Cold Harbour by Francis Brett Young

As I explored the novels of Francis Brett Young I found something I hadn’t expected at all. A story of a haunted house.

“Cold Harbour had once been a dower house of the Pomfrets, the family that once owned Mawne Hall. Before Mr Furnival came there fifteen years ago and spent a fortune on it Cold Harbour had been empty for years on end. They did say, of course, that the place was haunted; but folk always made up stories of that kind when a place was left empty for so long …”

But the story began a long way from that house, in a small hotel on the Mediterranean. The proprietor was expecting visitors from England: his old friend, Dr Ronald Wake, and his new wife, Evelyn.

They arrive safely and, once they have settled on the hotel terrace, they begin to tell their extraordinary story, husband and wife taking it in turns as they recount their experiences at Cold Harbour.

Their car had broken down on a quiet country road, and they sought shelter in a quiet inn. The landlady was talkative, eager to tell them much of the big house and the people who lived there. As they finally settled in their room they heard a visitor arrive, and they heard their landlady’s voice change. They realised that the visitor was Mr Furnival and, though after everything they had been told they had no wish to meet him, somehow he drew Evelyn towards him. She found it impossible not to accept his invitation to visit his home.

Their approach to Cold Harbour and their entry into the house allows Francis Brett Young free rein to exercise his descriptive powers and his ability to create an atmosphere.

“And then, suddenly, Cold Harbour. Although we were prepared for it, it took our breath away. There were only three buildings: the church, with the parsonage and the manor house on either side of it. They stood huddled together, as if for protection, on the brow of the hill, which fell away from them into the basin beneath; and about them, as though to perpetuate the reason of the hamlet’s name, ran a belt of magnificent beeches. All through the Cotswolds, on our drive westward, the beeches had shone like pyramids of flame. On those that surrounded Cold Harbour, not three days later, there was not a leaf left. The beeches in Cotswold had trunks that showed a sheen of steel and platinum; the trunks of Cold Harbour beeches were black and dull as soot. They stood up stark naked and motionless, as though they were dead, a complete circle, dipping over the brim of the ridge like a fairy ring; and as we passed within their circumference it seemed as though we were stepping out of this world and into another of ghostly silence. A fancy, of course. As a matter of fact, the deep felting of beech-mast and leaf-falls muffled our footfalls …”

And as they step inside the house his understanding of character and psychology comes into play.

Mrs Furnival, an invalid is eager to talk, and she tells Evelyn of events that her husband has attributed to a poltergeist. Small things that she seemed to accept, and yet she had urged her children to move away, had seen visitors flee …

And Mr Furnival was eager to show Ronald his house, his artefacts, his library of books about history, witchcraft, madness …

Ronald was drawn in by his host’s personality, and then he is repelled.

“… I lost consciousness of every blessed thing but an overpowering and murderous desire to destroy Furnival as he stood there,in front of the fireplace, toasting his calves. Before that I’d been puzzled by him; if I’d disliked him the dislike had been quite indefinite, but now my whole brain seemed to be swept up into a positive conflagration of hate …”

At that point the Wakes asked the company what they thought might explain what they had experienced. There had been interjections and explanations all along, as the narrative shifted between Dr and Mrs Wake. A discussion of witchcraft, theology, the paranormal, then began.

I’m really not sure if that worked or not. On one hand it made this book very different to any other haunted house story I have ever read, and it made me step back and think. But on the other hand it interrupted the flow of the story, and that, together with the knowledge that the Wakes had come through everything they had experienced, reduced the tension a little.

And after the symposium the Wakes had more to tell, and the story moved slowly towards a dramatic conclusion.

Those latter chapters were not as strong as the earlier part of the book. There the author had been able to use his skill at creating characters That was a story of people and places that played to his strengths.

The Wakes were an utterly believable couple. And the Furnivals were extraordinary creations: a woman on the brink of mental collapse and a man to chill the blood.

When the focus was on the characters this was a haunted house story as powerful as any, but when the focus moved elsewhere something was lost.

I suspect that what Francis Brett Young was trying to do – both tell a compelling story and step back and analyse that story – was nigh impossible. He didn’t quite pull it off.

But this is still a compelling, gothic tale; an utterly readable book with an unusual balance of atmosphere, intelligence and readability.

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