RogerBW's Blog

Spider Light, Sarah Rayne 29 September 2016

2006 psychological thriller. After a highly public series of tragic incidents, Antonia Weston goes to Cheshire to stay in a cottage near a small market town, hoping for anonymity and peace. But she soon experiences a series of events which seem to be echoing the past she's trying to forget.

This book starts off really well. Antonia is, it soon becomes apparent, just out of prison, and she's having trouble getting out of the passive and institutional mindset she had to put herself into in order to survive there. So when weird things start happening – a familiar-looking car seems to be following her even though its owner is long dead, a local cat apparently gets into her locked house and abstracts salmon from the fridge – everything is in doubt. Antonia knows that she's not in a normal state of mind: maybe she did miss an unlocked window, maybe she is really making things up, or maybe there really are ghosts in some small way. Certainly enough bad things seem to have happened in the area over the years…

(And because I haven't previously read anything by Rayne, and because I know this isn't part of a series, I don't know whether in this book's world ghosts are going to be possible, whether Antonia might actually be going mad, or… all sorts of other explanations.)

But then, to my mind, Rayne drops the ball completely at the end of chapter seven (of 41), with several paragraphs explaining that this entity is the cause of all the oddity, for these reasons, with these goals. I'd been enjoying the book, spending time inside Antonia's mind as she tried to work out what was going on and her own state of sanity, but at that point I lost interest. Without the puzzle to solve, all that's left is "horrible things happen to a woman who doesn't know why".

Which, oddly enough, is also the B story, dealing with the travails of Maud Lincoln, at the same place but some time in the late nineteenth century. For all sorts of good and sufficient reasons there is nobody to help her as she is repeatedly maltreated, and eventually locked up as a lunatic in Latchkill Asylum. The description of her repeated rapes and degradations came to feel frankly prurient, and elements of her mental state were straight out of Edgar Allen Poe.

The prose is marvellous, well-formed and well-observed, in particular the use of the idea of "spider-light", the twilight that makes visible things which can't be seen at other times… but there's no mystery here (other than "in what state will this character end up"), just the suspense as Antonia slowly, slowly works out what we have been explicitly told is going on, and that hugely decreased my enjoyment of the book. It doesn't help that the later parts of the story fall into a repetitive pattern of incident and ineffective response, interspersed with Maud's horrors.

This could have been so much better. Drop the direct narration of the historical story and tell it only through Antonia's research (leaving the villain of that a mystery too, until it can be worked out, rather than introducing her as such in the first words of the historical narrative); and drop the early explanation of what's going on in the present day, leaving the reader to work it out along with Antonia. That could have made for a rather shorter but very much more enjoyable book. Alas, it's not the one that was published.

I think this is the sort of book that is enjoyed by people other than me.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:07pm on 29 September 2016

    Weird. One would hope an editor would catch that sabotage of the puzzle, unless they were responsible for it being put in.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:43pm on 29 September 2016

    I can only assume that it was deliberate, and that the "nasty things happen to Antonia for reasons the reader perfectly understands but she doesn't" feeling of the greater part of the book was the author's intent. This is so alien to the sort of book I usually enjoy, and was expecting, that I'm at rather a loss to account for it; it felt to me like glorying in the unpleasantness.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 06:34pm on 29 September 2016

    A case a bit like that which was easier to account for is Anne Rice's Angel Time which was written during her extreme Catholicism phase. It starts off really well, for an In Nomine fan, but rapidly turns to wallowing in the horror of human sinfulness. I did not persist.

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