Book review

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley (2010)

Seriously scary ghost story. Michael Vyner tells his own story. It’s simple and compelling. He tells it in clear narrative as though he were sitting with you by the winter fireside.

Orphaned as a young boy Michael is summoned to spend Christmas with his new, intimidating guardian, Sir Stephen. He lives in a dark and whispering house which stands isolated in the flatlands and marshes of East Anglia. It isn’t very homely:

I followed Hodges down a maze of corridors, hurrying to keep step with the servant, for I was all too aware of the darkness that moved like a great beast behind us. I had an unnerving sensation that it concealed something terrible, something I had a horror that I might see were I ever to turn my head. My heart had been fluttering ever since I arrived. I felt faint by the time we reached the door to my room.

Well there is something darkly evil wandering loose about that house. Michael spends some terrifying nights hiding under the bedclothes, or staring wild eyed into the pitch black thickness holding his breath, listening to the other breathing, and sobbing, scritch scratching, and worse...

The thing is, although he doesn’t yet know it, Michael has a unique connection with this house. That troubled woman, soaking wet in nothing but a linen shift, Michael begins to realize, only he can actually see. The servants might make a bit of a guess that something is wrong in the very bones of the house. And Sir Stephen and his unsettling sister might know something but they aren’t going to tell. So Michael sets about discovering the mystery of the woman in white all by himself.

I pressed my face against the window, my breath coming short and fast, fogging the cold pane of glass. I wiped the mist away with my sleeve and, as I did so, the ghost turned her face and looked straight at me.
The expression she wore was startling. Her eyes opened wide and her mouth moved as she seemed to talk to herself. Her gaze filled me with horror and I could not for a moment understand why she was staring at me with such strange longing. And then it came to me: it was not simply that she could see me; it was that she had realised that I could see her.

What can Michael do? Can there ever be a happy ending to this story? Call it a gift. Or call it a curse...but if you are the one who can see into the Other World then you will know that there is always something out there. Is the house haunted, or is Michael himself haunted?

What kind of place was this where the dead roamed among the living?

Gothic. Melodramatic. Seriously scary. I’m not actually very good with tales of terror. I had this book set aside to read one bedtime but found I had to put it away for a sunny afternoon.

What can I read next?

I love Chris Priestley’s confident matter-of-fact style. Very well suited for reading aloud. If you can get through The Dead of Winter with your nerves intact you might like to look at this one also by Chris Priestley:

Or this appalling little story by Neil Gaiman:

And if you would like to meet some other really weirdly difficult relations you might like to have a look at this story by Leander Deeny:

If you are an older reader you might like to have a look at this one by Susan Hill. It’s the one they made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe:

  • The Woman in Black

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