Throwback post!

Every year I like to post my favorite holiday reads in case anyone is looking for a little seasonal joy. My December joys largely involve AGAs and mince pies and–occasionally–a bit of murder. Here are some from my shelf that get a frequent reread this time of year:

*NIGELLA CHRISTMAS. The definitive holiday cookbook with options for every possible kind of feast. Worth buying for the snappy prose and utterly perfect roast potato recipe alone.

*MARTHA STEWART’S CHRISTMAS. A throwback to be sure, but I love flipping through the pages to remind myself exactly how much labor I’m saving by NOT making my own potpourri and wrapping paper.

*WHITE CHRISTMAS. I love color too much to ever be able to pull off a white Christmas myself, but Tricia Foley does it in elegant style.

*JANE AUSTEN’S CHRISTMAS. Full of charming Georgian traditions and snippets from Austen novels. A lovely gift for an Austen devotee as well.

*THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER. A snow-bound country house, a dead body during the holiday celebrations. What more could you want?

*COMFORT & JOY. Contemporary and stylish family upheaval. Just the ticket if you like playing Peeping Tom on other people’s chaos.

*CHRISTMAS AT COLD COMFORT FARM. NOT to be attempted unless you are a diehard Gibbons fan and have read CCF at least three times. It’s not her best, but it does still have charm.

*EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY CHRISTMAS POEMS. Perfect for dipping in and out of during the season and absolutely essential if you end up stuck with people who demand you sing for your supper. Whip this out of your pocket and recite something seasonally appropriate.

*JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. This has become my compulsory annual re-read and the season hasn’t properly started for me until I’ve plunged into Jane Austen’s world and the delights of a corpse at Christmas.

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We’re giving away ARCs!

We have a fab contest for ARCs of Veronica’s fourth adventure, A DANGEROUS COLLABORATION! Five lucky winners will get advance reading copies, and one grand prize winner will get the ARC and all three of Veronica’s previous books in hardcover. Here’s how to enter:

If you don’t already follow me on Twitter or Instagram, there are handy buttons at the bottom of each page of the website to take you straight to my accounts there. Can’t wait to see your entries–EXCELSIOR!

(US only and no purchase necessary. Open December 4-10.)

 

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Time to pop a cork!

Delighted to announce that A TREACHEROUS CURSE has been recognized as a Best Book of 2018 by Suspense Magazine! Huge thanks to all of you for your enthusiasm for Veronica and Stoker’s third adventure–excelsior!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

So it’s almost time for Thanksgiving here in the US. (Canadians are clever enough to do this earlier in the autumn so they can have turkey again at Christmas without it being tryptophan overload.)

Anyway, I’m tremendously thankful for all of YOU! Readers, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, bookstagrammers, podcasters, reviewers–all of you in the reading community have done so much to share the word about my books and I’m sending a big fat juicy kiss of thanks to each and every one!

This Thanksgiving, we’ll be belatedly celebrating my daughter’s birthday in the morning–mimosas, chocolate croissants, and the parade–and gathering for a special turkey dinner that evening. I’m always in charge of the turkey and dressing, and after years of brining, last year I had a brainwave. I’ve been roasting my chickens according to Thomas Keller’s method, and it finally occurred to me that turkey is basically just a big dry chicken. So I adapted his method to my turkey and it was the best one I’ve ever made. Here’s the ultimate Lazy Thanksgiving Turkey:

Lazy Thanksgiving Turkey

If using a frozen turkey, thaw it out a few days in advance. I tend to take mine out the Sunday before, toss it in the fridge, and forget about it until Thursday. I NEVER let it thaw at room temperature because I think that’s just begging for food poisoning. I don’t rinse it for the same reason. (TURKEY JUICE EVERYWHERE. GROSS.) Instead, I rip out the tiny bag of turkey goodies and toss them. A better person would use them to make gravy or a craft project, but I’m not a better person and they go into the trash. (I should note here that this method of cooking will make it impossible to use the drippings for gravy. I’m not joking; don’t even try. It will be BEYOND inedibly salty. My mother makes the gravy and I’m not sure what kind of mystical alchemy she invokes, so you’re on your own here.)

Take the turkey out of the fridge and leave it in its wrappings an hour before you’re ready to start roasting–but no more than an hour before because again, nobody wants food poisoning. (Disclaimer: I’m not a food safety expert. Check all of these recommendations with someone who is.) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove turkey from wrappings and pat dry with paper towels that you will treat like hazmat waste because it totally is. Put the turkey into a roasting pan. (I use the disposable foil ones because it’s once a year and nobody wants to be scrubbing that thing out when you’re done. If you have a lovely, fancy roaster, by all means, use it.)

Truss turkey. By this, I mean, tie its legs together, tightly, using kitchen twine. Tuck the wings under the back to keep the tips from burning. This will leave you with a nice, tidy turkey instead of a sprawling mess that cooks unevenly. (I should also mention that I would NEVER stuff a turkey. I think it’s nasty; the dressing never forms a nice golden brown top, and it jacks with your cooking times. And you can’t stuff this turkey because–again–the stuffing will be inedibly salty, so you will end up weeping into your hostess towels in the bathroom.)

Get a lot of salt. A LOT OF SALT. TOO MUCH SALT. You want the kosher stuff and you want handfuls of it. Pour it into your palm and start packing it around the turkey. You’re not burying the bird; you’re making a salt crust. Some will fall off. Just pack more on. Now, scrub your hands and shove the turkey into the oven uncovered. Turn the heat down to 375 degrees and roast for 15 minutes per pound.

DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN. Do not baste. Do not peek. That’s what the window is for. Just leave it be. And let me say again, this works with a turkey that is not fridge cold and not stuffed. If you fiddle with those things, this won’t work.

After roasting for 15 minutes per pound–yes, you have to math but that’s the hardest part of the whole experience–pull it out of the oven and let it rest for 15-30 minutes. I’m not fussed about serving a hot turkey because if the gravy is really hot, it doesn’t matter if the turkey isn’t. Also, you need the time to let the juices settle into the meat before you stick a knife into it. If you get a geyser of cooked turkey juice when you carve, you probably started too soon and you’ll know better for next year. And if you’re a skin eater, well, that stuff is bad for you, so stop it. You’ll only be able to nibble a small portion of this anyway because the salt will dry you out like the Mojave, but the little bit you eat will be DELICIOUS.

One further caveat: I roast 12-15 pound turkeys. No bigger because they tend to dry out before they roast through. If you need a LOT of meat, consider two smaller turkeys in two separate ovens. Plus, extra drumsticks and wishbones!

That’s it. It’s two minutes of prep. No mixing a vat of brine; no building aroasting pyre of vegetables–all of which I’ve done. No fancy rubs, no herbal compound butters. Just a simple salt crust which makes the meat deeply flavorful. And with all the extra time you spent not working on the turkey, you can put your feet up with a nice cup of tea or glass of red zin and contemplate everything you’re thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

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Reposting Halloween thoughts!

This is my favorite holiday–not entirely surprising for a girl who kills pretend people for a living, no? But I’ve always loved ghost stories and the fall, full moons and things that go bump in the night…

Halloween used to be a sacred holiday for many folks. The last of the three harvest holidays, it was the time for bringing in the remnants of the crops, storing them up against the winter–a time for celebrating the harvest and fattening oneself up. “Winter is coming” wasn’t just a saying in Winterfell, my darlings, and one wasn’t truly prepared for the coming hardships unless there were apples drying on the hearth, the hay baled, and the corn reaped. It was a time for dancing and divination, when one’s true love might be revealed in a bowl of dark water or the curl of an apple peel thrown over one’s shoulder. It was a time when people gathered at bonfires and crackling hearths, warming themselves and telling stories.

It was also a time for honoring the dead. The Celts believed that on this night, the veil between worlds was the thinnest, and those we love can come back to visit for just a little while. Want to show a Samhain welcome to those you have loved and lost? Light a candle next to their picture and leave an offering of something sweet. But scatter salt across your threshold to keep others away! Light a jack-o-lantern to illuminate the way for those who wander, and when you gaze up at the harvest moon–two days full and ripe as an ear of corn–wish them peacefully on their way.

On a more prosaic note–in our house, Halloween means chili, queso, and chocolate cake with classic horror movies. But we always spare a thought for those we have loved and honor their memory. It is also a perfect night to banish old habits and resentments. We usually observe the burning bowl on New Year’s Eve, but it is an old Samhain tradition as this night used to mark the turning from the old year to the new. Get a fireproof bowl or use a firepit. Write secretly whatever you wish to banish from your life. Hold the paper close to your heart and breathe out your resentments, your anger, your pain. Then drop the paper into the bowl and set it alight. When it has burned and dropped to cold ash, scatter the ashes on the wind. Time to make a fresh start–time for the Danse Macabre to call all ghosts home.

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More from THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST

Those of you who have the digital edition of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST had a few special pieces of extra content written exclusively for you. Since it’s been a few years since the book came out (!) I thought I’d share with print readers a letter Theodora Lestrange, the intrepid heroine, has written to her sister back in Scotland…

From the Castle Dragulescu, Transylvania

My dearest Anna,

I hope this letter finds you and William well. As you can see from the heading, I have arrived! My trip was blessedly uneventful, although I think you would have remarked upon the oddness of the food and the unsavoury linen in some of the accommodations. But the scenery, Anna! How you would have marvelled at it, for it is quite indescribable, like something out of a child’s book of faery tales. The mountains do not rise gracefully as our gentler Scottish mountains do; these peaks are sharp and craggy, pushing like living things toward the sky. They are grey and often enshrouded in mist and fogs, and there is a wonderful atmosphere when the wolves begin to howl.

Have I chilled your blood? Good! For I mean to write a fearful novel, full of dangerous things that will make young maidens cower under their bedclothes at night, too afraid even to strike a light against the dark. It is wicked, I know, but what fun it will be to craft my monsters! And it seems that I shall have all the time I require to write without the distractions of helping to plan a wedding. Cosmina does not mean to marry after all. Her fiancé—although I suppose I should not call him so—the master of this place, has refused to marry her. On what grounds, she has not said. She only related to me that the marriage would not happen and that she herself is glad of it! I cannot imagine why. Marriage would have settled her here in the land that she loves so well, and I do not understand why there should be any objection to the gentleman himself. He welcomed me to his home in a uniquely Transylvanian fashion, and has been a most engaging host. Perhaps I shall use him as a model for my hero…oh, Anna, picture me now, nibbling on the end of my pen and canting my head to the side as I consider if he will suit my purposes. He is tall, as a hero should be, and handsome as well. But these things are trifles. Any fellow may be tall or handsome, these are accidents of birth. This particular gentleman has something entirely more diverting, Anna. He has secrets. What they might be, I cannot yet guess, but I can smell them, sharp as the smell of rain upon the wind. He has a great dog that shambles about after him, and a creature more like a wolf you have never seen! I could easily believe it his familiar, sent out to do his bidding upon moonlight nights…

How fanciful I become! Can you understand now how powerful a force one’s setting is? I have come to this place and instantly I am beset by plots and characters, plucking at my sleeve for attention. I want only peace and quiet and a pot of ink to spin masterpieces from my pen.

But enough of my trifles. I am eagerly awaiting news of the autumn fête. Have you finally secured the funds to make the repairs to the east wall of the rectory? I do hope so. It was very kind of Mrs. Muldoon to send half a dozen jars of her damson plum preserves for the auction, although I lament that she did not see fit to send any with me. I should have liked it upon my mămăligă at breakfast each morning! What is mămăligă, I hear you ask? It is a sort of porridge, but made with corn rather than oats, very hearty and nourishing, a type of peasant food that even the gentry are happy to have, for it is bracing here in the mountains and one wants filling food. There are all sorts of warming dishes and things spiced with peppers to heat the blood. You might enjoy them, although I suspect they would irritate William’s dyspepsia. I am sorry to hear it troubles him again. Has he tried a ginger tonic?

Do give my love to my nieces and nephews, and tell them if they are very good indeed, I will write them each a faery story for Christmas. And tell Edmund I will write one for him even though I know he shall be naughty.

Kiss them once and yourself twice and know that I am well and I remain as ever,

Your devoted sister,

Theodora

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Throwback to that time I wrote a book about vampires…or did I?

Time for vampires, witches, and all things spooky, no? It’s the season for reading Gothic, so gather round and let’s talk about THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST my only Gothic novel, and my love letter to Victoria Holt, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Stewart.

There are lots of goodies with this one, and today’s post puts them all in one place. First, to get you in an appropriately Transylvanian mood, the Pinterest board. Next, a list of Transylvanian reading and a recipe for a traditional Carpathian dish. Then we have the back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST to give you an overview of the action. After that, a link to exclusive content from the digital version, and we’re ending with an excerpt in hopes that you will be enticed to wander the stone passages of Castle Dragulescu…

*Further reading and a Carpathian recipe:

*THE LAND BEYOND THE FOREST Emily Gerard. Once out of print but now mercifully reissued, this book was written by the first English-speaking woman to visit the Carpathians. It was the book Bram Stoker most heavily relied upon in conjuring his version of Transylvania, and it was the single most essential resource I had in writing THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST. Gerard’s tales of neighborhood gossip about a missing gentleman having “gone wolf” inspired my story of the Popa men.

*TRANSYLVANIA AND BEYOND Dervla Murphy

*TRANSYLVANIAN CUISINE Paul Kovi

*Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy

*VAMPIRE: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE WORLD OF THE UNDEAD Manuela Dunn Mascetti

*VAMPIRES David J. Skal

*IN SEARCH OF DRACULA Radu Florescu

To drink while you read, it must be plum brandy. It goes by various names in Transylvania, depending upon whether you are of of Romanian, Hungarian, or German descent, but it is similar stuff–warmly fruity and entirely potent. And just to make sure it doesn’t all go straight to your head, a nice bowl of corn porridge, a staple of the Carpathian diet.

Mămăligă

This is a virtuous dish, being both exquisitely simple and endlessly varied. A cornmeal mash, it requires only three ingredients and is best prepared in an iron cauldron over an open fire. If you insist upon cooking it in a modern kitchen, you may.

Boil one quart of water in a pot. When it reaches a rapid boil, add one tablespoon salt and slowly pour in two cups of cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and cook for approximately twenty minutes, continuing to stir to break up any lumps.

Mămăligă may be prepared with a little milk to make a softer dish to be eaten as porridge, or it may be sliced and served in place of bread or eaten out of hand with a salty ewe’s milk cheese and sour cream. It may be crumbled and served in a dish of hot milk to invalids, or sliced and fried in butter for heartier types.

*Back cover copy of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST:

A husband, a family, a comfortable life: Theodora Lestrange lives in terror of it all

With a modest inheritance and the three gowns that comprise her entire wardrobe, Theodora leaves Edinburgh—and a disappointed suitor—far behind. She is bound for Rumania, where tales of vampires are still whispered, to visit an old friend and write the book that will bring her true independence.

She arrives at a magnificent, decaying castle in the Carpathians, replete with eccentric inhabitants: the ailing dowager; the troubled steward; her own fearful friend, Cosmina. But all are outstripped in dark glamour by the castle’s master, Count Andrei Dragulescu.

Bewildering and bewitching in equal measure, the brooding nobleman ignites Theodora’s imagination and awakens passions in her that she can neither deny nor conceal. His allure is superlative, his dominion over the superstitious town, absolute—Theodora may simply be one more person under his sway.

Before her sojourn is ended—or her novel completed—Theodora will have encountered things as strange and terrible as they are seductive. For obsession can prove fatal…and she is in danger of falling prey to more than desire.

 

*Excerpt

THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST
Theodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find that nothing is as she expected…After a long while, the road swung upward into the high mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce, occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver alighted at once and after a moment’s brisk conversation with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and secured them.

He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.

I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about their noses.

Die Wölfe,” he said, and I realized in horror what he meant.

I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a little. “The wolves attack them?”

He shrugged. “There is not a horse in the Carpathians without scars. It is the way of it here.”

He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I climbed in.

Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where they dwelt.

The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we took was not the main one that continued through the pass, but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far below.

The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock, stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.

Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next to them.

Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagle’s aerie. “That is the home of the Dragulescus,” he told me proudly.

“It is most impressive,” I said. “But I do not understand. How am I to—”

He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.

“Impossible,” I breathed. “There must be a thousand steps.”

“One thousand, four hundred,” he corrected. “The Devil’s Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.”

I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend, and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here if I wished it.

He gestured towards the sedan chair. “It is too steep for horses. This is why we must use the old ways.”

I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window—for privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff and unwieldy from disuse.

Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly towards the castle.

At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and my first thought was here was some last outpost of Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witches’ hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived of it.

In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a sorcerer’s spell, for the place seemed thick with enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.

“Theodora!” she cried, and her voice was high with emotion. “How good it is to see you at last.”

She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun glass.

“We are old friends,” I scolded. “And I can bear a sturdier affection than that.” I enfolded her and she seemed to rest a moment upon my shoulder.

“Dear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.” She drew back and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.

From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly as tall as a calf in the field.

“Is he?” I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.

“No.” She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, “The dog is his.”

I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.

She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and for my ears alone. “Do not speak of the betrothal. I will explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.”

She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall of the castle to make the proper introductions.

The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries were bristling with weapons—swords and halberds, and some other awful things I could not identify, but which I could easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval battle.

Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carver’s art. One—a porter’s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden hood to protect the sitter from draughts—was occupied by a woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I presumed at once that this must be Cosmina’s erstwhile fiancé.

When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me formally. “Aunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.”

I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.

To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed me in lilting English. “Miss Lestrange, you are quite welcome.” Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her aunt’s health.

But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly, then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.

“Miss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara—Frau Amsel.” To my surprise, she followed this with, “And her son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.” I supposed it was the countess’ delicate way of informing me that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my natural place in the countess’ estimation. True, Cosmina was a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education and encouraged Cosmina’s prospects as a future daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was and if his absence was the reason for Cosmina’s distress.

Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed, when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to her and she addressed her son. “Florian, Miss Lestrange is from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel welcome. It will be good practise for you.”

He inclined his head to me. “Miss Lestrange. It is with a pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.”

His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a year or two my elder—no more, I imagined. He had softly curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.

“Thank you, Florian,” I returned, twisting my tongue around the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection his mother had.

Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent. But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that only a man past thirty can achieve.

He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole until he reached my side.

I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.

The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.

He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are handsome. His features bore traces of his mother’s ruined beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before, either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly, but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I recalled myself.

“Andrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.”

He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my gaze and said, “Welcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired from your journey. I will escort you to your room.”

If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Rest well and we will speak in the morning,” she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw fear in her eyes.

I nodded. “Of course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such a kind welcome.”

The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells, forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never looking back.

We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it, standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements, although I could not imagine why.

The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned style, doubtless because the furniture was old—carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask what variety.

But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in perfect silence.

At length I could bear the silence no longer. “It was kind of you to show me the way.” I put out my hand for the candle but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it firmly behind her.

“Remove your gloves,” he instructed.

I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he reached for my hands…

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Because I like to be scared but not really

A repost of my first viewing of Crimson Peak and some other spooky faves.

*CRIMSON PEAK:

So last weekend I went to see Crimson Peak and it was everything I hoped it would be. Oh, first the caveat--if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading now and come back on Tuesday. I’m serious; I’m going to spoil this like nobody’s business.

I should start by saying that I’m old-fashioned. I believe in judging something by what it was intended to be, not what you wanted it to be. Crimson Peak was clearly not supposed to be a straight-up horror film, so if you’re into heaps of gore, it’s going to disappoint. There are a few cringe-worthy moments. I peeped through my fingers twice, but let’s be clear–there’s nothing in this film to TOUCH an average episode of Game of Thrones.

It also doesn’t try to make you leap out of your own skin. While it does begin with a decent hit on the creep-meter, the movie spends a fair bit of time setting up an atmosphere of seeming benignity before taking a macabre turn. But, as one of my Twitter pals pointed out, the scares are always well telegraphed, so if you’re a scaredy-cat (like me!), you’ll have a good idea of when to turn away. It’s beautifully designed, and even though the history isn’t perfect–the waltz was not new to Americans in the 1890s–the lush details more than make up for it.

If you grew up, as I did, reading Gothic novels, this is like watching one of your favorite novels come to life. This is Gothic in the most traditional sense of the word–Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis as opposed to Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart–and it’s lavish in its unabashed love of the genre. There is a touch of classic Hammer in this one, and I say that as someone who ADORES Hammer films.

So, here are a few of my favorite things about Crimson Peak:

*I’ve already mentioned the look of it, but in particular Allerdale Hall, the decaying mansion at the heart of the film is spectacular. It’s a desolate pile, as all good Gothic settings should be, but it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful desolate pile. There is not an inch of the house that hasn’t been crafted with obvious care and devotion, and the sight of snow falling softly into the grand hall through the broken roof is majestic and poignant. (If you’ve ever read Lisa St. Aubyn de Teran’s accounts of her houses, you’ll remember when she invokes the Marchesa Casati who lived in stylish decrepitude, preferring a roofless palazzo to a snug modern flat. She would have felt right at home in Allerdale Hall.) From the butterflies to the heavy keys, the sumptuous costumes to the delicate tea set, it’s a beautiful film.

*It’s not too beautiful. Just when it’s about to tip into overly-luxurious, something truly nasty happens–like moist red soil seeping up through the snow to look like spongy blood. Also, the ghosts? NOT PRETTY. They’re shown in advanced stages of decay, mostly skeletal, and dripping with gore. They aren’t shown in detailed close-up, mercifully, but the sight of them manages to make everything just a bit less pretty.

*There’s no gratuitous female nudity. Too many times, directors will default to showing the heroine in a state of undress to highlight her vulnerability and her role as victim. Crimson Peak doesn’t go there, even when the heroine takes a bath. The only nudity comes from Tom Hiddleston’s rear end–and I’m given to understand that he asked for it on the grounds that actresses are always being made to get naked and he felt it was fair. (If that’s true, we love him even more.)

*The cast. Jessica Chastain was utterly splendid, while Tom Hiddleston was exactly what you wanted him to be–by turns charming and enigmatic. The weak link in these stories is often the heroine who is usually so young and unnervingly naive you’re rooting for her to be pushed down the stairs. Not this time. Mia Wasikowska was the perfect choice. Her character IS young and naive, but she is also inquisitive and tenacious, daring to stand up for herself as she gains confidence.

*The fact that I want to see it again. I have no doubt I missed things–LOTS of things. I’m sure there are all kinds of delicious tidbits tucked away in each scene for me to discover on rewatching. This is going to become a regular on my Halloween rotation for decades, right up there with the silent classic Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, Hammer’s The Gorgon, and Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein.

*In the end, the heroine saves herself. We could quibble a bit about this one since the heroine’s old friend and former suitor comes to take her away. But Crimson Peak redeems itself because ultimately the heroine has to save them both. It’s a truly powerful moment for a type of character who usually lies around waiting to be rescued. To give the heroine actual agency is refreshing and unexpected. And if you’re a true fan of the Gothic genre, there’s not much about this that will surprise you otherwise. The beauty of Crimson Peak is not that it’s innovative, but that it’s an homage to a genre so many of us truly love and that seldom gets this kind of attention. It’s the type of film no one makes any more, and I’m so tremendously delighted that someone did. Bouquets of kudos to Guillermo del Toro for this love letter to the Gothic.

*Other creepy faves:

I am Fraidy MacFraidycat, Mayoress of Fraidyville. I don’t do gore or serious horror, and slasher films leave me cold. Having said that, I ADORE Halloween. It’s seriously my favorite holiday of the year. (I’m a big fan of any holiday that lets you watch movies, gorge on candy, and let your inner demons off the leash without requiring you to shop or exchange presents.) Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of absolute favorites. I don’t get to see all of them every Halloween season, but it’s never REALLY autumn until I’ve viewed at least three or four. Here are my faves.

(Last week in my post about Crimson Peak I mentioned The Gorgon, Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, and Bride of Frankenstein, so take those as a given.)

*Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Ghoulishly sweet with a beautiful score and Joanna Lumley. ‘Nuff said.

*Sleepy Hollow (1999.) I know I said I don’t do gore, and this one is pushing it for me. But I am a sucker for things that are unapologetically over-the-top and this one is. It’s gruesome and creepy, and there’s just enough comic relief from Johnny Depp’s reluctant Ichabod Crane to make it all worthwhile. (I will never understand why people insist upon making Ichabod the hero of the story. If you read the book, he’s a jerk. I’m Team Brom.)

*The Hound of the Baskervilles. I haven’t specified a version because I’m not certain it matters. I love the Hammer version with Christopher Lee and the more recent one with Richard E. Grant. (The Basil Rathbone entry is a given.) There’s just something deliciously atmospheric about a deserted moor and the footprints”…OF A GIGANTIC HOUND!”

*Halloween. I know, I know. It’s exactly what I said I didn’t watch–a slasher film, THE slasher film, one of the pioneers of the genre. But I finally caved and watched it a few years ago and immediately understood why it’s a classic. For being such a giant of the genre, it’s remarkably tame–no pools of blood or spurting viscera. There’s just an atmosphere of mounting menace. Caveat: I won’t watch it alone.

*Practical Magic. Because WITCHES.

*Maleficent. Not really anything to do with Halloween, but she is the ultimate Disney villain, so it counts in my book.

*Book of Life. This one didn’t get the love it deserved. It’s a beautifully-animated story about el Dia de Los Muertos, a continuation of the observances begun with Halloween in South Texas. Even though I’m not from a Hispanic family, this particular tradition is one we observed, particularly after my grandmother died. The film is funny and sweet, and if you’re trying to figure out how to discuss death with your kids, you could do a lot worse than using this as a jumping off point.

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Happy October!

In case you’ve missed this post on my favorite seasonal reads, I’m popping it up here again. Happy reading!

I don’t like to be scared–not really. A little suspense is fine, but no outright horror, please. Here are a few of my seasonal favorites:

*Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. WITCHES. That’s all you need.

*The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. It’s not a popular view, but I really, really dislike Ichabod Crane. I always root for the Horseman…and I’m very glad Katrina ends up with Brom. (That’s not a spoiler since the book has been out for almost 200 years.)

*The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The ultimate ghost story–a classic for all the right reasons.

*Poems: Haunted and Bewitched (Everyman) I adore the Everyman editions of poetry, and this one is full of delectable things.

*House of Spirits and Whispers by Annie Wilder. This one is a memoir which is utterly terrifying if you think about it too much. Wilder purchased a large, sprawling mansion in disrepair–you know where this is going, right? HAUNTED. I started rereading it last year and had to put it away again. I might manage another chapter this year…

*The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Honestly, you could just as easily sub in We Have Always Lived At The Castle. There’s no bad Shirley Jackson. I included Hill House because it is legitimately SPOOKY. In addition to being a beautifully crafted piece of fiction, it creeps the bejeesus out of me. What more can you ask?

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Upcoming event!

In the greater DC area? Come to the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University! On Saturday, October 13, I’m going to be sharing a panel with Greer Macallister on historical female detectives. We’ll be signing books after, so come see us! Details here.

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