Gas-lighting or true haunting? Past trauma or mental health condition? In The Silent Companions, we take the bumpy carriage ride with Elsie, a newly widowed pregnant woman, to her isolated estate in Victorian England. We’ll meet the small resentful staff for the first time, and the local villagers who are not all that friendly either. How about we stay inside with our own calm thoughts to keep us company, eh? As you can guess, this does not work out well for Elsie. She finds an antique in her new home, a carved wooden figure, a Silent Companion. After that, things devolve pretty quickly and we learn that everyone has secrets—including the house.
We chose The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell as our spooky book for the Halloween season. The group agreed that while The Silent Companions certainly delivered on creepy, it rarely got into the realm of scary. (We got more scares from Annihilation.) The story is a slow-burn Victorian gothic that, sadly, was marketed hard as scare-your-pants-off horror story. While the book did have its issues, some are due to misled expectations.
For this book club meet-up, I made paper dummy boards/ silent companions. They came out pretty freaking creepy! I hid them around the house (and one in the bathroom) for maximum creepiness. 🙂
The real struggle we had with the story was the staggering number of red herrings; it was just too many. We felt a good editor would have pointed this out to Purcell. After learning how Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird benefited from the guidance of a strong editor, we appreciate how a story could be tidied up, gently re-directed, or turned in an altogether different direction.
The pacing of the story was well done: the movement between the diary excerpts and the narrator’s plotline keeps the suspense building to excellent effect. Experiencing the same house in different time periods can be overdone, but it was exciting and creepy in The Silent Companions. This is perhaps due to the unexpected depth and attention given to the storyline in the past. To Purcell’s great credit, the Stuart-era history of the house was not nebulous at all, but well-researched and considered.
Wine Selection & Tasting Notes
We drank Witching Hour non-reserve for House of Spines, so we tried out the Reserve for this spooky read!
Witching Hour Reserve. Strong dark fruit fragrance—blackberries, black plums, blueberries, suggestion of tobacco leaf and pine. On the tongue red fruit presents, red plum and red currants, and vanilla warms at the end. Sweeter than the scent suggests. Only just medium-bodied. Slightly tannic.
The Origin of the Unreliable Narrator
The Silent Companions references The Turn of the Screw, which echoes its theme of an unreliable narrator and a gothic Victorian setting. We only have the narrator’s account of any haunting or supernatural activities—can we trust her? This wonderful premise has been emulated so often in movies and literature that we may not realize that this was the source—written by Henry James, a famous British-American author trying to gain traction with American readers in 1898. I learned from this article that James actually dictated to his Scottish secretary for this book, and was frequently disappointed when he didn’t scare him!
Judge of my dismay when from first to last this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling! I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry.Henry James, on writing The Turn of the Screw
How Did We Like the Ending?
Back to our book club book! Some of us didn’t appreciate the ending of The Silent Companions, in that the story may have benefited from the evil being having more of an arc or motivation. I have to admit that
Get to Know the Author
An interview with the author—Purcell discusses the moment she decided the write The Silent Companions, her challenges with editing, and her favorite writing snacks (lots of tea and coffee). Very relatable and fun to read!
The Silent Companions Discussion Questions
- Coming soon!