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The House in the High Wood
Jeffrey E. Barlough
Ace Books, 318 pages

The House in the High Wood
Jeffrey E. Barlough
Jeffrey E. Barlough is a trained biologist and veterinarian with a PhD. in Virology from Cornell, who has published over 60 research and review articles in scientific journals since 1979. He is also an armchair historian, and has edited small press publications of minor and archaic English works. Dark Sleeper was his first novel from a mainstream publisher.

IFSDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dark Sleeper

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Jeffrey Barlough's neo-Victorian Northern Lights series continues in this second volume. The series is set in an alternate world where a catastrophic "sundering" has destroyed most of civilization, and where prehistoric beasts (mastodons, sabercats, dire wolves, short-faced bears) survive into the present day.

The village of Shilston Upcot, prosperous but remote, sits on the shores of a black glacial lake whose depth has never been measured. On the forested cliffs above it lie the ruins of a monastery, an abode of mad friars who, according to village lore, vanished one day without a trace. Nearby stands the sinister, brooding hulk of Skylingden Hall, its great round rose window gazing down like a baleful eye upon the village. For years Skylingden Hall has stood empty, its owners the subject of a scandal so shocking no one in Shilston Upcot will speak of it. Now, suddenly, it's inhabited again: by the family Wintermarch.

Nothing is known about the Wintermarches; this, and the fact that they keep to themselves, soon sets village tongues to wagging. Squire Mark Trench and his friend, scholarly Oliver Langley, take it upon themselves to investigate. It isn't long before they start to suspect that Mr. Wintermarch may not be Mr. Wintermarch at all, but Charles Campleman, the son of Skylingden's former owners and a key player in the shadowy scandal that left Skylingden empty so many years ago.

On the trail of the scandal, Mark and Oliver delve into Shilston Upcot's past, which turns out to be uglier than they suspected. Meanwhile, darker things are afoot. In a cave below the ruined monastery, Mark and Oliver discover an apparently bottomless well, from which strange whispering voices seem to rise. The inhabitants of Shilston Upcot are troubled by strange dreams of a winged creature with glowing green eyes. A great owl is seen at night, flying like a ghost above the village. Mark -- staunch rationalist though he is, with no use for either gods or religion -- begins to suspect that an ancient evil has returned to Shilston Upcot, and that this evil may somehow be linked to the mysterious disappearance of his father years before. Risking madness or worse, he sets out to confront it.

Framed in good Gothic style by ante and post scriptums in which a nameless narrator encounters the teller of the main tale (a somber, haunted Oliver Langley, 11 years later), The House in the High Wood is a homage to such classics of the Gothic genre as The Monk and Woman in White, replete with mystery, madness, illegitimacy, ghostly visitations, ancient ruins, brooding forests, sinister dwellings, and supernatural terror. Like the first in the series, Dark Sleeper, it's a neo-Victorian pastiche, with an agreeably verbose 19th-century prose style and a large cast of eccentric characters. But where the previous book was as much digression as story, devoting entire chapters to character study and whole pages to the description of the contents of a single room, this novel is much more a straight-ahead narrative of suspense, proceeding grippingly from plot turn to plot turn, with moments that are genuinely bone-chilling.

Barlough proves here that he's capable of creating characters not only of exaggerated peculiarity (such as the drunken stonecutter Shank Bottom and the ferociously intellectual, accident-prone Captain Hoey) but of complex reality. Mark Trench is a fascinating study in arrogance and insecurity, harshness and vulnerability -- an aggressively rational man whose deeply-buried hurts and losses won't allow him to step back from a mystery his better sense tells him to avoid. It's a convincing and sympathetic portrait, and provides for The House in the High Wood an emotional centre that Dark Sleeper, for all of the sadness of its resolution, didn't possess.

As an animal-lover, I can't resist noting that Barlough (a veterinarian) writes wonderful animal characters too. Dark Sleeper featured a spirited mare and a pampered cat; in The House in the High Wood, Mark and Oliver are aided in their exploits by Jolly-boy, a clever terrier, and Tinker, a stalwart gelding. I can quite understand why Mark prefers them to most of his human neighbours.

Much as I admired the previous novel, I enjoyed reading this one more, and I suspect that many readers will find it a good deal more accessible. A third in the series has been sold, and should be out sometime in 2002.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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