The Dead of Winter
Trade Paper, 224 pages, $16.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Ghosts. An orphan. A foreboding stately home. Bloody awful weather. Welcome to Merrie Olde England. In The Dead of Winter, author Chris Priestley honors the traditional. The narrative is told in flashback, as the grown protagonist sets pen to paper; recalling traumatic events of his boyhood. Set in the Victorian Age, the book captures an era in which the ghost story flourished. The phantoms who plague first person narrator Michael Vyner are suitably spooky. And the tale itself has an unsettling eerie quality, proceeding at a stately pace to build the chills. Ostensibly marketed to readers “ages 12 and up,” this young adult novel has appeal that extends beyond its demographic target.
After the death of his mother, Michael becomes the ward of a wealthy but maladjusted benefactor. The rich man is beholden to the boy’s father, with whom he served during The British Empire’s campaign in Afghanistan: Dad was killed while saving the other soldier’s life. Begrudgingly accepting the guardian, Master Michael finds they have something in common; they both sense dead people. The vast estate harbors apparitions, and certain rooms in the house are particularly afflicted: “Just as a face betrays the life of the owner, so too a room carries a trace of of the lives lived within its walls. The room positively ached with sadness. It was not just that the room was dark – and it was dark in furnishings and in its greedy accumulation of shadows – it was the very air that seemed tainted with misery.”
As the kid strips away the layers of background behind the haunting, he finds himself in mortal danger. A pervasive malevolence stalks the child, and the spectral manifestations aren’t the only threat to the boy’s well-being: There are those who resent him and fear his findings. It is the supernatural, however, that most disturbs and compels: “I was filled with a stupefying terror. I could do nothing but stand and gape at this pitiful creature: pitiful but dreadful all the same, her skin blue-white, her limpid eyes red-rimmed under the layer of ice.”
Echoing themes and atmosphere established by eminent Victorian scribes, Chris Priestley adheres to the template. There are metaphorical tips of the hat to Charles Dickens and J. Sheridan LeFanu. Delving back to a period when ghost stories were a revered form of literature, the author’s respect for both the era and its writers is evident. The Dead of Winter pays homage to a classic tradition by maintaining the requisite ambiance and chills. While a specific historical age is an element of focus in the novel, the chronological age of its readers should not be limited simply to young adults.