Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Suffolk Winter 2013-20
Suffolk fens near Blythburgh

A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.

I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.

Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?

This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.

What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.

To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.

The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.

But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.

Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.

I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.

Is There Room for Horror on UK TV?

I mentioned that I’d enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ version of The Tractate Middoth over Christmas. And although that is certainly more of a ghost story than a horror story, it made me wonder why we don’t get more horror series on British television. Series like American Horror Story, and arguably The Walking Dead, prove that there’s popularity in these kinds of tales. There was Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, and we’ve had vampire tales of various sorts – not least the current Dracula on Sky Living and BBC Three’s Being Human.

But none of those are really horror series. Out to scare you and give you frights. There are tense bits, but they try to do other things as well.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that we don’t actually have the slots that could show such shows on the main channels. Yes BBC Three or ITV2 can do something, but think about BBC One and Two, ITV and Channel 4. The times of the main news programmes on those channels limits what’s possible for the most part.

Bear in mind that although there is a 9pm watershed that should allow programmes to be a bit scarier/violent/sexier, there are rules that dictate that broadcasters don’t start too abruptly with unsuitable material:

“Content that commences after the watershed should observe a smooth transition to more adult content. It should not commence with the strongest material.” – Ofcom guidance

As an example of this, Channel 4 recently rescheduled the imported Masters of Sex from 9pm to 10pm mid-run. This may have been due to ratings, but even the “previously on Masters of Sex” segment would have needed re-editing to go out at directly at 9pm.

Now Channel 4 is the only channel that has a suitable drama slot in that it can show hour long series at 10pm. And they used it last year for Utopia, although I suspect that they were disappointed with the viewing figures (it was one of my favourite programmes of 2013). BBC One and Two need to start their dramas at 9pm. OK, BBC Two could start theirs at 9.30pm but given that nobody else has a programme junction at that time, it’d be a very daring thing to do. ITV similarly has to start dramas at 9pm.

There’s nothing to stop a channel running a drama after the news at 10.35pm, but that’s not a slot that’d get a high audience, and channels rightly decide that they’ll spend their drama money when the audience is watching.

None of this is a problem for smaller channels – BBC Three or Four could do it; Sky Atlantic does do it to an extent (The Following is almost a horror series); Sky Living can do it.

But I wonder to what extent the biggest commissioners of original UK drama are constrained by the time-slots available to them? And does that prevent someone making a full-blown horror series?