Author: R.B. Chesterton
Publisher: Pegasus Crime
R.B. Chesterton, author of “The Darkling,” is in fact Carolyn Haines, known best for her “Bones” series of detective novels set in Mississippi. This is not a secret; it is on the title page.
Haines intends here to begin a series of horror stories, supernatural chillers, in the vein of Stephen King or V.C. Andrews.
And anyway, ghosts are no strangers to Haines. Her novel “Revenant” concerns “one that returns after death” and in the Bones books Jitty is a live-in antebellum ghost.
“The Darkling” begins: “In the 1940’s Coden, Alabama was a hideaway for movie stars—an isolated playground tucked among live oaks and placid bay waters where pleasure and vice could be indulged.” The likes of Veronica Lake and Errol Flynn came there to stay and play at the Paradise Inn.
By 1974, the Inn had fallen into ruin but both it and Belle Fleur, an old mansion, were being restored by handsome Californian architect Bob Henderson and his perfect family: wife, Berta, and children Donald, nine; Erin, twelve; and Margo, sixteen.
The story is narrated in 2013 by Mimi who, in ’74, was the children’s twenty-one-year-old governess.
Now, forty years later, having returned to Coden, she tells her tale. The Hendersons endured “a tragic chain of events and unbearable suffering,” all, according to Mimi, at the hands of Annie, a teenage waif of unknown origins, taken in as a foster child.
As Mimi tells it, Annie is a supernatural creature. She is likened to a “nester,” a cowbird who lays her eggs in a warbler’s nest, then when the eggs hatch, the more powerful cowbird chick pushes the warbler fledglings out, to their death.
Annie also can command monsters like “darklings,” who lurk in the woods, watching and stalking the Hendersons. These evil, probably immortal, shape-shifters can assume different human forms perfectly, except for retaining sharpened teeth and dog claws on their feet. When in transformation from monster to the likeness of Donald or Erin, they are grotesque, evil itself, like the possessed girl in “The Exorcist.”
According to Mimi, Annie is only faking amnesia. Her real intent is to get rid of all the competition for Bob’s affections and, after seducing him, take over as mistress of Belle Fleur.
Annie is creepy, or at least Mimi says she is.
Mimi sees monsters in the woods several times. Does anyone else see them? Well, Donald might also, but he is only nine and very suggestible.
These woods themselves are dark and creepy, with drooping Spanish moss, steaming bayous, rattlers and moccasins.
Perhaps the house itself is “alive,” an evil entity intent on killing off its occupants.
Most important, can we trust the governess’s version? Readers of “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James will be doubtful.
James’ governess adores the angelic children and is protecting them from evil ghosts, perhaps to gain the master’s approval and gratitude. She seems sincere, but is she mentally stable, her story trustworthy? James’s governess, we will remember, had a wicked crush on her employer and was sexually frustrated. Mimi is a college graduate and a virgin and very fond of Bob herself. Might Mimi herself be a demented killer and perhaps not even know it?
Mimi’s story of one grisly death after another is convincing, but then Haines drops in particles of doubt. In James, are the ghosts real? In “Darkling,” are the evil creatures real? The reader is pulled along, weighs the evidence, changes his mind several times before drawing, maybe, his own conclusion.
I pretend to no expertise in this horror/thriller genre but “The Darkling” seemed to me to scare the reader just fine.