The House of Dead Maids, by Clare B. Dunkle (Henry Holt, 2010, YA, 160 pages) is a gripping Gothic story, full of chills and darkness and lowering evil coming ever closer.
Tabby Aykroyd's eleven years as an unwanted orphan were spent at the mercy of various cooks and housekeepers in great houses, until a stroke of luck got her a place at Ma Hutton's knitting school. But when a cold and mysterious woman arrives to pick one of Ma Hutton's girls to be a nursemaid at a great house on the edge of the moors, Tabby's luck seems not so lucky after all.
Because Seldom House holds horrible secrets.
In all its long dusty corridors and countless rooms, there are only six living people--Tabby, the Miss Winter, who had chosen her, the cook, the coachman/groundskeeper, and a visiting gentleman (in the loosest sense of the term). The sixth is the little boy with whom Tabby is charged; a wild and heathen thing, who doesn't know his own name, but who is apparently the master of the house. A boy who will grow up to be known as Heathcliff (of Wuthering Heights fame).
But Seldom House is not as empty as it seems. Tabby is haunted by the ghost of the maid before her-- a cold, wet thing who will not leave her be. And as she and the boy explore the house and grounds, other ghosts--horrible ghosts--appear. A legion of dead maids (and masters)...who are waiting for Tabby and her young charge to join them.
"The dead hold no terrors for me. I have watched by the beds of those who have passed on, comforted by their sorrowless repose. But this little maid was a ghastly thing, all the more horrible because she stood before me. It wasn't the pallid hue of her grimy face that shocked me, or her little gray hands and feet. It was the holes where her eyes should have been, great round sockets of shadow." (page 24)
And this is what has been trying to crawl into bed with Tabby every night since her arrival....
The House of Dead Maids is a relatively short book, which works in its favor, allowing it to pack its punch in a more concentrated way. Dunkle does a wonderful job creating the world of Seldom House, in prose that evokes the writing of the Brontes without being drowned by archaic floridness. And although "subtle" isn't the word I'd choose to describe the legions of the dead that populate the story (things got just a teeny bit over the top for me at the end), Dunkle manages to disturb quite disturbingly (the villagers, in particular, are tremendously creepy...).
What made the book work for me, though, is the tension between Tabby's character and the circumstances in which she has found herself. Tabby's strong faith and strong character, her conviction that the world has a proper order, are a very nice contrast to both the savage, self-centered indifference of young Heathcliff, and the pit of horror into which she has fallen. She is not just a passive describer, but a solid presence who fully occupied her designated space as the one real, sane, character in the whole disasterous mess!
Tabby Aykroyd went on, in real life, to become housekeeper to the Bronte family...and, as Dunkle tells it, fascinated young Emily in particular with the dark stories she told.
Not recommended to the young reader prone to nightmares, but highly recommended in particular to the upper middle-grade reader who loves scary stories! Older readers might well enjoy it too, but because of the young age of the central characters, this seemed to me a story of children vs adults, an orphans in danger type of book, which is a sub-genre that feels middle grade-ish to me...
Finally, here's a fascinating guest post by Clare Dunkle at The Compulsive Reader, in which she talks about the characters of Tabby and Heathcliff.
(and even more finally--my 7 year old will be very glad that I have written this review. He has been wary of coming into the computer room these past few days, lest he be confronted by the eyeless face on the cover of this book!)
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher