The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox, book review: Woman discovers that a hidden legacy two hundred years after America's notorious Salem witch trials
Exciting new writer Hester Fox harnesses her work in museums and historic houses to deliver a stunning debut novel… a gripping gothic tale steeped in mystery, history, spine-chilling drama, and things that go bump in the night.
Using the socially aware society of early 19th century Massachusetts as her atmospheric backdrop, Fox whips up a storm of visual and verbal thrills as an unsuspecting middle class Boston family unleash ghosts from the past when they move to Willow Hall, a haunted old house in the countryside.
And in a plot teeming with twists and turns, scandal and suspicion, rumours and romance, hauntings and tragedy, it is this forbidding house, which ‘might as well be the edge of the world,’ that stands firmly at centre stage.
After an incident when she was only nine years old, Lydia Montrose’s mother warned her, ‘You must never show the world what it is that you have inside you.’ Lydia knew she was descended from the legendary witches of Salem, and ten years later in 1821, she will find out just what her mother meant.
In the wake of a scandal, Lydia, her parents, and her two sisters – Catherine and Emeline – have fled Boston for their recently acquired country home, Willow Hall, at New Oldbury. The girls’ brother Charles is not with them, and no one is prepared to talk about the reason why.
The estate seems sleepy and idyllic and the wildness attracts Lydia, but Catherine, her elder disenchanted and restless sister, feels isolated and cut adrift from all that is familiar. The youngest sister, Emeline, enjoys running free and is convinced that mermaids live in the pond.
But a subtle menace haunts the grounds of Willow Hall and the house feels ‘too full of ghosts,’ not least Lydia’s ancestor who was hanged as a witch at Salem and whose face in her portrait holds ‘more of a grim warning than anger.’
And the hall has awoken something inside Lydia. Her sleep is disturbed by ghostly apparitions, slow moans and ‘keening wails,’ a sound ‘so wretched that it’s the culmination of every lost soul and groan of cold wind that has ever swept the earth.’
The remnants of a dark history are calling to Lydia’s secret inheritance and leading to a greater tragedy than she could ever imagine. Can she confront her inner witch and harness her powers, or is it too late to save herself and her family from the deadly fate of Willow Hall?
The Witch of Willow Hall is a spellbinding read as Fox explores a harrowing episode of real history through the experiences of the troubled Montrose family. There is menace aplenty and more than a hint of the supernatural, but this is also an emotional domestic drama powered by a mysterious scandal and the taboos of Boston society.
The sibling rivalry that festers beneath the sisters’ relationship adds to the dark forces which ramp up the tension, and the sense of tragedy that continually threatens to engulf the family becomes electrifying in the energy-sapping heat of a long, hot summer.
An impressive first novel from an author to watch…
(HQ, paperback, £7.99)