Tuesday, April 14, 2015
another great book from Valancourt: The Feast of Bacchus, by Ernest G. Henham
Valancourt Books, 2015
originally published 1907
I became interested in this novel as part of my little haunted house foray, but I soon discovered that to label this book as one more haunted house novel is to do it a major injustice. Once again, Valancourt has not let me down ... I LOVE these guys!
The small parish of Thorlund is the site of a "inexplicable" and abandoned house, known locally as the Strath. It had sat empty for well over a century and had "no evil reputation" attached to it, although it had been the site of a murder of one Thomas Reed before the Crown was supposed to have seized the property. However, since the Crown never took it, the Reed family claimed it, but being too poor for its upkeep, they had rented it out, but no one ever stayed too long at the Strath. As the novel opens and the current owner of the house, Henry Reed, enters he finds the remnants of the last dinner party of the last family to have lived there still out on the dining table. Reed has decided to make something of the Strath and himself, and has plans to clear it out, clean it up, tame the wild garden and start a poultry-farming enterprise. One of Thorlund's locals, the Rector Dr. Berry, has been the only person for years to have ever set foot into and to have enjoyed the Strath's gardens, and he "knows" the house well enough to advise Reed that his plans will never see fruition -- that the house will never allow him to make his desired changes. Berry, who has fallen under the "spell" of the house over several years, now finds himself an unwelcome guest. But it isn't long after Reed takes up residence that he is soon found dead. Soon enough, another person comes to take Reed's place; unlike his predecessor, however, Charles Conway quickly finds himself growing in tune with the house and its influences. The problems really begin when other people begin to make their way to the Strath and the house starts to work its spell on them, causing them to, as the back cover blurb says, "behave in bizarre and violent ways." They become "puppets," acting out some strange dramas while inside the house; outside, they return to themselves but with only a vague, hazy recollection that they'd been there. But what exactly is the source of the house's power? That is indeed the question that will keep you reading until the very end when all is revealed.
There are a number of factors that elevate this novel from being just another simple haunted house tale. I'll list a couple of them here. First, the house is the stage for a contemporary tale related in the form of classical Greek drama, complete with all of its component parts. It doesn't take the reader long to figure this out; if nothing else, the chapter headings are constant reminders -- there are acts, scenes, scene-shifts, incidentals, etc. Another factor that elevates this novel way beyond the norm is the shifting atmosphere of the house, denoting some strange force that takes control of and fashions the players' personalities depending on the current whim of the house.As the introduction states, "the ceaseless interaction of comedic and tragic is the human condition," and in the case of the Strath, this idea takes on some very dark overtones. I will leave it for the reader to discover how and why. There are other indicators of the uniqueness of this story as set apart from "normal" haunted house tales, but those I will leave for other readers to discover.
I was both fascinated and disturbed by this novel for many reasons, most of which I can't explain without giving away the show. I will just say that Feast of Bacchus is a book that once you've read it, sticks in your head for a very, very long time -- it's that good. A word, though, about the book itself. It was written in 1907, so the writing may come across as a bit archaic to modern readers. If you can get past the style though, it's a book you definitely do not want to miss. Creepy, weird, strange, way out of the ordinary yes, but definitely a fine read.