Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Genre: Gothic, Horror

Publishing Info: 2018 by Raven Books, Bloomsbury (originally in 2017)

Pages: 364

Back Cover Summary:
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out
her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country
estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and
the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her
husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks.
For inside her new home lies a mysterious wooden
figure – a Silent Companion – that bears an
unsettling resemblance to Elsie herself.

Unsettling, unpredictable and mysterious, Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions holds up well against the classics of the genre. You will never look at paintings or wax dummies in the same way again.

This book is a true example of a modern Gothic Horror in that it uses tropes of the sub-genre (such as inanimate objects moving and disembodied voices) in a way that feels fresh. The way Purcell writes is quite cinematic, in that there is no doubt what she is writing about yet is vivid and easy to imagine. Thus, it makes it a more accessible book to a contemporary audience than other, more classics examples of the Gothic. It also opens the door for a relatively straightforward cinematic adaptation, as the writer’s clear yet graphic style already creates several scary moments.

I really enjoy the constant switching between different settings and periods, from the central house in 1635 to that in 1865, plus the story is being told from the location of St Joseph’s Hospital. Three different locations, and Purcell does a great job in differentiating those enough in writing style. For example, the hospital rooms are barren and bland, so much of the focus is on the conversation between the Doctor and his patient, whereas the 1635 sequences contain a large amount of religious discourse, as it was a major part in people’s lives compared to the Victorian era. The latter is presented as diary entries read by one of the characters. I really like this stylistic feature, firstly because it allows for seamless changing between periods and secondly because it allows crucial information on the narrative to slowly be revealed to the readers, cranking up the tension.

In a similar way, the sequences in St. Joseph’s Hospital have been designed by the writer to slowly reveal details about the Silent Companions and the events that led up to the fire that scarred the protagonist. She is mentally disturbed by those events, so is very reluctant to reveal anything that would put her in danger again. The extent of her physical injuries means that she is without the use of her voice for virtually all of these sequences, writing one or two words at a time on a chalkboard instead. This could be seen as frustrating in the first half, as it seems like the pace is nearly at a standstill. Fortunately, the revelations in the final third of the book give a logical explanation as to why the protagonist is so reluctant.

As I said before, Purcell’s writing is quite cinematic, which really helps to convey the horrifying descriptions of the Silent Companions. They are presented as grotesque caricatures of people, with their smiles too wide and their faces malevolent, eyes watching you as you move. The scariest things tend to be the things that are warped versions of humanity and the writer plays on this to excellent effect. The fate of the characters are also graphically described, but only as much as the readers need to create a detailed image in their mind. These are short, sharp and to the point, coming out of nowhere to surprise. In general, the writer veers towards creating an unsettling atmosphere, from the hatred in the village to the cold and unwelcoming location. This is very Gothic and makes the scarier moments towards the climax, when the Companions scrape along the floor with a relentless “Hiss” and appear out of nowhere, more effective.

The climax of this novel brings everything together in a way that wasn’t obvious yet made complete sense. The final confrontation with the Silent Companions seemed like the natural conclusion, yet revelations about the protagonist and what she had been hiding all along made me doubt the accuracy of her narration. This plays directly into the way the book ends, short and sharp, dooming the 1865 protagonist to her fate, one that mirrors that of the 1635 protagonist.

Overall, I found The Silent Companions to be a triumph in modern Gothic Horror writing. Purcell’s stylistic choices and narrative devices allowed details to be revealed slowly, cranking up the tension to a appropriately scary climax, with an unexpected twist in the closing pages. This is, without doubt, one of the most successful horror books I have read.

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