Essie Fox has established a fine reputation as a writer of gothic novels and though her previous books have been set in Victorian times, the Edwardian era of silent movies seems like a very natural backdrop for gothic fiction. The images in these old flickering black and white films with their beautifully mute but vampish heroines, the eerie special effects created by the technique known as double exposure which render a figure translucent, and the dramatic use of light and long shadows, makes this a world that’s every bit as sinister, haunting and beautiful as the ruined abbeys and castles of Anne Radcliffe’s pioneering gothic creations. There’s a crumbling mansion of dark secrets in Essie Fox’s story too, White Cliff House, once used as a film studio and now home to reclusive actress Leda Grey, and the decay that surrounds her, in true Miss Havisham style. Rotting fruit alive with crawling maggots mirrors scenes in Leda’s films and adds to the deliciously macabre atmosphere that pervades this tale.
The novel is set in Brightland, a fictionalised version of Brighton and its environs, where a troupe of film folk and music hall entertainers set up camp in an enclave of disused railway carriages down by the beach. I was fascinated to learn from Essie’s ‘Eclectic Edwardian’ blog that this is all historically accurate, and that early in the 1900s, Shoreham-by-Sea was the Hollywood of West Sussex, with a thriving film industry and a colony of theatrical types who lived in what has since been named Bungalow Town, formed of old railway cars with the wheels removed. As in Essie’s book, an old fort was used as the studio, later replaced by a purpose-built glass building, constructed by director, F. L. Lyndhurst when he established his Sealight Film Company. But here the similarities end. Lyndhurst made comedies, where as Charles Beauvoir, the moviemaker in Leda Grey makes disturbing nightmarish pieces fuelled by opium: ‘The Mermaid’, ’The Dreamer’s Delirium’ in which Leda stars as the Vampire, and ‘The Cursed Queen’. The scripts (stage directions since of course there is no dialogue) are included within the story and add to it’s atmosphere of hallucinatory beauty.
Reading this book is very much like watching a silent movie. With words alone, Essie has magnificently conjured the flickering magical images from old reels and projectors. When, in the scorching summer of 1976, journalist Ed discovers Leda asleep in a ruined room at White Cliff House, he sees her thorough a partially open window through which sunlight flickers, and the scene sets a wonderfully spectral tone.
The ‘glass house on the cliff’ is said to be haunted and local, Lucy, who Ed befriends, recalls how one night she saw ‘lots of flickering lights flashing through the panes of glass, as if each window was a screen…as if every pane was filled with ghosts.’ She warns Ed: ‘You should stay away from White Cliff House. There’s something not quite right there.’
But naturally Ed does not heed her warning, goes in search of his article and is drawn deeper and deeper into Leda’s past. She is keen to help him with his story, showing him the reels of film, the memoirs she calls her ‘Mirrors’ and letting him interview her so that he can understand how, with his films, ‘Beauvois hoped to convey a sense of corruption far deeper than the physical.’
Beauvoir is a predatory, animalistic character, brutish but brilliant, and the erotic dark enchantment within which he holds Leda is wonderfully depicted. He could have walked straight out of one of Angela Carter’s twisted fairytales. Beauvoir’s movies, upon which the plot hinges, are inspired by the visions he has after drinking from a tiny dark green glass bottle, which features in one of the films as ‘The Elixir of Dreaming Delights’ invoking celluloid scenes of spells to wake vampires and statues that come alive with marble white skin and dark red lips.
With her dark eyes and wild black hair, Leda herself is as enigmatic and captivating as the women who look out at us from the wonderfully beguiling photographs of silent movie sirens that inspired her story. She’s a doomed femme fatale ‘oozing sex and mystery’, named after the king’s daughter from Greek mythology who was raped or seduced by Zeus in the form of a sawn. ‘You are my swan, Beauvois, you are my Zeus,’ she says in a vision Ed sees of them both, as if through a looking glass.
Essie has created a Hitchcockian atmosphere of ‘encroaching dread’ and menace. When the film stops playing Ed writes how he ‘could have sworn I saw a trail of mist drift through the screen to stain the shadows of the room, and on that mist I’m sure I caught the hot metallic smell of blood’. In fact Ed tells Leda how Hitchcock was ‘another director who liked to play games with his cast’ and was ‘a genius of suspense’ whose ‘earliest films were silent too. Dark and twisted thrillers obsessed with sex and murder.’
Leda shows Ed the crown of snakes she wore in the photograph he found of her in her brother’s shop in Brightland, that first led him to White Cliff House. ‘I fear this crown of snakes is cursed,’ she says. ‘It has the power to enchant. But this is no sweet fairy tale. No happy endings in this house.’
And indeed there are not. This story has a wonderfully spooky twist which I did not see coming at all and which made me want to go right back to the beginning. I wanted to do that anyway. The paciness of the plot made me race through the book to find out what happens, but the imagery is so rich and strange that now I know the ending, I want to read it over again, just to savour the words and the images they invoke.