Climb the Dark Mountain
Julie Wellsley | Prestige Books | 1970 | 190 pages
English art student Anita Morris travels to Paris to follow her dreams of becoming a successful artist. After renting a small room in an apartment house in Montmarte, she begins talking classes with well-known commercial artist Alexis Binaud at his art school. Still grieving over the recent death of his sister and business partner Blanche, Alexis is equal parts harsh teacher and charming bon vivant, and Anita finds herself growing attracted to her moody instructor. When his erratic behavior jeopardizes the completion of an important project, Anita steps in to finish the artwork, assuming the role Blanche played in her creative partnership with Alexis.
Following a mysterious fire in the studio, Alexis invites Anita to stay at his family estate to continue work on a new magazine project. The old chateau—home now to Alexis’ mother, Madame Victorine Dubois, and his young niece Nichole—was occupied by the Gestapo in World War II and used as a detention center for captured members of the Resistance, whose spirits still purportedly haunt the estate. Anita receives more than just a chilly reception from Madame Dubois; while exploring the grounds of the estate, she is nearly struck by a falling bell from the tower in the ruined chapel.
Anita worries about the increasingly frequent mood swings plaguing Alexis, who begins calling her “Suzanne”. As he retreats more and more into his own internal world, Anita is left to suffer the suspicious interrogations of Madame Dubois and the curtly dismissive encounters from Alexis’s haughty friend—and Anita’s possible romantic rival—Marcia Dalesime. The jungle mural painted on the walls of Anita’s room intimates a dangerous presence hiding in the lush foliage. Is there a corresponding danger to Anita hiding in the chateau (or behind the eyes of the mural’s tiger)?
A subplot involving Jean, the nephew of Anita’s Montmarte landlady, infiltrating the chateau as Madame Dubois’ chauffeur, remains mostly underdeveloped, eschewing any supernatural aspects of the house’s infamous past history. His investigation of the suspicious activities at the estate, in order to keep a watchful eye on Anita, serves mainly as diversion from the central mystery; just how crazy and dangerous is Alexis? Internal monologues deflate most of the tension, answering the question early in the story. A grotesque reveal clarifies the “sister issues” at the center of his madness.