The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
Priestley is an accomplished author and illustrator of children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. The past couple of years, he has specialised in horror stories for children. He’s written a series called Tales of Terror which have been well-received, (I know Scott Pack is a fan).
The cover of his latest novel is brilliant – what you can’t see is all the silver highlighting on the ice crystals. Inside, The Dead of Winter is a Gothic spine-chiller that is absolutely classic in its scope.
The tale is recounted by the adult Michael Vyner – a boy who was orphaned when his mother dies, and is sent to live with his guardian in a large and creepy moated manor house in the East Anglian fens. His guardian is Sir Stephen Clarendon – a rich man whom Michael’s father had died protecting during the British Empire’s fighting in Afghanistan. Clarendon had ever since looked after Michael’s family from afar.
Michael is not happy, but sets off towards Hawton Mere with Mr Jerwood, Sir Stephen’s lawyer. As they near the house Michael sees a distressed woman in a white shift on the side of the road, but when they stop the carriage she is nowhere to be seen. They arrive at the house and Michael waits in the hall …
There was a huge mirror there, with a gold frame. The frame gilt was missing here and there and the mirror pockmarked about the outer edges. It was rather like gazing into a frozen pool.
‘I was terrified of that mirror as a child,’ said a voice behind me.
I turned to see a tall, thin man. He was dressed all in black and was silhouetted against the candlelight. The effect was so strange that I stepped back, more than a little afraid. a huge wolfhound edged forward, head down, growling.
‘Clarence,’ said the man, as though to a child. ‘Is that any way to greet a visitor?’
But, alarming though the wolfhound was, I saw very quickly that it was not me he was growling at, but the mirror behind me.
‘I am your guardian, Michael,’ said the man, holding out a hand. ‘Sir Stephen Clarendon. I am very pleased to meet you.’
As he said these words he stepped into the light and I had my first glimpse of the man I had heard so much about and in whose hands my fate now rested.
Michael’s sense of unease is not allayed on meeting Sir Stephen and his sister Charlotte. Sir Stephen is clearly rather mad. and the house is huge, dark and full of secrets. As the tale goes on, more and more creepy events occur as Michael begins to find out some of the history. I’m not going to tell any more, as that would spoil things, but Priestley ups the tension all the time until the big climax where all becomes clear.
If I had read this book on my own as a child, it would have creeped me out (as they say nowadays). As an adult, I really enjoyed it, and I can imagine it being a fantastic book to read out loud to brave older children, and it would make a good Christmas present for those of a strong disposition. Priestley seems to have found a niche as the Susan Hill equivalent for older kids and I’d like to read the Tales of Terror too. (8.5/10)
I bought this book. Pub Bloomsbury Oct 2010, Hdbk 218 pages, £10.99