Dorothy Daniels | Magnum Books | 1970 | 189 pages
After the sudden death of her mother, Hope Owen returns home from finishing school to the family’s estate, Alleys of Oak. She has come to grieve, but also to uncover the mysterious circumstances that lead to her mother being crushed to death by a falling tree during a lightning storm. Her Aunt Vera Frazer, Hope’s father’s sister and mistress of the house, greets her coolly with the news that Hope’s school days are now over—there will be no more money for her boarding-school, and she will be required to work for her keep as a family servant.
Also living in the estate are Hope’s two cousins, Samuel and Elizabeth. Samuel is a lazy gambler, frequently away in town indulging his addictions in the local taverns. Elizabeth is a haughty daughter of privilege, with a blunt sense of tact. The only sympathetic member of the family seems to be Aunt Mary, a plump spinster living alone in the guest cottage on the estate grounds.
Visiting her mother’s grave, Hope encounters a seemingly feral child in the woods outside the cemetery, and is entranced by her otherworldly charm. The pixie-like girl leads Hope to the neighboring plantation, where she meets its owner, Adam Camden. The strange girl is Adam’s mute sister, Fern, who perhaps had some connection with Hope’s mother.
But another member of the family has influence over the household, Vera’s deceased mother, Althea. Using Elizabeth as a medium, Vera has been conducting séances to contact the spirit of her mother, in order to solicit advice regarding the running of the household. In one such séance, Vera attempts to contact Hope’s mother, but during the proceedings a vase is violently hurled across the room, narrowly missing Hope. The number of voices competing to speak through Elizabeth during her trance suggests turmoil in the spirit world, and warns of more violence to come.
The spirits of Alleys of Oak are not just communicating through séances. Hope is terrified by the sounds of a woman sobbing at night, seemingly coming from the hallway outside her door. After walking Aunt Mary back to her cottage one night, Hope is attacked by a dark figure with a club, and pursued until she meets Samuel on the grounds of the estate. Hope wonders if the attacker is a manifestation of the spirit(s) of the house, or if she needs to fear corporeal enemies as well.
The resolution of the mystery ultimately comes as expected, with the culprit breaking down and confessing under the flimsiest of evidence. Refreshingly, the supernatural phenomena experienced at the séances prove to be genuine, not smoke-and-mirror parlour tricks engineered by the villain to terrorize the household. The overall tension of the story is reduced somewhat by the presence of Hope’s love-interest, Adam, the good-natured farmer next door, who provides her with an opportunity for escape with his early offer of marriage. Although Hope justifies her decision not to leave Alleys of Oak, having her continually trapped as a servant in the house would have intensified the unrelenting atmosphere of terror.
<SPOILER> And what self-respecting Gothic Romance fails to end with the heroine’s marriage? Perhaps revealing my own deep-seated character flaws, I was somehow cheering for the shiftless, gambling cousin, Samuel—but he never had a chance.