It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the potential longevity and eventual worth of a novel in the year, or even the decade, in which it is published. Such judgements, if they are to be made at all, can come only with hindsight. Guessing games can be enjoyable, though, and going by the best of what has been produced so far this century, I feel confident in predicting the survival of horror literature. New trends are emerging, new sensibilities, new novels, and new writers who will eventually be measured alongside the seminal works and writers—Dracula, Jekyll, Frankenstein, Straub, King, Jackson—that have helped to ground and shape the genre in the first place. Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl is one such masterpiece. Helen Oyeyemi's White Is For Witching is another. Now we have Catriona Ward's astounding first novel, Rawblood, which seems equally destined to take its place in the horror canon.
The story begins simply enough, as most good stories do. The novel opens in the year 1910. Iris Villarca lives alone with her father in a brooding, mansion known as Rawblood, situated in an isolated position on the Princetown side of Dartmoor. Iris’s mother died soon after her birth, supposedly from a disease called Horror autotoxicus, a mysterious ailment that has cut swathes through the Villarca family for generations. To keep his daughter safe from the disease, Iris’s father has instituted a draconian regime of solitude:
Papa takes a piece of paper from his pocket. He reads it aloud to me, then pins it to my bedroom door:
1) Other children: not friends.
2) Servants: not friends.
3) The disease: a secret.
4) Papa’s medicine pouch: forbidden. When papa takes medicine: leave room.
5) Eight o'clock to noon: reading with Papa.
6) Afternoons: play in the garden. Not out of the garden.
7) Bed: at seven.
8) Books: as good as people.
9) Tell Papa everything.
Iris adores her father, but her strong sense of independence ensures that her love for him does not extend to blind obedience. She secretly becomes friends with Tom Gilmore, the son of a local farmer who has fallen upon hard times. Iris is inclined to dismiss local talk of curses and ghosts as superstitious nonsense, but Tom confesses that there is a long-standing enmity between their two fathers, a wrong whose origins have grown hazy with time, but whose effects are still felt, both in their own lives and in the mindset of the surrounding community.
Desperate to secure her compliance with his "Rules," Iris's father promises his daughter the extra tuition that will enable her to train as a doctor—but in return she must promise to forgo all contact with Tom. For a time Iris keeps her side of the bargain. But as her scientific knowledge increases, so does her scepticism about the family disease. She begins to suspect that the curse has been an exercise in mind control, a means her father has concocted for keeping her close to him. She is determined that her feelings for Tom shall not be denied.
This does not end well.
We then retrace our steps a couple of decades. Charles Danforth is a doctor. He and Iris's father, Alonso Villarca, were medical students together in London in the 1860s. Charles has not seen Alonso in twenty years, but when his old friend summons him to Rawblood, he hastens there at once. He has fond memories of the place, of the companionship and good living that was once to be had there. At the end of a strenuous journey he is looking forward to a good meal in front of a roaring fire, but he arrives to a house that feels chilly and strangely deserted. The butler, Shakes, has been instructed to take Charles straight to the cellars, where Alonso has constructed an exact replica of their old laboratory in London. Charles is horrified to discover that Alonso himself is greatly changed. He has a disease, he explains, an inherited condition that is gradually eating away at his immune system. He has summoned Charles specifically for the purpose of reviving their student experiments, in the hope that they can not only restore Alonso's health but also prevent the disease from infecting future generations.
This does not end well, either:
From the very first I never judged Alonso by the standards I apply to other men: he has been for me a person apart from rules and even morals; a creature of exotic charm, and instinct, and, I had thought, integrity. I did him grave wrong, once. But I ask myself now if this was the greater one: to allow our friendship to proceed along such lines; to be restrained by undue deference to his mind and to his character, so that we are brought to such a pass as this. His is gone, his scientific mind has gone . . . This has been a madman’s errand. I cannot credit that I was borne along by it . . . (p. 154)
It would take several thousand words to adequately summarize the complex, multi-stranded narrative that develops, and mere summary should not be the purpose of any review. If I were pressed to sum up Ward’s novel in just a few words then I would say that Rawblood is a story about the search for truth, about family secrets and the guilt that is often associated with them. It is a story of science versus magic, a story about England in the seismic aftermath of World War One. At its heart though, Rawblood is a ghost story. Everyone we meet in these pages—Iris, Charles, Alonso, Tom and those who come before them—encounters the Rawblood ghost. Everyone has a theory about it. "She is like a disease, in many ways," Alonso maintains:
It was not all a lie. I believe she travels in our blood, passed down, that she is a biological inheritance, as much as a spiritual one . . . But she is like nothing on Earth, really. She comes in the night. Sometimes like mist or fog. A woman, or once a woman. White, starved. She comes with the sound of grinding stone, and despair. She looks into your eyes, and then . . . (pp. 77-8)
Iris is not satisfied with such an outlandish explanation, and it is left to her to solve the mystery for herself. The solution will cost her everything, however. If there is a happy ending to be had here, it is probably not the one the reader was hoping for.
Catriona Ward's love of classical horror fiction is richly evident throughout Rawblood. We find direct references to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and to Ibsen’s Ghosts. It is impossible to read Charles Danforth’s account of Alonso Villarca's breakdown and not be reminded of the career of Victor Frankenstein, from his golden youth as a student in Geneva to his later hubris and descent into madness. Rawblood itself, the house, carries within its granite enclave the imprint of the countless haunted edifices that no doubt helped to inspire it: the castle of Otranto, Wildfell Hall, Bly, Hill House, even Dracula's castle. And in the manner of the novel’s construction—the wheels within wheels, the generation-spanning curse, the search for answers—the novel has about it something of Maturin's 1820 classic Melmoth the Wanderer. And yet Rawblood is a fiercely original work of horror fiction that draws from its antecedents not in the manner of a vampire sucking blood, but of a thirsty artisan raising water from a well.
A number of contemporary writers have tried their hand at working within the established tradition of the English ghost story, with varying degrees of success. Patrick McGrath made a good fist of it in Martha Peake; A. N. Wilson played it safe by cribbing off Henry James. Diane Setterfield, John Harwood, and Jonathan Aycliffe have all produced novels that could similarly be described as neo-gothic; all, for this reader at least, have proved disappointing. Melodrama and pastiche do not a convincing ghost story make, and all have fallen foul of these common pitfalls. The classic texts of horror fiction, while rich in melodrama, have important truths to convey about the time in which they were written—hence their continuing popularity and strength as literature. In the absence of the innate background awareness of societal norms and given assumptions that grant such texts weight, modern pastiches of Victorian fiction tend to resemble it at the surface level only, and therefore often feel lightweight and ultimately pointless.
For the contemporary horror writer wishing to make an original contribution to the literature, at least part of the trick lies in noting one’s inevitable debt to one’s antecedents without remaining in thrall to them. Such a goal can be achieved through ironic awareness, through stylistic innovation, through revealing previously hidden aspects of what has gone before. Luckily for horror readers, Catriona Ward has undertaken all three tasks to marvellous effect, raising Rawblood far above pastiche and towards great literature.
As much as it is a lush evocation of past times, Rawblood offers a stark critique of social injustice during the Victorian age, shining an interrogative light upon racial and social prejudice, conditions in the Victorian mental asylum, abuse of children, negative societal attitudes towards homosexuals and single mothers. Whilst Ward’s backdrops, both urban and rural, are masterfully evoked, Rawblood is refreshingly, almost shockingly free of nostalgia. Above all, there is a strong current of feminism running through these pages. Mary Hopewell, Hephzibah Brigstocke, Meg Danforth, and of course Iris Villarca herself all suffer as a result of men’s bad decisions, but their impulse is not to submit but to break free, to seek out an independent destiny. These are not the passive victims of so much horror fiction. Neither, gods be praised, are they feisty paragons. The women of Rawblood are conflicted, complex and sometimes calculating. "I have been careful to seem mad for him," says Meg Danforth, a sentence that can be read two ways.
This complexity is on display especially in the portrayal of Hephzibah Brigstocke, whose ownership of her Roma background is made most manifest in the rejections, hardships and prejudice she has been forced to endure because of it. In her blackmail and treachery, Hephzibah could easily be dismissed as a negative stereotype—and yet here is a woman who can quote Dante in the original Italian, who has longed for nothing so much as freedom from dependence, whose personal resources extend so deep we sense we have barely brushed the surface of this compelling character. "I've had to shift all my life," Hephzibah justifies herself to the pompous Reverend Comber—Ward clearly understands the heavy moral and emotional burden such shifting has exacted, and Miss Brigstocke could easily have commanded a narrative all by herself.
Charles's sister Meg, abandoned in desperate circumstances by her brother and eventually brought home to Rawblood as Alonso’s wife, perhaps comes closest to cementing our understanding of the Rawblood ghost, and of the violence that will eventually provide this novel's rationale:
What is that phrase? Like calls to like. I have seen the marks of cruelty on her. I know not what she is or where she came from. But she has been brutally used beyond what a person can stand and live.
. . .To see her is to know emptiness. But I saw that emptiness when I was very young. They called me a witch in Grimstock and Samuel Bantry took what he thought was his due from a witch . . . He called me a witch. He made me one. (p. 291)
Yet Meg, like her daughter Iris, rejects victimhood. Her protection of the pregnant house maid Chloe will later be echoed in the final service provided for Iris by Lottie and her fellow nurses at Earlswood Asylum. These women know that they cannot rely on men for compassion and fair-mindedness—they must shift for themselves.
We cannot leave this discussion without talking about Ward's use of language, and how glorious it is. The shifts in perspective and tone between the various sections—Iris's narrative, Charles's diary, Meg's recollections, Mary and Hephzibah's Italian journey—are assured and stylistically varied, producing a cohesive, tapestry-like texture, beautifully articulated and expertly controlled. Threads that feel disparate at the outset are eventually drawn together, rounding out the story in a manner that is wholly satisfying, and with no loose ends. It is Ward's awareness of form, her confidence in juxtaposing a closely observed social realism with a more fragmented, modernist approach that marks her out as a literary stylist of the first rank. Here, for example, a character imagines a night-time train journey as a flashback to war:
Some broad unknown thing whistles past, slaps something else. We rattle, we are dice shaken in a cup. There are shrieks and cracks. My heart tittups, a startled colt. Unseen machinery squeals ha ha ha like nasty laughter. The illusion that we're on solid ground is rudely, terribly interrupted; the carriage is a wooden box designed to stave in and crush our flesh. The ragged ends of timber and shards of glass will pierce us, burning metal will twist into evil curves and pen us in as we burn. (p. 263)
There is much that can be read between the lines of Rawblood, and much pleasure to be gained from teasing out its threads. Over and above such abstract concerns, it is a damn fine story, well paced and genuinely disturbing and achingly sad. This is one of those novels that leaves you loath to read anything else for a while, the world it evokes is so complete and so richly imagined. Rawblood delivers all the mystery and menace that one might hope for in a classic ghost story. Moreover, it does not shrink from the ineffable. Fans of supernatural horror need not be disappointed: in Rawblood, the ghosts are real.
Nina Allan's stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Best British Fantasy 2014, Solaris Rising 3, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the British Science Fiction Award in 2014, and her collection The Silver Wind, a story-cycle on themes of time and memory, won the Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race, set in an alternate future England and featuring bio-engineered greyhounds and island-sized whales, was published in 2014 by NewCon Press. She lives and works in North Devon.