Michael Vyner recalls a terrible story, one that happened to him. One that would be unbelievable if it weren't true! Michael's parents are dead and he imagines that he will stay with the kindly lawyer, executor of his parents' will.... Until he is invited to spend Christmas with his guardian in a large and desolate country house. His arrival on the first night suggests something is not quite right when he sees a woman out in the frozen mists, standing alone in the marshes. But little can prepare him for the solitude of the house itself as he is kept from his guardian and finds himself spending the Christmas holiday wandering the silent corridors of the house seeking distraction. But lonely doesn't mean alone, as Michael soon realises that the house and its grounds harbour many secrets, dead and alive, and Michael is set the task of unravelling some of the darkest secrets of all.
The last twelve months have been a cracking time for teen horror lovers, and in particular those who love their horror to be set in a bygone era. We have had Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist (sequel out very soon by the way), Jon Mayhew's fantastic Mortlock and now Chris Priestley has delivered The Dead of Winter.
Chris Priestley is well known amongst horror lovers for his three volumes of short stories: Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror; Tales of Terror From The Black Ship; and Tales of Terror From The Tunnel's Mouth. I loved every one of these three volumes, filled as they are with their spine chilling tales of the macabre, and featuring the beautiful illustrations of David Roberts. The Dead of Winter is the author's first full-length novel for publisher Bloomsbury, and while it does not feature those aforementioned illustrations, it is certainly not lacking in the chill stakes.
The Dead of Winter is a classic ghost story of the haunted house variety, something which is not seen too often in horror for young people these days. Many modern horror writers for this age group generally deliver exactly what their fans expect of them - blood and gore. Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that I am not averse to these elements myself, however it is refreshing to read a book that is genuinely spooky, but without the splatter. Please believe me when I say that this book is spooky - this really is the kind of tale that could have children asking to sleep with the bedroom light on. And if they live in an old house then they may as well forget about sleeping altogether - they will be far too occupied pulling the bedcovers tight around them as they fret about any bump or creak they may hear during the night. And all this with nary a drop of blood in sight - instead Mr Priestley creates an undercurrent of extreme terror with sounds in the night, ghostly visions, a bleak and featureless landscape, and familial madness.
Chris Priestley freely admits that the ghost stories of Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James are amongst his literary influences, even to the point of naming a book after the latter (the M stands for Montague, thus we have Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror). These influences are apparent in his short stories, and even more so in this novel, although Mr Priestley's writing, whilst Victorian in style, is far more accessible to younger readers. I feel that many children these days can struggle with the often wordy prose that many of the classic Victorian writers produced, yet the author manages to retain the Gothic feel but with an economy of language whereby he makes every word count as he builds the tension to almost unbearable levels.
Chris Priestley says that as a writer it is "the mind [he]wants to unsettle, not the stomach" and he wants "to chill, to unnerve, to trouble". I think he will certainly have this effect on many of the readers of this book. The Dead of Winter is due to be released on 4th October in hardcover with it's stunning (yet simple) dustjacket featuring a spooky skull and illustrated by the author himself. My thanks go to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of the book to review.