Michelle Paver’s Gothic horror Wakenhyrst expertly blends the psychological with the supernatural

One day in 1913, Edward Stearne snatched up an icepick, marched into the orchard of his manor house, and murdered the first person he came across. Declared insane and sent to Broadmoor, he filled his days painting a vast triptych inspired depicting Hell.

More than half a century later, his daughter Maud still lives in Wake’s End, a lifelong fascination with the beautiful yet deadly Fen that encroaches upon the estate making it hard for her to leave. When her father’s frightening paintings start to attract attention, the reporters start knocking. Maud could use the money, but is she ready, after all these years, to tell her side of the story?

Atmospheric and well researched, Wakenhyrst is the latest novel from author Michelle Paver. Alternating between Edward’s diaries, the words of a medieval mystic that so bewitch him, and Maud’s difficult childhood, it’s populated with rich and eerie locations, fascinating characters, and plenty of spooky goings on.

Edward’s decline into presumed madness, launched by the discovery of a medieval painting of a demon, is tracked both by his own diaries and by Maud’s experiences. How much is real and how much is imagined is up for debate, and Wakenhyrst is all the stronger for this uncertainty, filled with sinister happenings both explicable and otherwise.

Maud is central to this narrative and she proves to be a capable and interesting lead. Smart and talented, but hampered both by her status as a female and by her devotion to her often emotionally distant father, this is a tale as much about Maud finding herself in the mysterious Fen beyond the walls of Wake’s End as it is about Edward losing himself in that same locale.

Paver’s slice of Gothic horror manages to be both true to and critical of its often anti-female roots, joining the likes of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and the work of Sarah Perry as exciting new twists on an already rich and compulsively readable genre. Balancing the psychological with the supernatural is no mean feat, but Wakenhyrst seems to manage it with ease, resulting in a story that will linger (like so many spooky medieval demons) long after the final page.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst is out now through HarperCollins.
Copy supplied through NetGalley for review purposes.

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