The House in the High Wood

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Overview

Jeffrey E. Barlough, acclaimed author of the weird and wonderful Dark Sleeper, returns with a novel as charming-and chilling-as a good old-fashioned ghost story...

Strange things are afoot in the town of Shilston Upcot. A mysterious owl hovers in the sky. Mournful voices cry out for a lost child. Townsfolk are besieged by nightmares. And only one man, the reclusive squire Mark Trench, dares to investigate the strange omens to face the truth: ...

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Overview

Jeffrey E. Barlough, acclaimed author of the weird and wonderful Dark Sleeper, returns with a novel as charming-and chilling-as a good old-fashioned ghost story...

Strange things are afoot in the town of Shilston Upcot. A mysterious owl hovers in the sky. Mournful voices cry out for a lost child. Townsfolk are besieged by nightmares. And only one man, the reclusive squire Mark Trench, dares to investigate the strange omens to face the truth: The horror has returned.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Dark Sleeper, Barlough's fantasy debut, earned kudos for its impressive recreation of the tone and texture of the Dickensian triple-decker. This second volume in his Western Lights Series duplicates the feat, immersing the reader in a Victorian pastiche thick with earthy characters, social politics and supernatural intrigue. Although set in a peculiar alternate world where modern civilization abuts a prehistoric wilderness, the novel focuses on daily life in rural Shilston Upcot and its disruption when mysterious Bede Wintermarch moves into Skylingden House, a brooding deserted mansion in the hills overlooking the town. Once the site of a monastery of mad friars, the house has been gossip fodder for decades, since its former owner was implicated in the shame and suicide of a vicar's daughter. Secrets dislodged by wagging tongues and the nocturnal activities of a giant predatory owl soon have rationalist Squire Mark Trench and his guest, writer Oliver Langley, exploring caverns beneath Skylingden and digging up clues to a macabre revenge plot. Barlough keeps the fantasy effectively low-key, grounding it in the eccentricities of a large, vividly drawn supporting cast that includes smarmy barrister Thomas Dogger and besotted bible-spouting stonemason Shank Bottom. Their vivid personalities sustain the multilayered plot through its subtly orchestrated build to a chilling crescendo, and affirm the author's talent for working a dark comedy of manners into an eerie Gothic melodrama. (Aug. 7) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
Scholar Oliver Langley wanted rest;hence an invitation from Mark Trench, his university friend and now squire of Shilston Upcot, to summer in his remote village. Oliver's arrival follows the inhabitation of a long-vacant mansion, Skylingden, by mysterious tenants. He learns that the house is feared for its past association with a vicar's disgraced daughter's suicide and for its construction upon the ruins of a satanical monastery. The surrounding countryside is an eerie blend of nineteenth-century civilization, prehistoric beasts, and geographical oddities. When a giant owl from Skylingden kills another creature, Oliver and Mark's investigation uncovers the monastery's passage to the underworld. Rest forgotten, Oliver becomes embroiled in the village's past and present as the novel segues from gothic mystery to science fiction horror. Their discovery uncovers and solves, through a circuitous plot line revealed by various residents, Skylingden's secrets. To his astonishment, Mark's long-vanished father was then an integral figure. Readers will find Mark's father's involvement unexpected, and most plot twists are surprising in this second novel of the Western Lights series. In contrast, the villagers' narratives are often tedious. Main events occur in chapters featuring Oliver and Mark, so readers might skim some sections. The ending is harsh;all the villagers become physically enslaved by evil with Oliver left mentally broken by witnessing the novel's disconcerting premise, "Suppose there is no just and powerful Almighty? Suppose there are only devils?" Several tantalizing plot lines remained unsolved, but thoughtful high school fans of mystery or science fiction should enjoy reading thisnovel and pondering its proposition nevertheless. VOYA CODES:4Q 2P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses;For the YA with a special interest in the subject;Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12;Adult and Young Adult). 2001, Ace, 318p, $14.95 Trade pb. Ages 15 to Adult. Reviewer:Lisa M. Hazlett—VOYA, December 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 5)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780441008414
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/7/2001
  • Pages: 336
  • Age range: 18 years
  • Product dimensions: 6.09 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Part One

DARKNESS

A Stranger here
Strange Things doth meet.

THOMAS TRAHERNE

CHAPTER I

IN THE LODGE-ROOM

THERE were tenants again at Skylingden.

For a host of years the mansion-house on the point overlooking Lonewater and the village had lain vacant; no tenants, evidently, could be found. It was a mystery who held title to the great hall now. Even the village attorney, Mr. Thomas Dogger, inquisitive gentleman that he was, with a lawyerly finger in every pie in town, had no notion who the owner of Skylingden might be. Such knowledge was but one of many closely kept secrets in the records office at Malbury, the county town of Talbotshire. Some in Shilston Upcot conjectured that the new tenants were themselves the owners, come to take charge of the house; but no one actually knew. A huge, ungainly, ungovernable thing it was, this house, unkempt and disordered, with a long, lazy roof-line, glimpses of which could be seen roaming about the high wood. Infested with lichen and sprouting its own architectural forest of finials and gables and chimney-stacks, the house lay hid like a Cyclops amid the trees, far above lake and village, with its great round window — the “eye of Skylingden,” as it was popularly known — staring down on all.

As expected, there was a good deal of interest in who these new tenants were and what they were like; their backgrounds, their interests, what their intentions were, how much money they had. Ripples of speculation washed over the village like waves upon Lonewater’s pebbly beach. Were they country people or did they come from the city? From the county town, or from Crow’s-end perhaps? Were they respectable folk? Did they intend to involve themselves in local matters, or remain aloof as people from the city often did? Above all, what was their income? How much per annum? Were they fabulously well-to-do, or merely wealthy?

The first reports, from the tradesmen who had been called on to effect improvements about the house and grounds, were of mixed consequence. They were a respectful, retiring, sober-minded family who inhabited the great hall. The patriarch was a mature gentleman of austere appearance, with a handsome, hawkish face, prominent side-whiskers, and mustaches. His hair was solidly black without any traces of age, and so it was immediately suspected that he dyed it. He was partial to dark evening coats with velvet collars, snuff-colored waistcoats, and odd, spotted neckties, this latter affectation perhaps in deference to his new country neighbors (which of itself pointed to his coming from the city, as smart country people never wear such things.) By name the gentleman was Bede Wintermarch, history and connections unknown. There was as well a plain-looking wife, rather meek and somber, and a pretty little daughter with a subdued expression very like her mother’s; such qualities were taken to be the fruit of a domineering husband and father. The wife was considerably younger than her partner, the child perhaps no more than ten. As for servants, there were not nearly so many of them as ought to be found in such a household; which, together with other evidence, led Mr. Ives of the Arms to conclude that the family Wintermarch was less than prosperous.

“The gentleman’s not laying out coin as you might expect,” was the landlord’s assessment, which he was propounding to some of the regulars gathered in the lodge-room of the Village Arms, on a summer night. “He’s telling it down in pence, which makes it clear to me he’s tight with his money. Now, some would argue that signifies a wise man; but in this case I say, hardly. Why should a gentleman from the city move house, deliver his family into Talbotshire where they’re less than strangers, and settle on such a monster as Skylingden, only to pinch pence when it comes to his domestic arrangements? Simple parsimony, gentlemen? No, sirs; no, say I. He pinches his pence because he’s very few pence left to pinch, not least from the sizable rent payment as must be owing on the quarter-day.”

Such was the opinion of Mr. Nim Ives, and such the opinion of certain others in his circle in the lodge-room that evening. This lodge-room of the Arms was an interesting place. Opening from the entrance-hall, it was conspicuous first for an enormous, free-standing chimney-piece of cobbled stonework, which occupied the very center of the room. A spacious place the room was too, square as to sides and vaulted as to ceiling, and rather snugly appointed, with sofas of rustic but comfortable design, ottomans and easy chairs, dim soft lamps, tables and writing-desks, and flowered carpets over a boarded floor. There was a badly tuned pianoforte, for the questionable pleasure of guests; a tall chime-clock (out of tune as well); a pile of county newspapers, most of them hopelessly obsolete but still in fine shape to be read; a cupboard of musty books; and in the other half of the room beyond the chimney-piece, a billiard-table flanked by a lengthy row of French windows. Many were the hours idled away round that table by devotees of the sacred rite, with the click and chuck of billiard-play and the voices of the company often heard well into the night; for it was a sport as popular with regulars from the village as with travelers stopping at the inn.

The most remarkable thing about this lodge-room, however, was its rather more silent inhabitants — mounted trophy-heads of deer, elk, short-faced bear, bison, tapir, peccary, moropus, megathere, and not least saber-cat; which made the room something like a temple of taxidermy, with the heads starting out of the walls as if the living creatures themselves were in the midst of bursting through from outside. The cat with its fearsome sabers was an exception, being affixed instead to the chimney-piece and giving rise to the uncomfortable notion that flames from the hearth-fire might at any time come shooting from its mouth. City visitors unaccustomed to such novelties found them appalling; but to Mr. Ives and his circle the menagerie was rather more prosaic, though touched with something of that grim humor so common to mountain people who every day must confront nature at her most elemental.

One such mountain person and member of the Ives circle was Dr. William Hall, long the village physician. He was a spare, slight, elderly man, with a smooth, featureless face like pale calfskin, a face of unyielding composure, such that one could hardly tell if he approved or disapproved of the verdict of Mr. Ives regarding the Wintermarches. The doctor was not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve; indeed, even the sleeve was rarely glimpsed. He was a circumspect man, a characteristic well befitting one of his position and vocation, and so responded to Mr. Ives and his verdict with little more than a raised eyebrow. There was much the doctor knew about Shilston Upcot, about its inhabitants and its history, which the constraints of his office prevented him from revealing. To some in the village he was a sphinx — seeing much, hearing much, saying little. He was discreet, he was diplomatic; above all he kept his own counsel.

His entire opposite in these regards happening at that moment to put her head in at the door, a more timely contrast could not have been offered. She was a pretty young woman of about twenty, with ringlets of soft dark hair framing an open, undesigning face. Her forehead was a bold one, her gaze bright and unflinchingly direct. She moved with that kind of quick, purposeful stride that bespeaks earnestness and efficiency. Her friends called her affable, generous, plain-spoken; she was incapable of dissimulation and unafraid to challenge received wisdom. She was, in brief, an unusual young woman. She had come now, she said, in search of her father — who it should be no surprise was that same Mr. Ives we already have met.

“What is it, Cherry, m’dear?” inquired the landlord, glancing round from the table where he and the regulars were assembled. The likeness to his daughter was at once perceptible in the lively gray eyes and forthright expression with which he regarded her.

“Coach in the yard!” she announced, with a toss of her head.

Mr. Ives at once clapped hands to apron and rose from his chair.

“Hallo! There she is at last,” said he. “The ‘Flying Blue Maid,’ I’ll warrant, from Malbury. She’s hours past due. You’ll pardon me, gentlemen.”

And so he hurried off, calling for his assistant and drawer, Mr. John Jinkins, which long, tall, and very dour fellow joined him and Cherry in the yard to meet the coach-party. Already the voice of the ostler could be heard on the night air, giving instruction to the stable-hands for racking up the horses.

“It’s my view he’s a sly one, and brainy too,” said a youngish, thickish gentleman among the landlord’s circle at the table. He wore a helmet of short dark hair on his head, the fullness of this hair making his face seem small by comparison. His eyebrows were extravagantly overgrown and fused into a single long brush, like a bristly caterpillar. The eyes beneath the brush were agile and alert, and constantly roving. He had large yellow teeth, which he held in a tiny prison of a mouth; each time he spoke it required every effort of his lips to keep his incisors from escaping.

“Who is a sly one?” asked another of the regulars, one Mr. Thomas Tudway, the village chandler.

“The gent up at Skylingden. The new tenant. It’s my view that fellow’s keeping a close rein on his fortune so as not to give out to all and sundry how rich he is. It’s to deter the local spongers, o’ course. That’s sly and brainy, it is, in my view.”

The person tendering this opinion was Mr. Tony Arkwright, veterinary surgeon and sporting man; a hard-riding man and a smoking man, and a gaming man and a drinking man. This last qualification he demonstrated now by causing half his drink to vanish in one swallow.

“And so, gents,” said he, looking significantly round at his companions, “there you have my interpretation of it. In my view it’s obvious to anything with eyes, and so I’ve no intention to sift the matter further.”

“I’m inclined, I fear, more to the landlord’s view,” said the reverend gentleman beside him. Unlike Mr. Arkwright, the youthful vicar of Shilston Upcot was neither a sporting man nor a smoking man, and certainly not a gaming man; though he was known to like his spirits. “Although we’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting the Wintermarches, we have managed to obtain one or two snippets of information from Wesley, the joiner’s lad, who has been several times to the manor. As he informed my dear wife, the family looks to be a plain and proper one, reserved, studious perhaps and not given to unnecessary chatter, and without the physical adornments one often associates with wealth. The house itself is, he reports, but sparsely furnished.”

“Aye, we’ve heard the same,” affirmed several of the others.

“All of which could be a bad thing, or a good thing,” said the veterinary.

“How so, Mr. Arkwright?” asked the vicar, pushing back his plated spectacles.

“Consider this. When a gent is given much to palaver, it’s often the case as only a particle of that talk can be relied on; the rest is sheer humbug. Now, that’s a bad thing, in my view. It’s like a young trotting-horse with a mind to jib. You’ll not know from one moment to the next what the meaning of it is, what part is substance and what part folly.”

“That is unfortunately, Mr. Arkwright, sometimes true.”

“And as is often the case as well, a gent who’s very proper and given to reserve in his externals, may be underneath it all a deep one with motives and strategies he’d not care to advertise, as they offer no good to anybody concerned. That, too, is a bad thing.”

“Yes, I agree, very bad. And too common.”

“On the other hand, a gent who’s very proper and given to reserve may simply be an honest, straightforward soldier, and just as he appears, nothing more, nothing less. A straightforward gent, a reliable gent, like our Ives. Now that’s a good thing, in my view.”

“That too is true. All you say is true, Mr. Arkwright.”

“Which leaves us exactly where?” inquired Dr. Hall, speaking for the first time that evening.

The vicar shook his head; the other regulars shook theirs; the veterinary hunched up his shoulders and asked, rhetorically —

“I wonder, then, what Mark thinks of it all?”

“The squire of Dalroyd will, I fear, be little interested in these new people,” sighed the vicar. “For you see how he neglects matters in the parish, and affairs in Shilston Upcot generally. There’s no need to remind you of the last vestry meeting, so I shan’t mention it. It’s Mr. Trench’s prerogative, of course, though if he can’t be bothered with important matters involving the church and the vicarage, which are on the whole his own province, why should he have concern for newcomers to Skylingden?”

“You’re being a trifle unjust, aren’t you, vicar?” returned the doctor, composedly. “Young Mark is, after all, reigning master of Dalroyd and as such the sole patron of the benefice. Although it may be traditional for the squire to be involved in daily matters in the parish, it’s far from obligatory. He is but one of many in the village with an interest in parochial business.”

“Pray do not mistake me, doctor. Mr. Trench is an excellent man, a worthy man, an honest man, and I commend him for it. However, it has been my experience,” sighed the Reverend Mr. Scattergood again, “in the brief two years my darling Dinah and I have been settled at the vicarage, that he has shown but scant interest in matters vis-à-vis the church and her flock, to say nothing of her poor shepherd. The living of Shilston Upcot is already heavily mortgaged; I’m sure if I don’t take care I’ll next be surrendering the surplice-fees. But it’s all in the life of a country clergyman, I suppose. Unstable as water are we in our posts, and must be satisfied with the lonely usefulness of our lot.”

“You’ll not get anywhere, vicar, in my view, with levying a rate for repairs to the church steeple,” said Mr. Arkwright. “It was that as rankled Mark at the vestry meeting. And I ask you, who here can blame him? In my view the church wardens and yourself would be wise to raise a subscription for the purpose.”

“I suppose we shall be forced to consider it.”

“No one will stand for a rate — no one substantial, that is, and o’ course the poor have few resources. It may be custom but it simply isn’t on, in my view, not with the state of feeling in the parish. And you’ll not levy a rate against the will of the majority — no, no, I’ll not sift that matter further tonight.”

Several of the listeners were seen nodding in agreement with Mr. Arkwright. The vicar and Mr. Trench were not always on the nicest of terms, and often it was indeed the fault of the testy young squire, but neither was Mr. Mark Trench quite so neglectful of his duties as the vicar sometimes made out. Nor was the Reverend Mr. Horace Scattergood so dreadfully short of funds, for he had in addition to the living a small private income, as well as the interest from his wife’s dowry, which, even allowing for his parochial expenses out-of-pocket, must have eased the burden of his lonely, useful existence considerably.

So went the conversation that evening, and such were the relayed accounts of Mr. Bede Wintermarch and hisménage newly established at the mansion-house. There was no want of discourse on the topic of Skylingden elsewhere in the town as well: at Gray Lodge, at the grocer’s, at the waffle-house of Miss Crimp, or at Prospect Cottage; at Prospect Cottage in particular — it being the abode of Mr. Thomas Dogger — for there was little doubt among villagers that the inquisitive attorney would soon be on the case.

At about this same time, very soon after the arrival of the new inmates, there arose late one night a disturbance in the town. Dustbins were overthrown, panes of glass shattered, horses and dogs unnerved. The parish sexton, roused from sleep in his hut behind the church of St. Lucy of the Lake, looked out from his window to see a shadowy form prowling about the church-garden. As it lumbered forth into the moonlight he recognized it, from its immense size and rolling gait, from the shape of its head and the unusually long reach of its limbs — a short-faced bear. He recognized it too as the venerable, arthritic specimen known as Splayfoot, a grizzled male that had for some years haunted the dense thickets round Skylingden Wood and the point. Annoyed perhaps at the reoccupation of the mansion-house, at the daily activities of the household and the comings and goings of the tradesmen, the old veteran had come down from the wood to seek his bread elsewhere this night.

But there was more to the incident than that, or so it would appear, for the sexton was greatly troubled by it. Just why he should be so troubled, and filled with gloomy forebodings, is a matter that cannot be disclosed at present. Suffice it that the appearance of this creature in the church-garden gave him much cause for concern, nearly as much as his first glimpse of the family Wintermarch had on the Monday last.

CHAPTER II

THE SQUIRE OF DALROYD

THE village of Shilston Upcot, unlike Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into but two parts, a lower part and an upper part. The lower part or village proper is the larger by far and that part rising from the lakeshore. Its chief thoroughfare is termed, predictably, the Low Street, and originates as a branch of the coach-road at its emergence from Grim Forest, that vast domain of evergreen and oak lying between the Talbot Peaks and Lonewater. Along this street are situated the commercial establishments of the town, the church and churchyard, the almshouses, the village green and market cross, the grammar school, and many of the residential cottages. At its farther extreme, at Town End, the street runs out at the flanking hillside, down which a line of stone steps descends from the Village Arms. By means of these steps access to the lower village can be conveniently gained from the inn, which sits on the high-road above.

This high-road is a continuation of the coach-road from Crow’s-end and serves the upper village, which lies scattered about the hillside. Here can be found the houses of the more substantial citizens of the community. The bolder of these dwelling-places stand free of the timber, and readily present themselves to view; others, more modest and retiring, lie deep within the woods. A short distance along this road, past the gates and gravel drive leading to the Arms, at the end of another drive a little farther beyond, on a summer’s day, the mellow walls of Dalroyd lay glowing in the sun.

The manor-house of Dalroyd, like Skylingden Hall and the residential cottages of the lower village, was built largely of good Talbotshire stone. Sturdy, square-eyed windows peeped from among the shrubberies cushioning the house; overhead a high-pitched roof of russet-colored tiles, graceful gables, and delicately molded chimneys rose to the sky. A spandreled entrance beneath gently drooping eaves, an ivy-laden porch, a chuckle of birds in the hedges, a lengthy terrace-walk, a smiling stretch of garden and trelliswork with a rosy sea of flowers, all gave joy to the passer-by. Here in splendor lived the sole direct representative of the ancient Talbotshire line of Trench, the squire of Dalroyd, who you shall find has a not inconsequential role to play in this history.

The present squire was a gentleman somewhere in his fourth decade, and possessed of what might best be termed a lounging disposition; which is to say that he never seemed at any time to be in any particular hurry about any particular thing whatsoever. No matter the occasion, no matter the circumstance, no matter how pressing the issue, his response was the same: a carefully crafted indolence, a deliberate and careless ease, often couched in cynicism — an attitude which was as much a part of his being as his mustaches and long side-whiskers were of his face.

As regards that face, the mustaches and side-whiskers he held in common with Mr. Bede Wintermarch, but there all resemblance ended, for the face of Mr. Mark Trench was a singular face indeed. There was nothing the slightest bit handsome or hawkish about it; it was more like a wasteland. It was a gray, drab, lumpish thing, rather haphazardly put together, as though the Almighty had been sorely pressed for time while fashioning it, tossing an eye here and a nose there, all in a rush and without laying out the plan of it before leaping in. As a result the eyes of Mr. Trench were somewhat too small, somewhat too narrow, and somewhat too closely planted, with one slightly above the other, and a craggy brow overhanging them both. His nose was short, squat, and globular at the tip, with prominent nostrils. His mustaches were of common size, true, but the lips beneath them were too full. The side-whiskers ran up to his ears and there abruptly disappeared, the hair above them having fled the field somewhere about his twenty-first birthday. As a consequence the squire was almost never seen without his sportish turf hat, whether taking the air in the woods or taking his ease at Dalroyd, or a black beaver when riding. A dark cutaway coat and white waistcoat, black neckcloth, gold watch and seals, pepper-and-salt trousers and lacquered half-boots, and a cigar held loosely in his fingers, completed the usual picture of his lounging self.

In point of fact Mr. Trench was quite conscious of his shortcomings and on occasion even offered comment upon them. He was casual, nonchalant, even at ease with them, as befitted one of his disposition; he was resigned to what nature had provided — or so he said, for it was nonetheless clear that a deeply rooted contempt for these failings underlay his words. So it was he cut a rather fashionable figure in local society, as to clothes and pedigree; too bad, was the common plaint, that he had not the physiognomy to match.

On the summer day described — it was a day not long after the discussion in the lodge-room of the Arms recounted in the previous chapter — the squire of Dalroyd was giving utterance to just such opinions as the worthy vicar had predicted as regards the tenants of Skylingden, to a guest who had only recently entered his household.

“I’ll tell you again, Noll,” said Mr. Trench, as he and his guest strolled upon the terrace-walk, “it matters little to me who has taken up residence there or why. Tenants will come and tenants will go, though to be sure the place has been empty for a jolly long while now. To all effects it’s little more than a tithe cottage, despite its size, and equally dilapidated. I’m shocked anybody would volunteer for it. Why should anyone sensible want to come here? I can assure you, they’ll quickly recognize their error and be off home. They’ll not stay long. And so I tell you again, what’s it to me who they are?”

“But there’s the very point, Mark,” returned his guest, a gentleman like Mr. Trench in his thirties but rather more agreeable as to countenance, with regular features, a wide luminous gaze, and abundant curling hair. “Why are they here? Surely it must stir the fires of interest in you. I can’t believe it doesn’t; it’s inconceivable. As for anyone sensiblewanting to come here, you’ll recollect perhaps that I myself have come here from Crow’s-end, and am not a person generally accounted to be lacking in sense. Though I arrived but a few days ago, already I’m wild to know who these new people are and why they’ve chosen such a remote spot to set up house.”

“And jolly welcome you are to it,” said Mr. Trench, drawing lazily on his cigar. “But you are a sensible sort, truly you are, Noll, and so I’ll except you from my broad swath of condemnation, at least for the present. Besides which you’re a different species altogether, a guest for the summer season at Dalroyd. As your host I’ve no hold upon you; how you occupy your time is your own affair. You’re jolly welcome to pay these new people a call, and free as well to provide me with a report of your visit, should you choose to trot up to Skylingden and offer your card.”

“Good God! At times I don’t know how to take you, Mark. It seems to me you were a cheerier fellow at college. I recall your having a quite varied assemblage of interests at old Antrobus, and not all of them related to tutorials. Cricket, for example. You were rather a sharp bowler, as I recollect, and not without admirers in the field. And of course there were the theater and the opera-house — half-price for a private box, owing to your influence — and the spouting club, and skating, and billiard bagatelle and piquet and casino and other like games of chance at the Flying Horse, to fill in the hours. I carry with me many fine memories of those days. You were a clever and quick-witted fellow to knock about with, Mark, but I fear the years have hardened you terribly. I should be sorry now for anyone who got into your bad books.”

“Mr. Langley,” said Mark, turning to his guest, “I invited you to pass the summer here so you might pursue your translation of the works of an obscure and largely worthless poet of old Rome, not to make an analysis of some morbid condition you suspect in your host. You’re wholly unqualified for the latter task, I can assure you. I suppose next you’ll be diagnosing brain fever and prescribing laudanum. How much more simply can I put it to you? I am not a man of many friends. I’m not the sort for it. I’m the sort who’s jolly better off without them, leastways those of the human variety.”

His guest discharged a laugh. “Dear old Mark, I see it still isn’t hard to get your goat. And it’s early days yet! Of course I was most pleased to receive your kind offer, which was all unlooked for and which I accepted at once. It’s astonishing to consider that this is my first visit ever to Dalroyd and your delightful village at the lakeshore. All those years together in Salthead and never once did an invitation come my way, though you yourself made several calls on us at Crow’s-end, as I’m sure you’ll remember. I admit it’s a mystery now what has triggered this sudden burst of magnanimity.”

“It’s all rather simple, as you very well know, sir. I received some badgering correspondence in the post from one Mr. Oliver Langley of Bucket’s Court, Highmarket, Crow’s-end. This gentleman wrote me a series of lengthy, tiresome letters describing his current literary endeavor, relating how disagreeable it was to peg away at it in that busy city of his on the cliff, in the fogs one day and the rains the next, and with the coach-traffic outside making it wellnigh impossible for him to summon his muse. Naturally I felt compassion for the poor drudge, and offered him the balm and solace of Dalroyd. There is nothing more mysterious than that, I can assure you.”

“No, no. I say there is more than that and it is not so very mysterious. I suspect you’ve grown into a lonely soul up here in your mountains, in this isolated spot — this insulated spot — with only a handful of rustic villagers for company and blessed little in the way of culture apart from billiards and horseflesh. So tell me now — what of Miss Mowbray?”

“Who?”

“Oh, stuff and nonsense, Mark,” returned Mr. Langley, setting hands to hips. He broke into a smile that well became his sunny outfit, which was nearly all checks — a light checked country jacket, yellow, with checked waistcoat to match, a checked scarf neckcloth, and yellow checked trousers. “Miss Margaret Mowbray, just along the road there at Gray Lodge, that fine-looking villa, very prettily situated, with the tall thatched roof. Your cousin Mags, of course.”

“My exceedingly distant cousin Mags, who might just as well come from the opposite end of the earth, if such still exists. We’re very nearly not related at all, in point of fact; it’s the most tenuous of connections. Yes, perhaps there really is no relation. Perhaps it’s a hoax, perhaps I’ve been gammoned; I suppose I should look into it. It would be a jolly sight better for her, you know, for then she’d not be hindered socially by being known as Trench’s cousin.”

“And what of her aunt with whom she lives there at Gray Lodge, and provides with companionship?”

“Be advised I am even less akin to Mrs. Jane Fielding than I am to Miss Mowbray, for she’s an aunt by marriage only and mature in years.”

They stood in silence for a time, each immersed in his own reflections while admiring the view from the terrace-walk. They could see the plump, pleasant face of the Village Arms with its air of snug concealment, a little down the road, and beyond it the dark sheet of water that was the lake, and beyond that a distant line of hills. The roof-tops of the village proper, beneath the inn, were visible in patchy glimpses through the forest, which was pierced at one point by the broad spire of the church rearing up from below.

And across the inlet, looking out at them from the shaggy expanse of the high wood, the skulking Cyclops of Skylingden.

“Magnificent perspective,” murmured Oliver. “A splendid place it is, your Talbotshire, this valley, these mountains, sacred to hawks and solitude. Surpassingly beautiful.”

Mr. Trench nodded and smoked.

“Soothing. Restful. Reviving.”

The squire nodded again.

“Such a marked change from city bustle. I’m still adjusting to the air, but it shan’t take long. This is very much like a heaven come to earth for me. Yes, yes, I can work here.”

“Jolly glad to hear it. You’ll not mind explaining, then, your comment as regards our billiards and our horseflesh?”

“You’re so very critical at times, Mark, and cynical too. You’ve grown so much darker than I recollect from our Salthead days.”

“I should think it were you who were being critical of me. Darker, did you say? Perhaps my chin requires shaving.”

“Stuff and nonsense again. So tell me — pray be serious now — why is it you haven’t married your cousin? Frankly I’m surprised.”

“Marry Mags? Whatever in the world should impel one to such a rash action? I’m jolly comfortable as I am, a reigning bachelor. And she’s jolly comfortable as she is, down the path there with her aunt. We’re two jolly comfortable people. (Three people, in point of fact, as I’m sure her aunt is jolly comfortable as well.) Why should comfortable people seek to ruin their lives with something like a marriage?”

Another pause. Mr. Trench smoked his cigar, while Mr. Langley listened to the soft rush of wind in the pine needles.

“You’re not still going on about your father?” asked Oliver at length.

“What is there to go on about, as you call it?”

“He left Dalroyd to you, after all.”

“He left Dalroyd to my mother and me, sir, after he very conveniently left the both of us,” replied the squire, with a vengeful bite of his cigar. His eyes drifted away to roam about the stately files of timber, rather than light on his friend. “He abandoned his wife and small child without so much as a ‘by-your-leave.’ Well, thank you very much! No, I never can forgive him, Noll, for what he did to my mother. Never, never. The light went out of her spirit when he left her, and I am convinced it hastened her bodily end. She never was the same woman in after-years. Before his going, always so gay and happy; after it —”

His voice trailed off, not from sentiment but from displeasure.

“I must admit, to my mind it’s a colossus of a puzzle,” said Oliver. “I’ve simply never understood it. I couldn’t have imagined my poor father even contemplating such a thing. And to what purpose? Why should the master of Dalroyd forsake his family, his title, his holdings, his position in the community? How could he possibly gain by it? It confounds me no end. Ah, well, they’ve the both of them passed on now, mine for a certainty and yours more likely than not. But I do wish I could have known your father, or at the very least had the opportunity of meeting him.”

“You’re jolly lucky you didn’t. A fine lot of male forbears we’ve had in the family Trench,” grumbled Mark. He made a move to go, having evidently wearied of the conversation.

“But to speak again of your cousin,” said Oliver, detaining him for the moment. “There is good news to report, for Miss Mowbray and Mrs. Fielding are to join us tonight for dinner.”

“As I have been duly informed. It appears my cousin and her aunt have gotten it into their heads that you require a sort of formal welcome to your holiday home. Naturally they called upon our forces here at Dalroyd to take the trouble of it, rather than impose upon their own household at Gray Lodge. Jolly gracious of them.”

“Oh, come, come, Mark! You’re exaggerating terribly. To my mind they are a most amiable pair. True, I’ve had the pleasure of their company but twice before — once on their visit to Crow’s-end a few years back, when I entertained them at my humble lodgings in Highmarket, and then again this very day on my morning’s ramble through the village. I assure you there’s no design on their part, none whatever. It was I, not they, who proposed Dalroyd, after the ladies had conveyed to me their idea for a welcoming dinner. I thought Dalroyd an altogether suitable choice, as it is the squire who is the patron of my visit. I trust he’ll not take offense?”

“Ha!” was all that Mr. Trench could muster in reply.

“What is more they’re but two people and no added burden for your kitchen staff. Mark, Miss Mowbray and Mrs. Fielding are your last living relations in all the world. Consider my case — I’ve no one left now, absolutely no one. I would gladly surrender what little I possess to see my poor mother and father walk in again at the door. You’re very fortunate, you know, and you should not forget that; though I expect you’ll now be putting me sharply to rights on the matter.”

“Ha!” said Mark again, who was finding something to decry in almost everything his friend had to offer.

Oliver smiled; in truth he knew the ways of his old college fellow — though indeed they were harder ways now — and had known them for above fifteen years, since he and Mark had first shared rooms at Antrobus. His friend had always been moody, obstinate, perverse; blind to opinion, and always in a bit of a temper; a rank radical who was without question his own man. These qualities had nothing if not intensified through the years, in concert with that lounging personality of his, that attitude of negligent ease which Oliver found so paradoxical.

“Well, we’ve jolly little left to contest here, I warrant,” said Mark. “We all must rub through life as best we can. I’ve a flood of accounts awaiting me at my escritoire. You and your dusty Roman friend may freely commune with one another in the interval, until Smithers announces the dreaded hour of dining.”

The squire turned and strode into the house, leaving Oliver to admire again the sea of flowers in the garden, the hedges and shrubberies, the venerable mansion itself in its framework of pine and fir woodland, its tranquil and sylvan solitudes; and to wonder how it was such a charming place as Dalroyd had come to have such an irascible master.

CHAPTER III

MISS MOWBRAY AND MR. TRENCH

AS Oliver walked in at the door he was met not by Mr. Smithers, the butler, but by a lively shorthaired terrier-dog, a small white bundle of energy sprinkled over with liver-colored spots, among them a patch just above one eye, which gave to his face something like a quizzical or a doubting expression — an expression that served the dog marvelous well, I think, in his capacity as companion and confidant to Mr. Mark Trench.

“Jolly-boy is very keen on you, I see,” called Mark from a corner of the drawing-room, where he had gone to prepare himself a fresh cigar. “Well, he is a sensible sort.”

“He’s a most agreeable little fellow, to be sure,” laughed Oliver, kneeling to pat the terrier about the head and ears. The dog responded eagerly to such attention with a dripping tongue and frenzied oscillations of his tail.

“He’s a great comfort to me,” intoned Mark, drolly.

“Yes, I suppose he must be. It makes for an affecting tableau, the master of Dalroyd dwelling here in manorial splendor with only his loyal canine to bear him company.”

“You’re forgetting Smithers,” said Mark, nodding as that equally loyal attendant now made his appearance. He was a dignified, self-assured serving-man, with a florid complexion, gray hair thinly swept over his cranium but curling at the back of it, frosty whiskers, and a smooth upper lip. He stood looking on in his dark suit, linen shirt, and splendid waistcoat, the shining ideal of a country gentleman’s manservant. He had been a member of the household since long before the present squire had slipped into the world. His every feature and action marked him out as belonging to Dalroyd; indeed, he was by now almost a physical part of it, as indispensable as any of the building stones, bricks, or beams of timbers that composed it.

“Your ledgers, rent-rolls, and related materials are laid upon your desk in the study, sir,” said he. “It is as you requested, that you might powder away at them in the afternoon while awaiting the arrival of Miss Mowbray and Mrs. Fielding.”

“You see, Noll?” said Mark, with an approving glance at his servant. “However should I manage without him? ‘Show me your butler and I’ll tell you what you are,’ or something or other. Well, he’s a treasure to me, absolutely matchless, that much I can say. Thank you, Smithers. I believe our sunny visitor here, Mr. Langley, has some affairs of his own to occupy him. And so we shall each be employed at our respective tasks for the next few hours, I suppose, until my cousin and her aunt come trotting up the lane. Pray inform us when they’re within spotting distance, will you, Smithers?”

“Very good, sir.”

“And so far as Tinker is concerned, Mr. Langley — I expect in his proud horsy heart he’ll see his way clear to forgive you, for slighting him as regards Jolly-boy and myself.”

“I apologize for neglecting to mention the loyal equine,” returned Oliver, “but as he is at present cropping grass in the paddock he cannot be at your side here in the drawing-room, en tableau, as your dog is. I must assume moreover that he can neither overhear nor comprehend our words, being so engaged, and thus cannot know of the slight.”

“Ha! Never assume, Noll, never assume. Tinker is, after all, a horse, a sixteen-hands bay hunter,” said Mark, smilingly, “and with a horse, well, one just never quite knows.”

He doffed his hat, and with Jolly-boy scampering at his heels disappeared — hat, bald head, terrier and all — behind the door of his study.

The remainder of the afternoon was passed in mental exercise, Mark at his accounts and correspondence (though in rather desultory fashion, it must be confessed, and with much recourse to his cigars), and Oliver at his Latin, endeavoring to translate in an intelligible manner the ideas, images, and rhythmic forms of a long-dead poet, who in his wildest fancy could never have conceived of anything so haphazard as the English language, nor known how much of his own precise tongue would survive in it.

Towards seven o’clock it was announced that the ladies of Gray Lodge were approaching in a chaise, at which news the gentlemen promptly extricated themselves from their labors — with no little relief, I suspect — and returned to the drawing-room.

There they soon were joined by a young woman of sprightly countenance, with a ready smile and a profusion of rich, creamy hair. A playful, grinning countenance it was, full of laughing eyes and glowing cheeks, planted on a frame something shorter than the norm but altogether firm, graceful, and athletic, with not an ounce of spare flesh; all of it set off by a colorful summer dress with large pockets into which the young woman was wont at times to rest her hands, in the country manner. Her demeanor was so wholly invigorating, so charged with spirit, in sharp contrast to that of the lounging Mr. Trench, that the very room seemed to brighten for her presence in it. The countenance and demeanor belonged to no other than Miss Mowbray — otherwise Mags — who as the squire had confessed was distantly related to him, but rather so distantly he’d forgotten just how.

With her was Mrs. Fielding, the mature aunt by marriage — a kindly and pleasant if somewhat diffident lady, a widow of long standing, with a set of features that had once been quite beautiful. Remnants of that beauty still could be seen about her lips, her eyes, her brow; but on the whole it was sad how time had dealt with her. Beauty, which lies dying even as it lives! At all events she was blessed with a fine good humor, though much given to allowing her niece the larger share of their conversation. She was, like the tenants of Skylingden, a little reserved by nature; but unlike them, altogether approachable and unmysterious.

“And here is our friend Mr. Langley, of Crow’s-end,” said Miss Mowbray, flashing a smile at the visitor. “Welcome again, Mr. Langley, to our little corner of Talbotshire.”

“Thank you, Miss Mowbray,” returned Oliver, gallantly. “I am delighted to see you again so soon, and you as well, dear Mrs. Fielding. It was most opportune, don’t you think, our encountering one another this morning in the Low Street?”

“Ha! There it is then, it will persist in eluding me, the fact that you’re all three acquainted,” said Mark, snapping his fingers at the recollection. “So tell me again, cousin, just what was the purpose for this hastily arranged soirée? I’m simply the host here, you remember, the fellow charged with settling the accounts, and it’s jolly bad form to keep me so thoroughly in the dark about it.”

“You know the purpose very well, cousin, as I have just divulged it in welcoming Mr. Langley,” said Miss Mowbray. “It is to offer him our kindest regards and to wish him joy for the duration of his visit, so that in future he will recall his summer among us with fondness. And so you’ll not be keeping him all to yourself, will you, Mark? You may delight in playing the grumpy squire all the day long and locking yourself away in your gloomy rooms, but surely your guest should not suffer the same fate.”

“To which I ardently protest, madam. Firstly, there are no gloomy rooms at Dalroyd. Absolutely none. Secondly, I amnot grumpy, nor have I ever in my life been grumpy, and I most certainly do not keep myself locked away. Ha! You know yourself that Tinker and Jolly-boy and I have passed more hours together than I ever have spent with Noll here. They’re excellent company.”

“Agreed,” said Oliver. “Since my arrival it has become clear to me that Mark is quite devoted to his two companions, with whom he spends much time roaming about Cranberry Chase and the surrounding woodland. I myself have ridden with them on several occasions now.”

“And so you yourself are not excellent company, Mr. Langley?” inquired Miss Mowbray. “Don’t you think it an impertinence, this comparison of my cousin’s?”

“I assure you, I think it nothing more than dear old Mark and his ways,” replied Oliver, laughing.

“Please tell us something of your work, Mr. Langley,” spoke up Mrs. Fielding. “Mark has made mention of a literary project you have in hand —your ‘dusty brain-basher,’ as he terms it. You must tell us of it.”

“Silla,” interposed the squire.

“How is that?”

“Silla.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand —”

“Silla,” echoed Oliver, dashing to the good lady’s assistance. “Gaius Pomponius Silla, to be correct. An obscure Roman philosopher and poet, an army man and native of Spain like his emperor, Trajan. He flourished in the first half of the second Christian century and was the author of five books of epigrams, none of which has ever before been rendered into English or any other language.”

“A very obscure sort,” nodded Mark. “I’d never in my life heard of the fellow myself, I can assure you, before receiving letters from Noll outlining his endeavor.”

“My dusty brain-basher, you mean?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’ve not heard the name either,” said Miss Mowbray. “Have you, Aunt?”

The widow shook her head, to indicate her total unfamiliarity with any person or thing calling itself Silla.

“And so I have set myself the task of remedying the deficiency,” said Oliver. “I’ll admit, it’s been tough slogging but I’ve made headway. Thanks to Mark I expect to make even greater progress over the course of the summer.”

“I’d like to hear something more about this man Silla himself. I’m sure he must have come to some frightful end, as so many of those old Romans did,” said Miss Mowbray. “Did he fall on his sword or take poison, like a good fellow, or was he by chance assassinated?”

“Nothing so gruesome as that. He retired from soldiering to a small rural estate in the north of Italy, where he lived to a considerable age. He directed most of his efforts toward the writing and revising of a relatively small body of work, some bits of philosophy but epigrams mostly, which he modeled after those of his late idol, Martial, another native of Spain. Because he had no influential patron and was far from Rome, living as a gentleman farmer amid his vineyards and olive groves, his works never received wide circulation. Eventually they lapsed into perfect obscurity. In the Middle Ages the epigrams were preserved by Saracen scholars, who made fresh copies, one of which happened to fall into my hands this past winter. An acquaintance of mine in Crow’s end, an antiquarian bookseller named Flyford, brought it to my notice. And that is how I have come to be translating the epigrammata of a long-deceased and little-known Roman author into English.”

“Didn’t you say he was a Spaniard?” asked Mark, beetling his brow.

“Perhaps Mr. Langley will read a few of his translations for us this evening,” suggested Mrs. Fielding. “I’m sure he is as facile with his rhythm and meter as Margaret is with our flower-beds at the Lodge.”

“Ah,” exclaimed Oliver, delving into a coat-pocket, “I have here just the thing, a very recent effort. Frankly I was in hopes someone would ask.”

“Oh, jolly good Lord, Noll!” sighed Mark. “Forgive me, Auntie, for employing such language, but I was in hopes that Mr. Langley would hold off — hold off, sir! — at the very least until we’d digested our food, before trotting out his dusty Spanish friend.”

“Mark, you will be quiet,” commanded Miss Mowbray. “By all means proceed, Mr. Langley. Let’s have the brunt of it. Not to worry, we are most of us here your friends.” She threw herself back in her chair and folded her arms, prepared to enjoy whatever was coming. “Are you ready, Aunt?”

“Oh, yes, indeed,” replied Mrs. Fielding.

“This particular epigram was written in imitation of another by Martial,” Oliver began.

“By which you mean he pinched it,” said Mark, lazily inspecting the tuck of a new cigar. “Theft. Plunder. Plagiarism.Ha!

“I prefer to think of it as homage to the master,” returned Oliver, unruffled. Whereupon he cleared his voice and delivered up the following —

“When Marcus sends round that he’s ‘ill,’

His GUESTS suffer more than their host.

It’s all a sham, the prankster’s well,

While THEY die for want of a roast.”

“Well, thank you very much, sir,” said Mark, with polite applause. “That is most revealing. You see now, ladies, what our visitor from town thinks of this host, I warrant!”

“I chose something along the general lines of food and refection, as I considered it apropros,” Oliver explained.

“It was apropros, Mr. Langley, and very clever, too,” replied Miss Mowbray, to counter her cousin’s rather less enthusiastic response. “Wasn’t it, Aunt?”

Apropos it was indeed, for at just that moment the dinner was announced; and so they all sat down to it. Unlike the unfortunate guests in Silla’s epigram they did not want for a thing, for it all was there — turtle soup, some biscuits, and some good Talbotshire cheese; hot jowl of lake trout, a plate of summer venison, mince pies, and sundry dishes of vegetables; kidneys and potatoes, garnished with caper sauce and wild celery; bread and butter; sweetmeats and olives, dried cherries, larchberry pudding, apricot marmalade, a sponge-cake, and blancmange; all of it washed down with liberal quantities of sherry, lemonade, and peppermint tea. Oliver found himself repeatedly complimenting the squire on the quality of the viands, as he had indeed at every meal since his arrival; and though Mark always received such praise with cynical affectation, he was, his visitor knew, secretly pleased. Oliver recognized that beneath that difficult exterior beat the heart of a Talbotshire Trench, proud of his household. No matter what Mark may have thought of his vanished father, he certainly thought much of his father’s house.

The conversation round the board revolved about a pair of topics —reminiscences of college life in Salthead, and the new tenants of Skylingden. The chilly Salthead fogs, the winds on Whistle Hill, rambles about Snowfields and the Exchange, the chain bridge, nights of jollity in chambers and at the Flying Horse in Tower Street: such comprised the mental meat and potatoes of the gentlemen’s recollections. It was above a dozen years since Mark and Oliver last had traversed the steep narrow streets and byways of Salthead town, had viewed its headlands and high places, its lofty crags and wild soaring pinnacles; for neither gentleman had been back since obtaining his degree. They wondered now what changes had taken place in the interval, and what had transpired at Antrobus, their old college, and how some of their companions of those former times were faring.

“Have you heard anything from Timmons?” asked Oliver. “He was always a decent chap.”

“Nothing,” said Mark.

“Or from Massingberd? You’ll recollect he was going to the bar.”

“Nothing.”

“Or Ho wells, the organist? Or Marston?”

“Not a line.”

“Nor have I. Strange. It’s as if they’d taken a plunge straight off the side of the earth.”

“If it were Marston I shouldn’t care a fig. He cut me once — gave me the go-by. Didn’t you know? I should welcome a plunge by Marston. Though I’m in agreement with you as regards Timmons — a jolly decent sort.”

“Yes. Of course, I must admit I’ve never written to Timmons myself, so perhaps he’s had no motive or inclination to correspond. Perhaps that explains why I’ve not heard from him. Nor have I written to any of the others. Have you yourself ever written to Timmons, by chance?”

“Never in my life!”

“Or to Howells? Or Massingberd?”

The squire answered again in the negative. The former collegians exchanged glances.

“Hmmm,” murmured Oliver. “No cause then for any of our fellows to be posting correspondence to Dalroyd, I shouldn’t think.”

“Nor to Bucket’s Court, I shouldn’t think.”

“Hmmm.”

There followed a thoughtful pause.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2002

    Jeffrey Barlough is a genius!

    This is a stellar book. Like 'Dark Sleeper' before it, it contains boatloads of witty victorian flair and a large memorable cast of characters. Differing this time around is the pacing: whereas the first book darted from occurance to occurance fairly quickly, this story is quite slow, firmly attaching you to the setting and characters...And attached you will remain! I challenge you not to love Barlough's characters! In a way, this works to your disadvantage however, for this is a dark tale about the destruction of a community, and thus leaves you feeling saddened by their fate, where 'Dark Sleeper' is much more uplifting (even for a semi-horror story). Do yourself a favor and buy this book. Jeffrey Barlough stands with China Mieville as my choice for Best New Fantasy Writer...whatever that is worth.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

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    Atmospheric horror

    A man who lives in the seaport city of Crow¿s-end has inherited land in the mountain town of Hoole. He knows that he has to go to Hoole as soon as possible so he gets his affairs in order and boards the carriage that will take him to the isolated mountain town. Shel, a passenger in the carriage, is a taciturn revered person who doesn¿t allow his fellow passenger to draw him into conversation until the carriage reaches an unexpected town. The man who is traveling to Hoole sees a destitute and deserted village with no traces of life, either human or animal. The quiet passenger tells him that he was in Shilston Upcot eleven years ago when the isolated village was populated with people until the horrible events happened that turned a happy little village into a ghost town. Later that night, at a regular stop at an inn he tells his acquaintance the terrifying and dark events that destroyed a thriving community. <P> The growing feelings of foreboding and the supernatural events that happened to the villagers are reminiscent of the works of Lovecraft. THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS is a gothic like, slow moving work that allows the audience to fully comprehend events and the growing horror that absorbed the villagers. Jeffrey E Barlough has not written an action packed thriller but an atmospheric novel that digs deep inside the guts of the reader. <P>Harriet Klausner

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