31 October 2015

The Asylum by John Harwood

The R.I.P. Reading Challenge is an event I look forward to every October.  The need to search out spooky tales through books at this time of year is inherent; the joys firmly established by many Halloweens marked by trick or treating and bags of candy.  By early September I already have an eye out for the book to read that, however ridiculous, will conjure up images of desolate buildings, foggy nights, creaking doors, and plenty of unexplained events.  While John Harwood's The Asylum didn't quite live up to my expectations, it was entertaining.

'I woke, as it seemed, from a nightmare of being stretched on the rack, only to sink into another dream in which I was lying in a strange bed, afraid to open my eyes for fear of what I might see.  The smell and the texture of the blanket against my cheek felt wrong, and I was clad, I became aware, in a coarse flannel nightgown that was certainly not my own.'

Georgina Ferrars is now a resident of Tragganon House on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.  The door to her room is locked and the windows barred, yet she is told that her stay is voluntary.  The superintendent of the asylum, Dr Straker, refers to Georgina as 'Lucy Ashton' - apparently the name she gave when she appeared at the asylum in a state of distress.  Her travelling bag is also marked with the initials L.A.

Georgina tries to remain calm while taking in her surroundings, confident that one telegram to her uncle in Bloomsbury will sort out the mystery.  The reply arrives from Josiah, a bookseller, that states the person housed in the asylum can not possibly be Georgina as she is currently in the house.

Panic sets in but quite admirably, Georgina keeps her wits intact.  Through a very convenient detail, a writing case reveals a packet of letters, sent in error by a solicitor, that tell the story of Georgina's fractured family.  An elopement, a suspicious death, and the loss of family secrets and fortune in a landslide, give the imprisoned young lady plenty to unravel.

Early on I was quite sure this was going to be a case of 'evil twin does the old bait and switch'.  Hmmm...bait and switch (tick), asylum (tick), two young ladies enjoying cuddles under the duvet (tick)....wait a minute - this sounds remarkably like Sarah Waters' Fingersmith.  Well, not down to every detail but the main threads are there.

The Asylum was intriguing enough that I wanted to find out how Georgina would get herself on the other side of a locked door.  The conclusion is full of high drama and the book fulfills its promise of being a Victorian Gothic mystery...but if you're looking for this storyline and want to read something that feels more authentic, reach for Fingersmith.  

I dug out my very yellowed and decrepit copy of The Virago Book of Ghost Stories and read a snippet in the introduction that reeled me in called Juggernaut by D. K. Broster.  Not a name I'm familiar with but I can tell we'll get along....

'Tea now appearing, in a large Britannia-metal teapot enriched with repouss√© roses, Miss Halkett removed herself from her chair to the table, with a view to doing fuller justice to the meal.  And indeed the chronicling of deeds of terror had never affected her appetite, not did the 'Things' which in her stories walked behind her heroes on lonely moors, or waited, gorilla-like, to strangle her heroines in underground passages, ever sit beside her bed or deprive her of a single night's rest.'

Although, I find myself hoping that at some point Miss Halkett tried her hand at a story where the heroine strangles the hero...


  1. I felt exactly the same way. I figured out the mystery early on and noticed the similarities to Fingersmith. Not bad, just okay. Fingersmith, on the other hand, is fantastic

    1. One thing I think Harwood did quite well is write in the voice of a woman...but yeah, Sarah Waters is tops! Lovely of you to stop by Heather.

  2. I like this post and will be looking out for this one.