Author: Lindsey Barraclough
Genre: Historical, Horror, Young Adult
Publisher: Candlewick (US) / Bodley Head (UK)
Publication Date: June 2012 (US) / January 2011 (UK)
Hardcover: 455 Pages (US)
In an exquisitely chilling debut novel, four children unravel the mystery of a family curse – and a ghostly creature known in folklore as Long Lankin.
When Cora and her younger sister, Mimi, are sent to stay with their elderly aunt in the isolated village of Byers Guerdon, they receive a less-than-warm welcome. Auntie Ida is eccentric and rigid, and the girls are desperate to go back to London. But what they don’t know is that their aunt’s life was devastated the last time two young sisters were at Guerdon Hall, and she is determined to protect her nieces from an evil that has lain hidden for years. Along with Roger and Peter, two village boys, Cora must uncover the horrifying truth that has held Bryers Guerdon in its dark grip for centuries – before it’s too late for little Mimi. Riveting and intensely atmospheric, this stunning debut will hold readers in its spell long after the last page is turned.
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I am a self-professed horror junkie, and have had my eye on Long Lankin since it started making the rounds on the UK blogosphere last year. When I found the title available in my local indie bookstore – and started seeing the US praise pop up – I knew I had to read this book very soon.
Says mylord to mylady as he mounted his horse,
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Says mylord to mylady as he went on his way,
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.”
“See the doors are all bolted, see the windows all pinned,
And leave not a crack for a mouse to creep in.”
Oh, the doors were all bolted, oh, the windows were pinned,
But at a small peep in the window Long Lankin crept in.
August, 1958. Cora and her toddler sister Mimi leave the comfort of their squalid London flat, sent away by their father to their great Aunt Ida’s estate in the distant marshy village of Bryers Guerdon. Upon arriving, however, the girls discover that there is something eerie about Guderon Hall – the land itself is wild and decaying, and they run into a village boy who solemnly informs them that their Auntie Ida is a witch. Things do not look any better when their Aunt tries to turn them away and only grudgingly lets them stay in the decrepit old mansion – with the strict instructions that they are NEVER to open any windows, and they are to stay away from the old church down the road.
As Cora and Mimi befriend two other village children, brothers Roger and Pete, they learn about Bryers Guerdon’s dark, secret history, and the reason for Auntie Ida’s paranoia. An old evil lurks in the marshes, a shadowy, savage beast that has stolen countless Guerdon children over the generations; and now, the beast has caught the scent of young Mimi. It is up to Cora, Roger, and her defeated Aunt Ida to discover the truth of Long Lankin, and save Mimi from the same terrible fate that has befallen so many other children over the long, dark years.
I was ridiculously excited to read this book – Long Lankin has received rave reviews from UK publications when it first came out last year, and as it has crossed the pond, the praise has followed, from trusted bloggers and other reviewers alike. Plus, I’m a sucker for horror novels based on legends and poems – and though I’d never heard of the “Long Lankin” ballad before, I was undeniably hooked.
Unfortunately, Long Lankin did not measure up to expectations. While this is a book with some strengths – including a richly detailed period setting and generally strong characters – the sluggish pace of the story and predictable horror elements (employing the same rehashed Evil Spirit/Consecrated Ground tropes) make Long Lankin a decent, but not particularly memorable or exciting novel.
Let’s talk atmosphere, first. Set in 1958, Long Lankin meticulously details an impoverished side of Britain, still struggling with the economic and social aftermath of two devastating wars. There’s a great juxtaposition of past and present, new and old in this book – for example, the vision of Guerdon Hall’s crumbling rot, with Aunt Ida and the girls listening to the wireless in the kitchen, or Roger’s mother’s makeshift laundry machine are powerful images. This is a time when children eat molded bread with sugar, or have a runny egg for dinner, because there simply isn’t anything else to farm or cook – it’s not hard to imagine the squalid life at Bryers Guerdon extending to other villages throughout Europe in this post-war period.
Just as the period is richly detailed, the atmospheric quality to the book is also fantastically effective. Guerdon Hall and the forbidden, abandoned church are terrifying places, brought to life by Barraclough’s skillful descriptions. You can see the ‘gypsy tree’ with its tattered offerings blowing in the wind, you can feel the oppressive weight of Guerdon Hall and its secrets bearing down on Ida and Cora, willing them to break. When the children enter the forbidden church – because of course they would, after being explicitly told not to – its shadows and frantically engraved walls are cloaked with fear and dread.
From a character and writing perspective, Long Lankin features an alternating cast of three narrators – Cora and Roger are the predominant narrators with Aunt Ida as an additional occasional voice. This technique, introducing each new narrator at the start of a section that varies in length from a paragraph to multiple pages of text, is intriguing and certainly keeps a reader on her toes. We get nice insight into the minds of these different characters by virtue of this technique, seeing through the eyes of two different children, and then again through Aunt Ida’s terrified perspective. Also, the technique adds a layer of tension and confusion to the narrative, everything changing and spinning so quickly as the tension mounts and Long Lankin’s story is revealed. By the same token, however, I’m not convinced that this narrative style was entirely necessary, other than for stylistic flair. There are many sections where narrators switch arbitrarily and abruptly for no apparent purpose, revealing and contributing nothing to the overall scene or story.
Which brings me to the main problem of Long Lankin – despite the atmospheric setting and strong central characters, Long Lankin stumbles in execution because of the book’s unnecessary bloat. There are countless interactions in the book that could have been trimmed – while atmosphere and attentiveness to detail are invaluable tools to setting the scene, there are only so many times one can read about Cora and Roger running up a hill, or eating toast, or whatever mundane action prevails that particular day.
Even with the horror elements, as Cora and Roger search to discover the truth of Long Lankin and Guerdon’s history, nothing really happens until 2/3 of the way through the novel. The nuggets of truth that Cora and Roger discover – that children have disappeared, the ghostly presence of a twisted figure at the forbidden church – are developments that are rehashed ad nauseam with different characters in long conversations, letters, and memories. This numbing repetition is exacerbated by the fact that the horror tropes employed in Long Lankin are nothing new. There’s no tension of the unknown here, no big mindblowing reveal to justify the tedium of the previous hundreds of pages of exposition – we essentially come down to a ‘body-buried-in-the-wrong-place’ story, with a nice excessive dose of ridiculous pseudo-supernatural posturing in the book’s final 100 pages. (This is not exaggeration – there is actually a scene in one of Aunt Ida’s flashbacks that details a lengthy, info-dumpy conversation about Long Lankin being trapped between two worlds.)
Ultimately, one might say that Long Lankin comes down to a question of style or substance. Stylistically, this is a book with great strengths, including an effectively eerie atmosphere and impeccably detailed setting. Substantively, there’s not really anything new here, and the story itself is, well, boring (with the momentary flash of brilliance). I still think there’s enough good here to recommend the book, but reader beware – your mileage may vary.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
There’s too much sky, and the further out of London we go, the more of it there is.
I twist round in my seat and rub the back window with a wet finger until the skin goes brown. I lick it again and it tastes bitter. Through the smear on the glass I see the edge of the city moving away . In the grey rain, the crowded buildings that filled my sky at home stick up like rotten teeth.
Mr Bates didn’t want to bring Mimi and me all the way out here. He was only doing it to pay Dad back a favour.
Somewhere past Barking we stop to get petrol. Mr Bates starts ar guing with the garage man, saying he hasn’t filled the tank right up and he’s fiddling him. The man wants his money. Mr Bates gets out of the car but only comes up to the man’s nose. A gust of wet wind catches Mr Bates’s hair and blows it sideways of f his bald patch. The garage man says Mr Bates’s petrol pointer can’t be working pr operly because he can’t get any more ruddy stuff in and he can r uddy well try himself if he doesn’t believe him.
You can read the full chapter online HERE.
Rating: 6 – Good
Reading Next: Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)