the garden of bewilderment

[Review] The Garden of Bewitchment

The Garden of Bewitchment

by Catherine Cavendish

Review by Robert Welbourn

The Gothic tradition isn’t as old as people seem to assume. Gothic novels only started appearing in the mid-18th century, so the whole idea is less than three hundred years old. For such a short-lived genre, however, it’s taken hold of literature and extended its reach outwards into film, TV, radio, and everything else in between. The Gothic is now as well-embedded a part of our culture as anything else. But what a lot of people don’t know is that to call all Gothic works horror would be incorrect. There are actually two types of Gothic; horror is indeed one, and the other goes by the name of terror. You’re probably thinking that these sound like two names for the same thing, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The difference is subtle, but very much there, and makes perfect sense once explained.

The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764), was actually a terror novel. The next Gothic novel to appear, however, was not: The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796) is very much a horror novel. What’s the difference, I’m sure you’re wondering? Well, it’s all in atmosphere and execution. It’s probably most easily described, actually, in terms of film. Think of a film such as The Grudge (US, Takashi Shimizu, 2004) which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar. The film purports to be horror, and it very much is: a series of events punctuated by frequent jump scares. Characters, such as the erstwhile Buffy, are going about their day-to-day business when all of a sudden there’s a loud bang and something flashes on screen. We (the audience) are momentarily terrified. We throw our hands up to our face, both in shock and as something to hide behind. Our heart races to previously unknown speeds, and we feel tense and on edge. You might wonder why I’m telling you all of this when you know it perfectly well for yourself. Well, the definition of horror only becomes more apparent when placed in contrast to the definition of terror.

Now think of the original film, Ju-On: The Grudge (Japan, Takashi Shimizu, 2002). As with all American remakes, the latter version differs greatly from the original. Where the American version relies on cheap jump scares to get a reaction from the audience, the Japanese version does nothing of the sort. It’s a much slower, much more considered film. It relies on atmosphere, and the constant building of it, to provoke a reaction from the audience. Rather than throwing large, loud objects at you periodically to make you leap out of your seat, it provides a constant low level of threat which makes you slowly slide off it. This is what terror is.

The Garden of Bewitchment may be sold to you as a Gothic horror novel, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a Gothic terror novel; a small but major difference, and the book is all the better for it. Catherine Cavendish writes as one who knows the Gothic intimately; one of the cover quotes tells that she ‘draws from the best conventions of the genre’, and there’s no way she’s done this by accident. The book is slow, thoughtful, considered; it’s not only Gothic through and through, but thoroughly terrifying from start to finish.

The Garden of Bewitchment is set in West Yorkshire – in Brontë country – which is reflected not only in the content of the story but also the atmosphere. I live in Leeds, and have spent a lot of time in Bradford and Haworth, so to see these places reflected in literature is always wonderful. Cavendish clearly knows the areas intimately, and this knowledge gives us the perfect setting for such a book. She captures the spirit of the areas down to a tee, and her writing echoes that of the Brontës themselves; we frequently find ourselves on wild moors, in small taverns, visiting ramshackle farmhouses, and meeting incredibly interesting and vivid characters.

To some, the book may seem a little too slow-paced, but the speed of the narration is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the content. Cavendish, as previously mentioned, draws on Gothic traditions with aplomb; whilst there are jump scares in the novel, it is the atmosphere, the slow and steady burn, which captured my imagination. To be honest, this book scared the hell out of me, and that’s basically all I ask from a terror novel.

Cavendish’s descriptions bring the world she’s writing about to life; her characters are three-dimensional, entirely alive to us, even though they may or may not take part in the narrative. The book has twists and turns, and it kept me on the edge of my seat right up to the very last page; I couldn’t put it down because I simply needed to know what happened. And though the ending was fairly clearly telegraphed throughout, it was no less powerful for being so; the novel ends in a shocking way, and events are not all tied up with a neat little bow. The story is left open, but rather than being due to neglect, it’s a wonderful plot device that works perfectly in context. If this were a film, I’d be braying for the sequel the second I finished.

This book won’t be for everyone. For those who pick it up expecting classic Gothic horror, there will be a lot of surprises, and no doubt some disappointments. But this will be due to their misunderstanding of the genre, rather than any failure on the part of the author. The Garden of Bewitchment is a classic Gothic terror novel; Cavendish is clearly well versed in the genre and writes with a confidence that reflects this. It’s probably one more for the purists than the masses, but to me this is only further praise. If more people knew what was true to genre – rather than simply what was popular – we might be treated to even more books of such high quality as this.

Venture to the village of Thornton Wensley with caution; there are rumours of odd goings-on and strange occurrences. Whilst the village may seem green and pleasant from the outside, looks can be deceiving, and if you venture into any of its dwellings, you might just get more than you bargained for.

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Robert Welbourn

Author | Ideal Angels (2018) / @unbound_digital

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