December 1972: three lighthouse keepers on a remote island mysteriously vanish. All of the doors are locked from the inside, dinner is laid out, and the clocks have stopped at 8:45. Their disappearance leaves only questions and feelings of betrayal and loss behind for their wives to grapple with even 20 years later. Think you have an idea of where this book is going? Think again. Emma Stonex’s debut novel is all at once a mystery and a haunting and heartbreaking story of how we seek truth and resolution, the stories we tell ourselves, and the lasting effects of loss and loneliness.
“A ghost story and fantastically gripping psychological investigation rolled into one. It is also a pitch-perfect piece of writing. . . . As with Shirley Jackson’s work or Sarah Waters’s masterpiece Affinity, in Stonex’s hands the unspoken, unexamined, unseen world we can call the supernatural, a world fed by repression and lies, becomes terrifyingly tangible.” --The Guardian (UK)
Inspired by a haunting true story, a gorgeous and atmospheric novel about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote tower miles from the Cornish coast--and about the wives who were left behind.
What strange fate befell these doomed men? The heavy sea whispers their names. Black rocks roll beneath the surface, drowning ghosts. And out of the swell like a finger of light, the salt-scratched tower stands lonely and magnificent.
It's New Year's Eve, 1972, when a boat pulls up to the Maiden Rock lighthouse with relief for the keepers. But no one greets them. When the entrance door, locked from the inside, is battered down, rescuers find an empty tower. A table is laid for a meal not eaten. The Principal Keeper's weather log describes a storm raging round the tower, but the skies have been clear all week. And the clocks have all stopped at 8:45.
Two decades later, the wives who were left behind are visited by a writer who is determined to find the truth about the men's disappearance. Moving between the women's stories and the men's last weeks together in the lighthouse, long-held secrets surface and truths twist into lies as we piece together what happened, why, and who to believe.
In her riveting and suspenseful novel, Emma Stonex writes a story of isolation and obsession, of reality and illusion, and of what it takes to keep the light burning when all else is swallowed by dark.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Jory opens the curtains, the day is light and gray, the radio playing a half-known song. He listens to the news, about a girl who's gone missing from a bus stop up north, and drinks from a mug of brown tea. Poor mother's beside herself-well, she would be. Short hair, short skirt, big eyes, that's how he pictures the girl, shivering in the cold, and an empty bus stop where someone should have stood, waving or drowning, and the bus pulls up and away, never the wiser, and the pavement shines on in the black rain.
The sea is quiet, with the glass-like quality that comes after bad weather. Jory unlatches the window and the fresh air is very nearly solid, an edible thing, clinking between the trawler cottages like an ice cube in a drink. There's nothing like the smell of the sea, nothing close: briny, clean, like vinegar kept in the fridge. Today it's soundless. Jory knows loud seas and silent seas, heaving seas and mirror seas, seas where your boat feels like the last blink of humankind on a roll so determined and angry that you believe in what you don't believe in, such as the sea being that halfway thing between heaven and hell, or whatever lies up there and whatever lurks down deep. A fisherman told him once about the sea having two faces. You have to take the both, he said, the good and the bad, and never turn your back on either one of them.
Today, after a long time, the sea is on their side. They'll do it today.
HeÕs in charge of whether the boat goes out there or not. Even if the wind's good at nine it doesn't mean it'll be good by ten, and whatever he's got in the harbor, say he's got four-feet-high waves in the harbor, he can guess they'll be forty feet round the tower. Whatever it is ashore, it'll be ten times as much round the light.
The new delivery is twentyish, with yellow hair and thick glasses. They make his eyes look small, twitchy; he reminds Jory of something kept in a cage, living in sawdust. He's standing there on the jetty in his cord bell-bottoms, frayed ends darkened by the slopping sea. Early morning it's quiet on the quay, a dog walker and a milk crate unloading. The frigid pause between Christmas and New Year.
Jory and his crew haul in the boy's supplies, Trident red cartons containing two months' clothes and food, fresh meat, fruit, proper milk not powdered, a newspaper, box of tea, Golden Virginia, and rope them down, covering the containers in tarpaulin. The keepers will be pleased: they'll have been on tinned stew the past four weeks and whatever was on the Mail's front page the day the last relief went out.
In the shallows, the water burps seaweed, slurping and sucking round the sides of the boat. The boy climbs in, his plimsolls wet, groping the sides like a blind man. Under one arm he carries a parcel of belongings tied up with string-books, cassette recorder, tapes, whatever he'll use to pass the time. He's a student, most likely: Trident gets a lot of students these days. He'll be writing music, that'll be his thing. Up in the lantern thinking this is the life. They all need an activity to do, especially on the towers-can't spend your whole time running up and down the stairs. Jory knew a keeper way back when, a fine craftsman who put ships in bottles; he'd spend his whole stay doing them and they were beautiful things by the end of it. And then they got televisions put in and this keeper threw it all away, literally chucked his whole kit out the window into the sea and from then on sat watching the box every free moment he got.
"Have you been doing this long?" the boy asks. Jory says yeah, longer than you've been alive. "Didn't think we'd make it," he says. "I've been waiting since Tuesday. They put me in digs in the village and very nice it was too, but not so nice as I'd want to stay there much longer. Every day I was looking out and thinking, Will we ever get off? Talk about a bloody storm. Have to say I don't know how it'll be out there when we get another. They told me you've never seen a storm till you've seen it from the sea, and it feels like the tower's going to collapse right from underneath you and wash away."
The new ones always want to talk. It's nerves, Jory thinks, about the crossing and if the wind might change, about the landing, about the men on the light, whether he'll fit in with them, what the one in charge is like. It isn't this boy's light yet; probably it won't ever be. Supernumeraries come and go, land light this time, rock the next, shuttled round the country like a pinball. Jory's seen scores of them, keen to start and taken up in the romantic bit of it, but it isn't as romantic as that. Three men alone on a lighthouse in the middle of the sea. There's nothing special about it, nothing at all, just three men and a lot of water. It takes a certain sort to withstand being locked up. Loneliness. Isolation. Monotony. Nothing for miles except sea and sea and sea. No friends. No women. Just the other two, day in, day out, unable to get away from them, it could drive you stark mad.
It's usual to wait days for the changeover, weeks even. Once he had a keeper stuck out there on a lost relief for four months straight.
"You'll get used to the weather," he says to the boy.
"I hope so."
"And you won't be half as ticked off as the poor sod who's due ashore."
In a bevy at the stern his relief crew look despondently out to sea, smoking and grunting conversation, their damp fingers soaking their cigarettes. They could be painted into a dour seascape, brushed roughly with thick oils. "What're we waiting for?" one of them shouts. "D'you want the tide to turn before we're off?" They've got the engineer with them too, out to fix the radio. Normally, on relief day, they'd have been in touch with the light five times already, but the storm took out the transmission.
Jory covers the last of the boxes and starts the motor and then they're away, the boat rocking and bobbing like a bath toy over the wavelets. A flock of gulls quarrel on a cockle-speckled rock; a blue trawler chugs idly into land. As the shoreline dwindles the water grows brisker, green waves leaping, crests that spume and dissolve. Farther out the colors bleed darkly, the sea turning to khaki and the sky to ominous slate. Water butts and slops against the prow; strings of sea foam surge and disperse. Jory chews a roll-up that's been flattened in his pocket but is still just about smokable, eyes on the horizon, smoke in his mouth. His ears ache in the cold. Overhead a white bird wheels in a vast, drab sky.
He can decipher the Maiden in the haze, a lone spike, dignified, remote. She's fifteen nautical miles out. Keepers prefer that, he knows, not to be so close to land that you can see it from the set-off and be reminded of home.
The boy sits with his back to her-a funny way to start, Jory thinks, with your back to the thing you're going to. He worries at a scratch on his thumb. His face looks soft and ill, uninitiated. But every seaman has to find his legs.
"You been on a tower before, sonny?"
"I was out at Trevose. Then down at Saint Catherine's."
"But never a tower."
"No, never a tower."
"Got to have the stomach for it," says Jory. "Have to get along with people too, no matter what they're like."
"Oh, I'll be fine about that."
" 'Course you will. Your PK's a good sort, that makes a difference."
"What about the others?"
"Was told to watch out for the Super. But being your age roughly, no doubt you'll get along fine."
"What about him?"
Jory smiles at the boy's expression. "No need to look like that. Service is full of stories, not all of them true."
The sea heaves and churns beneath them, blackly rolling, slapping, and slinging; the breeze backs up, skittering across the water, making it pimple and scatter. A buffet of spray explodes at the bow and the waves grow heavy and secretively deep. When Jory was a boy and they used to catch the boat from Lymington to Yarmouth, he would peer over the railings on deck and marvel at how the sea did this quietly, without you really noticing, how the shelf dropped and the land was lost, where if you fell in, it would be a hundred feet down. There would be garfish and smooth hounds: weird, bloated, glimmering shapes with soft, exploring tentacles and eyes like cloudy marbles.
The lighthouse draws near, a line becoming a post, a post becoming a finger.
"There she is. The Maiden Rock."
By now they can see the sea stain around her base, the scar of violent weather accumulated by decades of rule. Though he's done it many times, getting close to the Queen of the Lighthouses always makes Jory feel a certain way-scolded, insignificant, maybe slightly afraid. A fifty-meter column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers' safety.
"She was one of the first," says Jory. "Eighteen ninety-three. Twice wrecked before they finally lit her wick. The saying goes she makes a sound when the weather hits hard, like a woman crying, where the wind gets in between the rocks."
Details creep out of the gray-the lighthouse windows, the concrete ring of the set-off, and the narrow trail of iron rungs leading up to the access door, known as the dog steps. The Maiden stands above the boy's shoulder, summoning.
"Can they see us?"
But as Jory says it, he's searching for the figure he'd expect to see waiting down there on the set-off, the Principal Keeper in his navy uniform and peaked white cap or the Assistant waving them in. They'll have been watching the water since sunrise.
He eyes the cauldron around the base of the lighthouse with caution, deciding the best approach, if he'll put the boat ahead or astern, if he'll anchor her down or let her stay loose. Freezing water splurges across a sunken warren of rocks; when the sea fills up, the rocks disappear; when it drops, they emerge like black, glistening molars. Of all the towers it's the Bishop, the Wolf, and the Maiden that are hardest to land, and if he had to pick, he'd say the Maiden took it. Sailors' legend had it she was built on the jaws of a fossilized sea monster. Dozens died in her construction, and the reef has killed many an off-course mariner. She doesn't like outsiders; she doesn't welcome people.
But he's still waiting to see a keeper or two. They're not getting this boy away unless there's someone on the end of the landing gear. At that point with the drop and surge he'll be ten feet down one minute and ten up the next, and if he loses sight of it, his rope's snapping and his man's taking a cold bath. It's a hairy business, but that's the towers all over. To a land man the sea is a constant enough thing, but Jory knows it isn't constant: it's fickle and unpredictable, and it'll get you if you let it.
"Where are they?"
He hardly hears his mate's yell against the gush of water.
Jory signals they'll go around. The boy looks green. The engineer too. Jory ought to reassure them, but he isn't quite reassured himself. In all the years he's come to the Maiden, he's never taken the boat around the back of the tower.
The scale of the lighthouse rears up at them, sheer granite. Jory cranes his head to the entrance door, sixty feet above water, solid gunmetal and defiantly closed.
His crew holler; they call for the keepers and blow a shrill whistle. Farther up, higher still, the tower tapers into the sky, and the sky, in return, glances down at their little vessel, thrown about in confusion. There's that bird again, the one that followed them out. Wheeling, wheeling, calling a message they don't understand. The boy leans over the side of the boat and loses his breakfast to the sea.
They rise, they fall; they wait and wait.
Jory looks up at the tower, hulked out of its own shadow, and all he can hear are the waves, the crash and spit of foam, the slurp and wash of the rocks, and all he can think of is the missing girl on the radio that he heard about that morning, and the bus stop, the empty bus stop, and the driving, relentless rain.
Strange Affair at a Lighthouse
The Times, Sunday, December 31, 1972
Trident House has been informed of the disappearance of three of its keepers from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land's End. The men have been named as Principal Keeper Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper William "Bill" Walker, and Supernumerary Assistant Keeper Vincent Bourne. The discovery was made by a local boatman and his crew yesterday morning when attempting to deliver a relieving keeper and bring Mr. Walker to shore.
As yet there is no indication of the missing men's whereabouts and no official statement has been made. An investigation has begun.
Reading Group Guide
1. The Lamplighters is a gorgeous, eerily atmospheric book with scenes that live on the knife’s edge between real and imagined. How does Stonex’s writing play a part in creating this balance between reality and illusion?
2. We are presented with several versions of what happened the night of the men’s disappearance—and we are also given reasons to doubt every account. What do you think really happened? Do you feel there is a clear answer? Do you think the men’s accounts of what happened on the Maiden were real? Does it matter?
3. Dan Sharp, the writer who interviews the women, is a bestselling author of naval action thrillers. Do you think The Lamplighters is meant to be his book? If so, how does that shift your perspective on the events of the book?
4. Soon after the disappearance of Arthur, Bill, and Vince, the newspapers pin the blame on Vince after they learn that he is an ex-con. Trident House seems to rely on this prejudicial reaction, evident in the leading questions they ask their interviewees in the transcripts from 1973. How else do presumptions play a part in the characters’ relationships in The Lamplighters? Discuss others’ or your own experiences with preconceived notions and how they’ve affected your relationships.
5. Stonex’s novel is filled with symbols and portents, like the White Rook and the Silver Man. Talk about the role these elements play in the plot and the atmosphere of the novel.
6. Stonex shifts perspectives throughout the novel, switching between first-person monologues, first-person accounts, and third-person narration. How does this work toward creating full, complex characters? Discuss if and how your understanding of the characters changed as Stonex moved from their direct accounts to the third person. Do you think the external selves they presented matched their internal voices?
7. Discuss the marriages in The Lamplighters. Did the characters share any stories or perspectives on marriage that particularly resonated with you? What compromises did each character make in their marriage?
8. Bill and Helen have vastly different understandings of their brief association, as does Jenny. In the face of such opposing perspectives, is it possible to parse the true version of events? Do you think there can be such a thing as an absolutely true version of any story?
9. Stonex paints vivid, complex women in The Lamplighters, all of whom have different understandings of what it means to be a “good” wife, mother, and friend. For example, believing that women in similar circumstances should lean on each other, Jenny finds Helen’s aloofness condescending and hurtful; on the other hand, a grief-stricken Helen craves distance and privacy. Consider the various perspectives on womanhood and female relationships. Did any of these particularly resonate with you? Did you find any frustrating or surprising?
10. Jory remarks that a “fisherman told him once about the sea having two faces. You have to take the both, he said, the good and the bad, and never turn your back on either one of them.” His description implies that the sea is alive—and indeed Stonex’s imagery treats it like a person: the water “burps”; it’s “fickle.” How does the sea function as a character in the novel? What would you say are its two faces? How does each person’s relationship with the sea—whether they turned their backs or faced it head-on—inform how their journeys play out?
11. The Maiden herself has a visceral presence in the book, acting as yet another female character. Why do you think Stonex decided to name her “the Maiden”? What relationship does the tower have with the men and the women they left behind? How do you think the Maiden’s role compares with the sea’s role in the book? Do you think they—like Michelle, Helen, and Jenny—were left behind, too, when the men disappeared?
12. In her first interview with the writer, Helen evokes the adage that time heals all wounds: “Time gives you a bit of distance where you can look back at whatever’s happened to you and not feel all the feelings you once had.” Did you find this true within the novel? How has time affected each woman’s perspective of the men’s disappearance—and of each other?
13. Jenny and Hannah share a tender moment, in which Jenny confesses a secret she’s been hiding from her daughter since Bill’s disappearance. What would you have said if you had been Hannah? Do you think there is such a thing as an unforgiveable act? Does your answer change if it’s a family member who has committed it?
14. As we learn through the course of the novel, Helen and Arthur experience a great loss, leaving them on separate sides of a chasm in their relationship as well as in their ties to the sea. How does this loss reshape their marriage? How do they create space for each other’s grief and anger? How do you see grief expressed in The Lamplighters, generally? What grace do you think we owe one another in the face of grief?
15. As Stonex writes in her Author’s Note, The Lamplighters is inspired by the real-life unresolved disappearance of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur, and is the product of extensive research into how lighthouse keepers lived their lives in the towers they managed. How did this detail affect your reading of the novel? For a mystery to be satisfactory, must it be solved, or have you found that having an answer is disappointing and ruins the story? Does your opinion change depending on whether the unsolved mystery is real or not?
16. In many ways, The Lamplighters is a story of reconciliation—characters reconciling with their pasts and making peace with one another and their own choices. Did you feel that everyone achieved reconciliation by the end of the book? How do you think the women’s relationships have shifted, if at all? Did you feel satisfied by the ending?