The Shape of Darkness
by Laura Purcell
Review by Ally Wilkes
Laura Purcell has a well-deserved reputation for historical Gothic chillers. The Shape of Darkness delivers all the elements her fans have come to expect: women in difficult situations, a sideways look at the restrictions and strictures of their society, a creeping supernatural menace and a final – jaw-dropping – twist.
We’re met by an absolute doozy of a pull quote from Elizabeth d’Esperance, a famous Victorian medium: “… we together called into being, a weird shadow which was neither of us, only an unshapen, unformed thing… as the lines of two wet drawings laid face to face become crossed, blotted, effaced and unrecognisable.” It’s an incredibly creepy idea – that the participants in a séance might call forth something horrible, unhuman, according to their expectations and own influence – and had me immediately wondering whether I was going to meet a Tulpa-style manifestation in these pages. Both the women at the heart of the novel are concerned with creating something out of darkness, and they act knowingly or unknowingly to shape the form which that creation takes: Agnes, the silhouette cutter, and Pearl, the child spirit-medium.
The novel opens with Agnes, who is so devoted to her art that she carries scrap paper and scissors to the park to make ‘practice cuts’ of interesting strangers. Purcell gives us all the information we need to understand this rather unusual profession – one I’d never considered – including the telling detail that “a shadow, an exact replica of the shade a person casts, possesses next to no likeness at all.” Agnes must choose which features to include and highlight to create a person’s resemblance, an early warning to the reader that her narration – like so many of Purcell’s narrators – may be somewhat suspect in what it chooses to include or leave out. We’re given the tantalising reference to an Accident, a period of pneumonia which has left Agnes and her health forever changed (something which, in these days of “long covid”, has a particularly dark resonance), and a sense of crumbling Gothic circumstance in the description of her home, which “cowers in the abbey’s shadow, its walls discoloured by time and soot… all day long [magpies] chitter and cackle, disturbing her work; mocking it, as others do, dismissing it as the vestiges of a bygone age.” Within the first chapter we’re placed in this claustrophobic atmosphere and the story is ready to begin: looking out of her house, Agnes sees that “the rain has stopped, but its metallic scent lingers. The street lamps cast sulphur pools on the pavement” – and there’s a murderer on the loose, seemingly targeting her clients.
Agnes is a real delight as a character. She wears only black (“always ordered and neutral… reliable”), tries to keep everyone in her little family happy (her nephew Cedric, and rather unhelpful Mamma), and is sorely underappreciated by them. When we see her blossom with enthusiasm and delight in the presence of a rare client, we can see how lonely she is – there’s a very personal tragedy in her past (“the crucifixion of her own dreams”) which Purcell, wisely, takes some time to unveil. Her sister, Constance, is dead, present only in silhouette, and when Agnes notes that “all the spikes and bristles of her character are concealed safely behind black lines”, she could very well be talking about herself, and how she’s been forced to adapt to the cards which life has dealt her. But even in the face of extreme pain – years spent with scissors and no concept of Repetitive Strain Injury have left her hands swollen, aching, struggling to do their job – and the danger of a murderer stalking her practice, she won’t give up her profession. She thinks of herself, the silhouette artist, as “the woman she knew as Agnes”, and this poses the novel’s central question: what about your life do you truly own?
It’s a particularly pointed question given the circumstances of the women in this story. Purcell’s second book, The Corset, dealt in gripping detail with the fortunes of the less fortunate, and the dire economic struggle facing her characters in a world with no safety net beyond the workhouse. It’s a side of the period novel which I find particularly interesting (we seem to otherwise read a lot about women who marry into or inherit large Gothic mansions, for example) and this sense of economic peril runs throughout The Shape of Darkness. Within the first few pages, we appreciate Agnes’s situation is precarious – the man who’s been murdered has not paid for her work, and she thinks: “one cannot eat pity”. When she visits his widow, seeing her – grander – circumstances, Agnes wonders what will happen to her; whether she’ll suffer the same gradual decline, the same “onslaught of retrenchments and economies”. Agnes needs her customers so that she (and Cedric, and Mamma) can eat, and she keeps a keen eye on the fuel burnt on their fire. Meanwhile, Pearl – who’s only eleven – is already being pressed into economic service out of dire necessity. She’s looked after by Myrtle, her older step-sister, and their father lies dying in the back room of their incredibly grimy rented suite: the family needs Pearl to manifest spirits so they can live. Eventually, Myrtle explodes, in a moment of pent-up rage and resentment I found particularly heartbreaking: “You don’t have to do anything, Pearl. Plan for what we’re going to eat, or beat out carpets, or fetch coal and haggle over it, or keep a book of everything that goes out to the laundry, or cook, or charm the landlord into giving you a few more days.”
The child spirit-medium was a feature of the Victorian period, and I’d recommend Lisa Morton’s fascinating Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances to get a better appreciation of the subculture which grew up in the late 1800s around ‘sittings’ or ‘circles’. There’s an unsettling near-sexual element to all of it, as female children or mediums were passed off in darkened rooms as ‘spirits’, and eleven-year-old Pearl remembers pretending to be ‘Florence King’ and sitting on men’s laps as they felt her hipbones as proof of her very real materialisation. Now, however, her role is to be consumed or subsumed: she’s there to give herself over to the spirits so they can speak and act through her. There’s a deftly-drawn and relatable fear in Pearl’s thoughts – what if she doesn’t get her body back? What can the spirits make her say or do which she won’t then remember? – which echoes the novel’s repeated theme of possession. After a séance, her mouth is dry: “it feels sullied, unclean, like it’s been used without her consent.” Pearl can’t even say she owns her own body. “She doesn’t care what she looks like. The whole point of girls like her is to not be there; to subtract herself from the room.” And later, her agonies are physical and vivid, the ghosts permeating (as white glowing vapour) every part of her, causing terrible pain.
Agnes and Pearl’s stories collide in a dark city of murders and bad weather, as Agnes uses Pearl to try to identify the murderer stalking her silhouette clients. Purcell sets the stage vividly, a post-glory-days Bath: “This is what her beautiful city has come to: the beau monde and the dandies have fled, leaving only the spinsters, the soot and the ghosts behind.” The novel is also set firmly in the sensation-seeking late Victorian age, in which Myrtle rightly observes that “people want a show”, and Agnes’s business gains a dark notoriety amongst society members who wish for the thrill of a silhouette from “the parlour of death”. Every element which the reader would want is present and correct: there’s a character with a body-snatching past, Penny Dreadfuls (and their tropes) are identified by name, there’s a gothic funeral cortege with black-plumed horses, and someone dying – horribly, gruesomely, in pure Victorian body horror – of “phossy jaw”.
Purcell’s novel is a page-turner, and the elements of the plot are all tightly woven. There’s no fat to be trimmed from these bones, and everything has its place – particularly the hints and reveals, threaded throughout the narrative, about Agnes’s past and her overbearing, possessive, malicious sister Constance. The seances are creepily drawn, and there’s a great tension which spirals inexorably towards the novel’s end, with shadows building, something stalking Agnes home from the seances and ever-present signs of Constance and her vicious nature. That said, it wouldn’t be a Laura Purcell without a truly delicious twist, and I was sure that I’d worked out the supernatural element and the identity of the murderer both – I love to be wrong, and the final chapters were classic Gothic reveal-of-secrets indeed. A book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
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