Broomstick in the Hall
Jane Blackmore | Ace Books | 1970 | 157 pages
Young writer Camilla Greene returns home to her family’s English estate from New York to attend the marriage of her sister Julie to longtime family friend Adrian Massey. Camilla ran away six years previously when she overheard Adrian visiting Julie’s room one night, shattering her childhood crush on him and instilling a jealous hatred for her sister. Although her mother Veronica seems to welcome her return, her stepfather Fabian displays the same icy detachment she remembers from her childhood.
As the ceremony draws nearer, Camilla senses that Adrian lacks any overt interest in the wedding, and wonders if he somehow harbors a secret affection for her. Jake Gurney, son of the town vicar, hints at a past relationship with Julie, leading Camilla to puzzle over the circumstances of the hastily prepared wedding. Julie herself hints at a wild adolescence, without much obvious interest in Adrian, growing Camilla’s own impossible hope of a future with him.
Visiting the graves of her ancestors in the family cemetery, Camilla finds two strange dolls on the tombstone of her great-grandfather. Bearing an eerie resemblance to Julie and Adrian, the figures are wrapped together with a thin black thread. Hannah Gurney, Jake’s mother, comes upon Camilla at the gravesite and notices her with the dolls. With an accusatory demeanor, she begins quoting scriptures about “not suffering witches to live.” Further evidence of an occult intention surfaces when the farm’s chickens are discovered killed in their enclosure, their bodies neatly arranged on the ground.
The childish games end when Fabian is found dead, apparently the victim of a fall from a ladder placed under the old oak tree on the grounds of the estate. But was it really an accident? Suspicion falls upon Camilla when Jake intimates that he left the ladder there under her instructions. Some of the more superstitious villagers begin talking behind her back, attributing the recent ills in the community to her arrival and blaming her for Fabian’s death. Residents of the town view Camilla’s first book—dealing with the subject of witchcraft—as further validation that she is a practitioner of the occult.
Broomstick in the Hall establishes a modicum of atmosphere, as the young heroine returns home to face the people and places she thought she knew. Rather than a slow boil of suspicion, however, the townspeople turn quickly into an angry, burn-the-witch mob, with Hannah Gurney guilty of being the most one-dimensional. Better realized are the smaller scenes of mistrust, such as Camilla interrupting some of the villagers at the market gossiping about her, stiffening upon her arrival and transforming the local-girl-come-home into an outsider. Ultimately all the witchcraft details are just trappings in an unlikely inheritance thriller, with Camilla fighting for her life against the scheming plans of her thinly veiled enemy.