all along.
“The Silent Companions” opens with Elsie Bainbridge, mute and medicated in a hospital, recovering from some unspeakable murders of which she is accused. Unable to speak after all that has happened to her, she is encouraged by one of the doctors to write down her story.
The opening scene is impressive and has a larger role in the narrative of the story. It occurs when the protagonist gets married but is widowed equally soon. Bainbridge is then sent to the forsaken estate, originally owned by her husband, to bury him. After the funeral, the turn of events is such that she has to wait for the birth of her baby at the same estate.
A cousin of her husband, Sarah is sent to give her company. Joining the two ladies in this deserted estate are two maids and a housekeeper.
Setting of plays is an extremely important role in any horror novel or movie. Author Purcell deserves full credit in painting a haunted setting before introducing her ghosts in the novel.
The very spread of the mansion is such that the readers have a hundred pictures running across their minds. It is huge and there are few inmates. The local church and the local villagers are surprisingly scared of the estate. The weather is extremely cold and the wind carries with it some kind of a strange smell of lifelessness. Our protagonist hears strange noises night after night. And then there are the “silent companions”, of whom the readers have been warned about in the title of the book. These are full-sized figures painted on wooden boards to resemble children and maids.
These wooden figures are discovered by Sarah and Elsie in a locked attic of the estate. What is most intriguing about these companions is the fact that they have a rather uncanny and strange way of looking at people. For instance, Sarah and Elsie are standing at two opposite ends of the room facing each other. One of these figures appears to look straight into Sarah’s eyes, as if it were to penetrate deep inside and shatter her eyeballs. Just while this is happening, Sarah suddenly notices the eyes of the figure move and she screams in fear.
Elsie is screaming too. Everything that just happened to Sarah happened to Elsie as well.
To make things more creepy, Purcell introduces her readers to some old diaries written about two centuries ago. These describe the horrific events that lead to the start of the Bainbridge family’s downfall. The text in these diaries also form some sort of a link to the series of events that turn our confident young protagonist into a sad and dejected woman that we come across at the beginning of the novel.
The slow and eerie novel takes you step by step before leaving you, along with the protagonist, in the isolated estate with the silent companions. The figures on the cover of the book that confuses the reader in the beginning appears to make complete sense when you reach the end of the novel. It’s a novel you finish in one sitting — on edge and spooked.