The Coffin Path is a seventeenth-century ghost story. A story in which the oppression and wild beauty of the Yorkshire moors provides a compelling backdrop, where a sense of encroaching malevolence seeps like a ‘winding sheet of fog … silent, still, watching’ through the very stones of Scarcross Hall, and the fates of all who live there.
Scarcross Hall is claustrophobic, grim and gothic to its core, with its ‘… days of grandeur long faded. There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads, and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor.’
At the centre of the story, and residing in this wreck of the house, is the admirable character of Mercy Booth who, almost from the very start when walking on the cold dark heath, has a sense that she is being watched by something that chills her to her soul – that perhaps her family is cursed by the treasure of three ancient coins, ‘worn and warped, decorated with pagan symbols’, that her father says he found one day within The White Ladies circle of standing stones – ‘the rugged stones pale on the skyline, heights pointing to Heaven, roots buried Devil knows how deep.’
Mercy’s father used to tell his child that the coins held the magical gift of protection. In those days she had often played with them, rattling the coins in her two cupped hands. But now, as the years of youth have passed, Mercy thinks of darker tales, of … ‘folklore and fancy, handed down to us young ones, whispered by firesides on dark winter nights. After that I sometimes wondered if, rather than protection, the coins offered an ill omen.’ She also thinks of chanted songs known to the local community. The warnings she perhaps should heed…
‘One coin marks the first to go.
A second bodes the fall.
The third will seal a sinner’s fate.
The Devil take them all.’
Mercy’s fate is to run her father’s farm, enduring the personal agony of witnessing his rapid decline into old age and dementia while also striving against the elements and the cruelty of the landscape. Her hands are hardened, stained with mud. Her nostrils are filled with the stench of blood, and yet she is utterly at one in this world to which her soul belongs, revelling in the feel and the odour of peat and moss beneath her feet, and describing such glorious visions as: ‘Silvery water … a thousand year path…dropping from the fells, freezing into icicles, glazing the mosses and hazing into fine mist where it meets the valley bottom.’
The Coffin Path’s settings are beautifully drawn, with the book divided into parts that echo the seasons of the year, and in which Clements’ vivid and visceral landscape provides a reflection of Mercy’s soul. There is almost an animal element to the wildness of her existence – whether washing her own bloody rags in a stream, or delivering a lamb out on the moors; even in the moments when she finds a dead sheep blown with maggots and flies exuding the putrid stench of death.
Such connections with flesh, with birth and death are described with the rawest honesty. Indeed, many aspects of the lambing work was so vividly described I felt compelled to ask Clements if she’d ever experienced such things first hand. She had, which did not surprise me, because this novel exudes authenticity, with even the yeasty scent of dough rising in the kitchen bowls imbued with a stench of sour dread, rather than comfort. Candles stink of mutton fat. The night-time house is unnerving, whether in its abandoned dusty rooms with the lingering memories of the dead, or in the terrifying fireguard, carved and painted to look like a little boy. And then, there is also the real child, Sam, often visiting the house, who is frail and in need of protection, and yet with a presence increasingly linked to our own chilling sense of dark unease – such as when Mercy watches him one day and thinks – ‘Sam has his eyes open, staring into the far corner, smiling to himself as he watches cloud patterns dance across the plaster. Something in his expression is unnerving – knowing, almost triumphant. Is he laughing at us?’
Added to this growing fear is the spiralling tension we witness resulting from Mercy’s sensuality. She is no longer the carefree girl who once ran wild across the moors. Neither is she the virgin with naive hopes to be wed one day, to produce a family of her own. Here is a real woman who experiences real sexual needs, even if she does not live in an era when such behaviour is admired.
This is an age of political turmoil, with the aftermath of the Civil War causing enormous social distrust and economic turmoil. A time when many women are still accused of witchcraft, when people believe whole-heartedly in the existence of a Heaven and Hell … and perhaps even damnation for one whose independent life and power as a landholder is poisoned by evil suspicions and fears, by sexual tensions and jealousies.
Mercy’s peace is then unsettled more by the unexpected arrival of a stranger known as Ellis, who Mercy employs as an extra hand when the farm is beset by troubles, and to whom she is strongly attracted despite an initial sense of distrust – though never for one moment can she begin to imagine the influence he will come to exert on her future life.
The starkness, the gritty honesty, the often alluring brutality at the centre of this novel has many echoes of Wuthering Heights. Scarcross is also a house that’s cursed, set alone in a rural setting where Nature is raw in tooth and claw. From the moment we enter its doors we are immersed in a sense of impending doom where simmering tensions and darkness of shadows gradually reveal the truth in a violent and moving climax.
Oozing with gothic symbolism, this brooding and beautiful ghost story is guaranteed to haunt your dreams long after the cover has been closed.
Essie Fox is the author of three Victorian novels, including The Somnambulist, which was shortlisted for the UK National Book Awards. Her latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, tells the story of a young journalist who meets an ageing actress who once starred in eerie Edwardian films – the films which then obsess him, till he is no longer able to separate the realities of his present life from the ghosts still haunting Leda’s past.