Author: Michael Boccacino
Series: Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling
Plot Type: Horror Fantasy
Ratings: V4; S2; H1
Publisher: William Morrow (Imprint of HarperCollins)
In this case, the governess is the recently widowed Charlotte Markham; the estate is Everton; and the master of the house is the recently widowed Henry Darrow, who hires Charlotte to tend to the education of his two boys, Paul and James. Although the people living on the estate and in the village are normal human beings, many of them believe (though they might not admit it to one another) that, as Shakespeare said, "There are more things in heaven and earth...Than are dreamt of...." (Hamlet, Act I)
The themes of the story are the strength of family ties and the lengths people will go to save those they love.
In the book's first scene, the boys' nanny is found murdered, and Charlotte steps up to become the boys' sole caretaker/teacher. Since their mother's death, their father has been a remote, grief-stricken fixture in the house, spending his days sequestered in his study and his nights roaming the vast household. Charlotte also wanders the house at night, and the two have frequently met in the music room to talk about their respective losses. One of the story threads involves Charlotte's growing attraction to her employer (and vice versa).
One day, Charlotte responds to one of Paul's dreams about his mother by taking the boys on an outing in the forest. As they follow Paul's map of his dream, they find themselves in The Ending, a mysterious place that hosts a number of strange creatures that are doomed to eternal life because Death cannot enter The Ending. As they enter The Ending, they approach the ominous House of Darkling, where they are—shockingly—met by Lily Darrow, the boys' supposedly dead mother, and she's not a ghost. The House is a hugely magnificent mansion full of wondrous, and sometimes horrible, creatures and oddities—like something out of a dark fairy tale (or something from H. P. Lovecraft's imagination). The author eloquently describes each and every one of the freaky knickknacks of Darkling, but eventually the continuous stream of minutely detailed descriptions does become tedious.
As Charlotte and the boys make several visits to House of Darkling, Charlotte begins to realize that Lily has made a horrible bargain with Mr. Whatley, the master of Darkling, in order to be with her sons once more. Whatley is playing a deadly game with all of them, and Charlotte is determined to be the winner. In another gothic reference, Whatley himself is a throwback to Emily Brontë's Heathcliff: "He had a windswept look about him, his hair wild and disheveled, his clothing very fine but rumpled, his shirt not entirely tucked in, his collar askew, yet the most interesting thing about him was his eyes—so dark that no light escaped them..." (p. 118)
Most of the creatures in The Ending look like humans, but it is soon obvious that they are wearing human skin over some seriously weird shapes. (Tentacled monsters that look suspiciously like Lovecraft's Cthulhu are a continuing theme.) Here's an example, as Mr. Whatley hosts a dinner: "'It is our tradition that the host of any gathering make an offer of friendship, and the best thing that anyone can hope to give is a piece of themselves.'...Mr. Whatley's human hand unraveled into a conjoined grouping of tentacles. He sliced off one of the smaller limbs with the knife, and the hand re-formed no worse for wear. The foot-long piece of flesh fell into the sauté pan, and the servant quickly divided it into sixteen equal portions, tossing them in the air to brown them on all sides. When he was finished, he rolled the cart around the table and served each of the guests a cooked piece of Mr. Whatley." (p. 179) In another scene, one of the guest gets tired of listening to a conversation about politics, so she just pulls off her ears and puts them in her purse.
The plot—the "game" played by Mr. Whatley and Charlotte—didn't really grab me until the final scenes. In the early stages, the dialogue between the two was nebulous and unfathomable, and the rules of the game were hard to decipher. But by the last five chapters, the book had become a page-turner, with compelling action and escalating suspense driving the plot to the final climactic scene and the ambiguous ending.
The descriptive language is lush and beautifully contrived. Each oddity of the mansion is described at length, in great detail. If you enjoy atmospheric writing, you'll like that aspect of the book. Here's an example: "The elegant crystal chandeliers that hung in empty space above the room began to bloom with liquid flame, light erupting out of them like stars to illuminate the corners of the space where gilded curios and antique end tables held glittering, unknowable things: strange pools of water that rippled in place but did not drip or cascade unto the floor; an iridescent apple with skin so glossy and sleek that the light it invited made it appear translucent; a portrait of a crying old woman whose tears smeared the paint; a pair of shears so sharp they seemed to cut the very light that touched their edges. But these baubles were nothing compared to the transformation that occurred at the center of the room in the mosaic. The floor was blazing with a radiant fire, pulsing in time to the silent song of the universe, throbbing with life and energy, searing not the eyes but something secret in the soul." (p. 91)
Click HERE to read a free, on-line epilogue to Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling. If you enjoy this book, I recommend that you try Ransom Riggs' "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." Click HERE to read my review of that book.