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The Lady of the Loch
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Ace Books, 255 pages

The Lady of the Loch
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough wrote the Nebula Award-winning novel The Healer's War, which drew on her experiences as a nurse in Vietnam. She also has written the critically acclaimed Nothing Sacred, along with numerous other novels. This includes a trilogy with Anne McCaffrey that includes The Powers That Be, Power Lines, and Power Play. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Lady in the Loch melds fantasy and horror with the history of 18th-century Scotland. Midge Margret, a young woman who has escaped an abusive husband, is a member of itinerant gypsy-like folk called tinkers, who support themselves through metal-working and begging. She is befriended by the young Walter Scott (who would later write Ivanhoe and other great historical novels) when he, in his role as sheriff of Selkirk, investigates the death of a young woman. A hard winter brings the tinkers to camp in the outskirts of Edinborough. First one young tinker maiden, then another, is kidnapped and the bones of a recently-killed young woman are found in a drained loch. Midge Margret discovers items belonging to one disappeared maiden and eventually appeals to Scott, now sheriff of Edinborough, to locate the lost girls. Scott, along with his literary friend James Hogg, soon discover that there is more than an overzealous grave-robber at work. Midge Margret and Walter Scott, each in their own way, approach the secret behind the disappearances, and soon find themselves up against a demented necromancer.

What first strikes one in this tale is that, as in her previous books, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has done an excellent job of researching her setting. The descriptions of the tinkers' lifestyle, of Walter Scott and his associates, and of Edinborough are very well done. The character of Midge Margret is nicely portrayed as a resourceful and intelligent, though poor, young woman. The fantasy and horror elements based in Scottish folklore are also well done. That much of the speech, particularly of the tinkers, is given in Scots dialect was refreshing and was an added factor in creating a realistic atmosphere. Only two generations away from Scotland myself, I was pleased that some idiot editor had not yanked out all the dialect, as was done in recent editions of some of George MacDonald's (1824-1905) non-fantasy works. For those not used to "But, och, Midgie, wha' are we tae do?", the dialogue might get in the way a bit, but there is nothing but a word or two from Gaelic in the whole book, so reading the speech aloud should be sufficient to make it understandable. Another interesting element of the book are the strange customs of the drinking parties Scott is involved in with other members of the intelligentsia.

What Scarborough has done for Walter Scott, British author Tom Holland has recently done for Lord Byron and his literary entourage in two excellent historical Gothic horror novels: The Vampyre. The Secret History of Lord Byron (1996), and its sequel, Supping with Panthers (1997). Where Scarborough has done less well, in comparison, is in creating the Gothic mood which would have lent itself so well to the subject matter -- her descriptions, though well done, tend to be a bit clinical and lack the strong atmospheric elements of Gothic horror. For example, in The Lady of the Loch, the atmosphere of the ghost-haunted cell where Midge Margret is imprisoned lacks any of the poignant horror of the similar scene of a couple left in a cell to die together in Charles Maturin's (1782-1824) Gothic extravaganza, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Both Hogg and Scott lived in the period between 1760 and 1820 when Gothic horror was at its peak. James Hogg, besides his famous The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, wrote great Gothic horror tales like "The Witch of the Grey Thorn," and "The Expedition to Hell." Likewise, while much of Scott's output was historical in nature, he also wrote excellent Gothic tales like "The Two Drovers," and "The Tapestried Chamber."

The British Victorian writer William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), author of such heavily Gothic-influenced works as Rookwood (1834), Old Saint Paul's (1841), and the excellent historically-based witch novel The Lancashire Witches (1849), was perhaps the master at combining historical fiction with horror. In his Windsor Castle (1843), set in the time of Henry VIII, the legendary and nefarious Herne the Hunter drags a young woman off to his underwater lair, where she is saved from a horrible fate at the last possible moment. By comparison, in The Lady of the Loch, both the abduction under chloroform-sedation of the victims and their captivity have little suspense value. Part of the reason that little suspense develops in the book is the inclusion of portions of the resurrectionist's notes at the end of chapters. By the end of Chapter 3 (of 14) we know that a physician requires body parts to create a monster ...à la Frankenstein and intends on using tinker women for this purpose. Thus, when one of them disappears in the next chapter, it doesn't take a genius to figure out where she's gone. By halfway through the book, it is abundantly clear who the culprit is and what his ultimate purpose is. Even more annoying, like a segment out of a bad Bond film, the villain, having Scott and the necessary women in his clutches, gloats and drones on endlessly about his motivations rather than offing all the witnesses when he has the chance.

All the same, since most modern readers will not have read much literature of Walter Scott's era and the tendency in modern horror is towards realism over atmosphere, The Lady of the Loch should appeal to fans of modern historical fantasy and horror. If the Scots dialect impedes their reading, readers should persevere for the well-crafted cultural and historical detailing of the story, and well... it does have a happy ending.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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