The Devil on Lammas Night
Susan Howatch | Fawcett Crest Books | 1974 | 224 pages
Nicola Morrison learns to always heed the warnings of Hungarian gypsy fortune tellers, as she ultimately falls under the deadly spell of a new man foreseen to enter her life, a “man with dark hair and dark eyes”.
The man is Tristan Poole, the leader of the Society for the Propagation of Nature Foods, an organization that has insinuated itself into residence at Colwyn Court, the down-at-heel estate belonging to Walter Colywn, father of Nicola’s ex-fiance, Evan. Tristan has moved his retinue of twelve female followers into the manor house, ostensibly in exchange for treating Walter’s psychosomatically ill daughter, Gwyneth. But from the very beginning, it is clear that Tristan is not simply the head of a natural food group, as he makes a familiar of the family cat and works occult spells with his minions, positioning himself to take over the estate for his own nefarious purposes.
The Devil on Lammas Night suffers a great deal of time establishing several sets of characters , mostly extended family to Nichola—our expected heroine—before its narrative reaches the point of introducing the danger that readers already know. Walter’s cousin, Benedict Shaw, and his wife, Jane, move into the cottage on the estate grounds to further Benedict’s academic research. Nicola’s father, Matthew, and his young second wife, Lisa, also arrive for an extended stay, along with Lisa’s young children, Lucy and Timothy. They all slowly rotate around Tristan, with varying degrees of suspicion—or attraction.
Only after a character’s death, one-hundred plus pages into the story, does Tristan finally set his sights on seducing Nicola (and securing her fortune), setting into motion Evan’s attempt at uncovering Tristan’s secret and freeing Nicola from his grasp. All will converge on Lammas Night, ritual date of a pagan harvest festival and time of special meaning for Tristan’s Society. However, little suspense is generated along the way, with the cat’s welfare being about as compelling as that of any other character. Break free, Marble, break free!
Cheerfully, at the conclusion, the unexpected source of some deadly counter black magic, along with the revelation of the existence of multiple free-roaming covens across the English countryside, seem not to trouble the prospects of a happy wedding.