The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

A Hell of a Scary Crack In Your Wall

The Magic Cottage
James Herbert
New English Library 1987 (1st ed.)
DESIRABLE PROPERTY. Cottage, secluded position adjoining woodland, needs renovation, but excel. Potential. 2 beds, recep. kitchen, bathroom, ½ acre garden, offers invited.            
Cantrip 612.

For Mike and Midge, a session musician and children's books illustrator respectively, the idea of a move to the country brings mixed responses. Mike, a city boy through and through, would miss the hustle and bustle of the big smoke whereas Midge was country born and bred and feels a calling to her roots. However, something in this innocuous ad manages to pull them both in and before they know it they're en route to the New Forest. Despite the severely dilapidated state of Gramarye, the titular cottage, Midge in particular is entranced. Financial concerns are suddenly evaporated by lucrative contracts for their skills landing in their laps with serendipitous timing.

From the outset there is something magical about the cottage. The builders sent to survey and repair the extensive damage to the property return puzzled, the majority of the reported major faults nowhere to be seen. Every morning they are greeted by a coterie of woodland animals straight out of a Disney movie, including a remarkably tame red squirrel and a badly injured bird who, after one night in the house, flies away as right as rain. The cottage's powerful aura becomes more and more noticeable and the couple begin asking questions about the former owner, Flora Chaldean, a recluse whose powers as a healer afforded her great respect in the area. However, the nature of Flora's untimely and mysterious death soon casts a pall on their rural idyll.

A further shadow comes in the form of the Synergists, a religious cult who have taken up residence in a nearby country mansion christened 'Bleak House' by Mike for its forbidding countenance and atmosphere. Harasses and hounded by the locals, it initially seems that the Synergists, led by the mysterious Mycroft, are innocent victims being persecuted by ignorant locals for their unconventional beliefs. However it soon becomes apparent that there is something less than wholesome about their aims and that they may have been linked to Flora's death.

Before long the power of the cottage and the intentions of the Synergists become inextricably linked and the fairytale Mike and Midge have been living comes crashing down around them with terrifying consequences. The Magic Cottage is above all the story of a couple trying to stay together amidst the chaos which surrounds them. Buffeted at all sides by forces they can't understand and whose very existence they fear to acknowledge, Mike and Midge are put through a series of trials which test their very grip on reality.

The Magic Cottage takes the form of a first-person narrative, the story being told to us by Mike from an undisclosed time following the events. Unlike many such novels where the narration can seem forced and a little stilted, Mike's tale flows completely naturally. In this respect a comparison can be made to the friendly, homey style of Stephen King. It is one of James Herbert's great strength that he manages to accomplish this so well and makes the reader feel as if they're sat at a table in a rural pub, listening to Mike recounting the tale over a pint of bitter.

The second great pillar lifting The Magic Cottage above the rest of the haunted house genre is Herbert's portrayal of the relationship between Mike and Midge. The palpable love they feel for each other is absolutely central to the story and the small details Herbert injects into this aspect of the story are what truly brings the reader into the novel. The way they finish each other's sentences, break into spontaneous song and make idiots of themselves for the other's entertainment, it all flows so perfectly that their relationship seems almost more fantastical than the events surrounding the cottage.

The comfort and warmth engendered by their love for each other makes it that much more terrifying when the tale begins to darken. We're left not only having to deal with sinister events surrounding the cottage – Who is the shadowy figure in the woods? Why did that crack reappear? - but also having to watch the lovers drift ever further apart. This emotional double punch leaves the reader's defences low so that what may seem hackneyed ghost-story scares in another book can suddenly become genuinely creepy. During my two-night reading of the book I found myself raising my eyes from the book on more than one occasion, peering out into the darkness of the living room beyond and silently cursing myself for not having closed the bedroom door before settling down.

I first read The Magic Cottage back in high school at the age of fourteen or fifteen and must admit that back then it made far less of an impression. I was more interested in James Herbert's other titles, the far gorier Rats trilogy and The Fog. The Magic Cottage delivers its scares on a much more subtle level and is far more suited to an older reader so for me it was like reading an entirely new book, and a wonderful one at that. The truly believable nature of the narrative and relationship, the lack of any distracting over-the-top horror and the wonderful way he treats magic towards the story's climax make this a perfect entry to James Herbert's oeuvre or a magical All Hallow's Read gift.

(As a final note, I was inspired to re-read this by Neil Gaiman's All Hallow's Read recommendation list and on reflection it is stunningly similar to Gaiman's own work. Only now do I realise that in my mind I had been picturing him as the narrator all along.)

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Magic Cottage is available in both traditional and digital format from all good bookstores and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read.

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