This past weekend, I flew through the copy of Silence for the Dead that I won from a giveaway on Lauren Willig’s website.
Most of the people who know me know that I am not good with scary things. To put that into perspective, I had to leave the theater about 45 minutes into “The Dark Knight” (sorry, Hillary – I still owe you a movie) because Heath Ledger was freaking me out. I leave the room if Brad is watching X-Files. Obviously, my creepy-tolerance is pretty low. I also don’t do well with crazy. So it may seem like a ghost story that takes place in an early 1900s asylum is probably the worst book I could pick for myself. But I’ve enjoyed both of Simone St. James’ previous books, and I wanted to give this one a try.
In Silence for the Dead, Kitty Weeks manages to get herself hired as a nurse at Portis House, a medical facility for soldiers who are returning from the front and having difficulty “adjusting.” Kitty is not a nurse, and she has no training, but she needs a place to hide and Portis House is desperate for staff. The Matron knows Kitty faked her references, so she gives Kitty the most difficult tasks possible starting with her very first shift. Kitty manages the best she can, believing that Portis House is her last hope for keeping a job, and she does fairly well until her first week on the night shift. The men have nightmares, something is moving in the darkness, and even Kitty can hear the strange sounds like footsteps that come from the men’s lavatory.
As the days go by, Kitty is determined to work hard and earn her place, but she can’t keep herself from wondering about Portis House. What happened to the family who built the house only a few years before the war and then disappeared? Why do the men avoid the spot on the lawn in front of the library? Why did Kitty’s predecessor take off in the night, leaving her boots and a locket behind? And why is Jack Yates, England’s war hero, kept in such total isolation from the other patients that he is even referred to as “Patient Sixteen”? Kitty finds herself in Jack’s room one night, looking for a place where she can let out some of her frustration and tears unseen. Jack seems more stable than the other patients, and Kitty is so grateful to have an ally that she shelves her uncertainty about him and decides to work with him to discover the history of the house and how it might be connected to the nightmare that all the men have in common.
When an outbreak of the Spanish flu causes the Matron, half the nursing staff and orderlies, and several patients to be evacuated to the nearest hospital, Kitty and Jack are left alone to confront the ghosts of Portis House and a patient who has spiraled out of control.
To me, the most frightening parts of this story weren’t necessarily the parts that dealt with ghosts. Ghosts are less frightening to me than the monstrous way that humans are capable of treating each other. This was true for St. James’ first book, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, as well. I felt so angry and helpless reading about the way the doctors treated the patients when they came for their weekly inspections. One doctor seems to be taking detailed notes as the patients are questioned, but Kitty finds his notebook later and sees that he has been doodling on the pages rather than listening. One of the men who seems fairly healthy to Kitty, Captain Mabry, requests that his wife and children be allowed to visit him. The doctors question him patronizingly about any “episodes” he may have experienced recently. They discover that he had a nosebleed on Kitty’s first day at work. When they ask Kitty to describe the situation, they twist her answers to make a simple nosebleed sound like a symptom of something much worse, and they deny Mabry’s request to see his family. Not only have they humiliated Mabry and destroyed his hopes, they have caused Mabry to feel he can’t trust Kitty. The doctors dehumanize the patients and use fear to control them. The days when the patients’ families come to visit are no better. Most of the men have been abandoned by their loved ones, and the few who do show up are obviously uncomfortable with the situation.
Kitty notices in her first days at Portis House that there are no locks and no fences – no physical barriers preventing the patients from leaving. When she asks the orderlies why this is the case, they tell her that all the patients’ clothing and belongings are confiscated when they come on the property. The only clothes they have are the uniforms with the Portis House logo stenciled on them. Even if they did get out of the house and over to the nearest village, they would be easily identifiable as a mental patient. The men don’t try to escape because they know they wouldn’t get far.
St. James does a great job of maintaining suspense throughout the book, because she creates these mysterious and sinister situations and then leaves the reader to imagine the possibilities. I have to wonder if she’s read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, because her descriptions of Portis House and its surroundings reminded me powerfully of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The house is isolated in the middle of the marsh. The nearest town can only be reached by a bridge that’s only accessible when the weather is clear. Certain sections of the house are falling into disrepair and the plaster is cracking – that would make sense if the house were hundreds of years old, but it was built less than 30 years ago. A strange black mold grows in certain rooms, no matter how often they are cleaned, and a chill emanates from the basement. Maybe some of this sounds stereotypical rather than scary, but the total effect was spooky.
I finished this book in 24 hours because I just had to know how it all turned out. If you like period pieces from the early 1900s or ghost stories, I think you’d like this book.