In a smallish city near Boston, Massachusetts, Catherine “Kit” Morgain is made to bear witness to the wedding of the woman with whom she’s found not just a friend, but a lover. An English gentleman and his sister by the name of Cranbrook take pity on the miserable Kit, entertaining her during the ensuing wedding reception. Stunned such a handsome pair would deign to spend the evening with her, Kit is blessed with a happy distraction, even if the Cranbrooks only offered their company out of pity. But then the Cranbrooks come calling. What Kit assumes is merely a social call for propriety’s sake turns into daily visits from Alexandra and her brother, Sir Vivian. From bike rides to cemetery picnics, Kit soon realizes a growing attraction to Alexandra and believes her affections may be returned—but they are unable to make their hearts known before Alexandra returns to England.
Thinking herself bereft of friends again, Kit is astonished when Sir Vivian calls upon her—and asks for Kit’s hand in marriage. Driven by the desire to be close again to Alexandra, Kit accepts and is soon on her way to her new home: Heatherhurst Hall. After spending the entire voyage dreaming about being reunited with Alexandra, Kit is devastated when Alexandra treats her with cold indifference. And as affable as her husband is, Vivian is often tinkering with his engineering projects or just plain unavailable. Kit is further discomfited by strange sounds and apparitions she experiences within Heatherhurst Hall, but when she raises the topic with her husband or sister-in-law, she is met with indifference. Determined to prove she is not merely suffering from some affliction to her health, Kit begins to investigate. The truth behind her ghostly visions, the unexplained sounds, and the history of her new family are far more convoluted than Kit could ever imagine…and maybe more than she can survive.
First, it may be expeditious to state that The Haunting of Heatherhurst Hall has strong parallels to the 2015 del Torro film Crimson Peak. Both feature an American heiress who marries a member of the British Peerage; said nobleman has a sister; these siblings keep secrets from the American; there is a strong thread of horror; and the period is roughly the same (late 1890s). That said, Nothwell’s story does more than merely recast the love interests as two women. The family’s secrets and the nature of the haunting are markedly different, and the book concludes with what I consider an appropriately “gothic horror” kind of happy end.
I found the overall aesthetics of the writing, characterization of our heroes, and the weaving of the different plot elements entirely compelling. Indeed, it was hard to put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed Kit, with her charming pragmatism and uncanny ability to take even the most crushing emotional blows in stride. She is depicted as sort of being the awkward one out from childhood through the events in the story, being picked on at finishing school for being nouveau riche and being rather taller and less feminine than her peers. Much of the story is told from Kit’s perspective (albeit third person) and it’s clear how internalized Kit’s self image is. The tone starts off matter-of-fact, but when Kit concludes that her new sister-in-law now despises her, Kit’s internal narration becomes much more severe. I’ll admit, the shift felt a bit sudden, or at least suddenly noticeable; however, for a character who’s literally left the extremely small circle of acquaintances behind for what she thought would be a grand life with her dream woman, the change in Kit’s self-valuation is also understandable.
As for Alexandra, I admit the del Torro version of the sister character was constantly in the back of my mind. I feel like this is due, at least in part, to the way details about the siblings’ mysterious past are slowly meted out. However, there are often passages from Alex’s perspective that go a long way towards making it clear she believes rejecting Kit is the best course of action—even though it utterly destroys Alex to be the cause of Kit’s suffering. Nothwell also made it pretty clear that Alex and Kit suffer from a grand misunderstanding when Kit first arrives at Heatherhurst (specifically, Alex assumes Kit was always only after Vivian; Kit assumes she never measured up to Alex’s standards). Some of the scenes from Alex’s perspective also help along the haunting aspect of the plot. These were short, juicy exchanges of dialogue between Alex and her brother that seemed to hint at such nefarious deeds.
While Kit and Alexandra are suffering from denying their affection, Kit is trying to come to terms with life at Heatherhurst Hall. The once-grand house is all but falling into ruin and has but one servant, a cook. In addition to the crumbling facade, Kit’s first night at the house involves an ordeal with one of the ghosts of the house. I rather enjoyed Kit’s reaction: talk to it and figure out what it wants. Kit also encounters who she believes to be the ghost of Alex’s mother; armed with that knowledge, Kit is somewhat comforted by the idea that this ghost is merely worried for her children. There are plenty of creepy scenes and inexplicable goings on as Kit uncovers the nature of these ghosts, but Kit never lets her fear get the best of her. She is determined to prove to Alex and Vivian that the ghosts are real.
The final climactic scene is a horrifying battle between the human inhabitants of Heatherhurst Hall and one of the ghosts. I loved that nearly all the major elements of mystery had been resolved at this point. Of course Kit and Alex realize they’ve misjudged one another’s motives, but we also learn about the ghost Kit encountered her first night and about Vivian’s sordid past. The final battle kept me on tenterhooks, but culminates in a suitable “happily ever after” that involves a fresh start for Kit and her family back in America. I would strongly recommend this to anyone who likes period stories, gothic horror, or sweet friends-to-enemies-to-lovers romances.