Emily Bronte of Wuthering Heights fame was said by her sister Charlotte to have ‘found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights,’ the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden made a memorable journey across the moors, and the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath are reported to have been moved by the rugged landscape.
And now Katherine Clements, a critically acclaimed historical novelist and short story writer based in Manchester, has harnessed the moors’ wild, ethereal beauty for a stunning 17th century ghost story that puts Yorkshire gothic firmly on the reader’s map.
In a style reminiscent of the late, great M.R. James, The Coffin Path is a bone-chilling, deep and dark tale featuring ghostly apparitions, things that go bump in the night and a terrifying sense of menace, but Clements also brings us a breathtakingly authentic world peopled by tough farming folk raised on hard labour, fear and superstition.
At its heart is Mercy Booth, a determined, free-thinking young woman who farms the unforgiving land for her ailing father. Dressed in men’s clothes for practical purposes as she works , and bound inextricably to the land by blood and custom, she sees ‘God’s hand’ in rain clouds, the tumbling becks and even in the lethal peat bogs.
Many people who live on this wild Yorkshire moorland in 1674 believe Mercy’s home, Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from the village to the moor top, holds something evil within its walls.
But Mercy isn’t afraid because the moors and Scarcross are her lifeblood. She loves this land, her sanctuary of dry stone walls and wind-twisted willows, a place where ‘silvery water carves a thousand-year path between peat and rock.’
Mercy is not one for ‘superstition and scaremongering’ but recently she senses something in the air, something menacing that gives her a creeping unease and makes her hackles rise. One night in the dark during lambing season she sees a ‘shadow-shape’ in the fog and feels ‘a deep and ancient dread’ well up inside her.
And when the stranger Ellis Ferreby appears seeking employment, Mercy recognises ‘secrets in his silence and purpose in his stare’ but he is a good worker and despite her misgivings, she reluctantly takes him in. As their stories entwine, this man will change everything. Mercy just can’t see it yet…
The social and political climates of the 17th century post-Civil War period are as key to this atmospheric story as the bitter chill and the grinding rural hardships that pervade the lives and humble homes of Mercy Booth and her small circle of familiars.
Religious intolerance, the belief in curses and superstition, and the terror of witch-hunts still had a powerful hold in many corners of the country, and Clements uses this disturbing historical backdrop for an extraordinary thriller brimming with malevolence and dark secrets.
The Coffin Path brings to vivid life the harsh realities of working the Yorkshire moorland in a climate that can change from crisp sunshine to deadly fog in the blink of an eye. And in the midst of it all is a young woman not just battling for survival in a man’s world but coming face-to-face with a mystery involving scandal, family secrets and a series of unnerving paranormal events.
Written with an almost elegiac elegance that belies the subtle but persistent air of menace, and with an impressive sense of time and place at its core, this is a spine-tingling and seductive blend of history, mystery and the downright macabre.
(Headline, hardback, £18.99)