Mid-list writer Daniel Ellis becomes obsessed with the life and work of novelist Vaughan Edwards, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1996. Edwards' novels, freighted with foreboding tragedy and a lyrical sense of loss, echo something in Ellis's own life. His investigations lead Ellis ever deeper into the enigma that lies at the heart of Vaughan Edwards' country house, Edgecoombe Hall, and the horror that dwells there.
In a departure from his science fiction roots, Eric Brown has written a haunting novella that explores the essence of creativity, the secret of love, and the tragedy that lies at the heart of human existence.
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The following week I received an e-mail from a second-hand bookshop in Oxford, informing me that they had located three novels by Vaughan Edwards. I sent a cheque and the books arrived a few days later.
One of the novels was his very last, The Secret of Rising Dene, published shortly after his disappearance. The biographical details made no reference to the fact that he had vanished, but did give the interesting information that, in '96, he was still living in the North Yorkshire village of Highdale.
That weekend I suggested a drive up into the Dales. I told Mina that I wanted to visit Highdale, where Edwards had lived. After the spat the previous week, things had been fine between us. She made no mention of my interrogative faux pas, and I did my best not to rile her with further questions.
"Highdale? Don't we go through Settle to get there? There's that wonderful Thai place on the way."
"Okay, we'll call in on the way back. How's that?"
She laughed at me. "I hope you don't expect Highdale to be a shrine to your literary hero," she said. "He wasn't quite in the same league as the Brontës?"
"Then let's hope that Highdale isn't as trashily commercialised as Haworth, okay?"
She elbowed me in the ribs.
We set off after lunch on an unusually bright February afternoon, dazzling sunlight giving the false promise of the Spring to come--which would soon no doubt be dashed by the next bout of bitter cold and rain.
The approach road to the village of Highdale wound through ancient woodland on the side of a steep hill. When we reached the crest I pulled off the road and braked the car.
I laughed in delight. Thesunlight picked out the village with great golden searchlights falling through low banks of cumulus. Highdale was a collection of tiny stone-built cottages and farmhouses set amid hunched pastures; I made out a church, a public house, and what might have been a village hall, all laid out below us like some sanguine architect's scale model of a rural idyll.
We drove down the incline and into the village and parked on the cobbled market square before the White Lion.
The pub was empty, save for a barman chatting to someone who might have been a local farmer. They both looked up when we pushed through the door, as if unaccustomed to customers at this time of day.
I ordered a dry cider for Mina and a fresh orange juice for myself. While the barman poured the drinks and chatted to Mina, I looked around the snug. It was fitted out much like any typical village pub: a variety of moorland scenes by local artists, a selection of horse brasses, a battalion of Toby jugs hanging in ranks from the low, blackened beams.
Then I noticed the bookshelf, or rather the books that were upon it. One volume in particular stood out--I recognised the Val Biro pen and ink sketch on the spine of the dust jacket. It showed the attenuated figure of a man doffing his Trilby. It was the cover of Vaughan Edwards' third novel, A Brighter Light.
The barman said something.
"Excuse me?" I said, my attention on the books.
"I think he wants paying," Mina said. "Don't worry, I'll get these."
She paid the barman and carried the drinks over to the table beneath the bookshelf. I was peering at the racked spines, head tilted.
"Good God," I said. "They're all Edwards."
"Not all of them." Mina tapped the spines of four books, older volumes than the Edwards. They were by a writer I had never come across before, E.V. Cunningham-Price. They looked Victorian, and caught her interest. She pulled them from the shelf, sat down and began reading.
I sorted through the Edwards. There were ten novels, eight of which I had never read, and a volume of short stories. I pulled them down and stacked them on the table, reading through the description of each book on the front inside flap.
I looked back at the shelf. I thought it odd that there should be no other books beside the Edwards and the four Cunningham-Price volumes.
The barman was watching me. I hefted one of the books. "They're not for sale, by any chance??"
He was a big man in his sixties, with the type of stolid, typically northern face upon which scowls seem natural, like fissures in sedimentary rock.
"Well, by rights they're not for sale, like. They're for the enjoyment of the customers, if you know what I mean. Tell you what, though--take a couple with you, if you promise to bring them back."
"I'll do that. That's kind?"
"You're not locals, then?"
Mina looked up. "Almost. Skipton."
"Local enough," the barman said. "Hope you enjoy 'em."
"I'm sure I will." I paused, regarding the books and wondering which two volumes to take with me. Mina looked up from her book. "I wouldn't mind taking this one, Daniel."
I selected the volume of stories, The Tall Ghost and other tales, and returned the others to the shelf.
I finished my drink and moved to the bar for a refill. I indicated the books. "He was a local, wasn't he? Did he ever drop by?"
"Mr Vaughan?" the barman asked. "Every Monday evening, regular as clockwork. Sat on the stool over there." He indicated a high stool placed by the corner of the bar and the wall. "Drank three Irish whiskeys from nine until ten, then left on the dot of the hour. Very rarely missed a Monday for over twenty years."
"You knew him well?"
"Mr Vaughan?" He grunted a humourless laugh. "No one knew Mr Vaughan. Kept himself to himself, if you know what I mean. Spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him. Reckon that's how he preferred it. Lived here nigh on forty years, and never said boo to a goose."
"Strange," I said, sipping my juice.
"Well," the publican said, "he was a writer chappie, you know?" He tapped his head. "Lived up here most of the time."
Over at her table, Mina was smiling to herself.
"He had a place in the village?" I asked.
"Not far off. He owned the big house up the hill on your left as you come in, set back in the woods. Edgecoombe Hall."
The very title fired my imagination. It seemed somehow fitting, the very place where Vaughan Edwards would have lived his sequestered, writer's life.
I decided I'd like to take a look at the place. "Who owns it now?"
"Edgecoombe Hall?" He shook his head. "No one. It's been standing empty ever since Mr Vaughan went and disappeared."
I nodded, digesting this. If it were a big house, with a fair bit of land, and perhaps dilapidated, then I imagined that no local would care to touch the place, and Highdale was just too far off the beaten track to make commuting to Leeds or Bradford an option for a prospective city buyer.
"Why's that?" I asked.
The publican shrugged. "Well, it's not exactly brand spanking new," he said. "A bit tumbledown, if you know what I mean. And the ghost doesn't help." At this, Mina looked up from her book. "The ghost?" She had scepticism daubed across her face in primary colours. She gave me a look that said, if you believe that, Daniel?