Last week I was contacted by Barbara Fisch at Blue Slip Media, who’s been recommending and sending review copies to me for nearly fifteen years. Barbara had flagged The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle (author of the Hollow Kingdom trilogy), just released in hardcover from Holt, as of possible interest to Black Gate readers. And from her description, it sounded like she could be right:
The House of Dead Maids is billed as a prelude to Wuthering Heights, as it features a character who will come to be known as Healthcliff. The novel is a scary blending of Yorkshire lore and Bronte family history. The child (Heathcliff) is already a savage little creature when Tabby Aykroyd arrives at Seldom House as his nursemaid. The ghost of the last maid will not leave Tabby in peace, and her spirit is only one of many. As she struggles against the evil forces that surround the house, Tabby tries to befriend her uncouth young charge, but her kindness can’t alter his fate.
The real task, as always, was matching the ideal reviewer with the book… a bit more of a challenge for a 151-page book with an eleven year-old narrator, I grant you.
As luck would have it, I happened to have an eleven-year old reader in the house, who innocently picked up the book the day it arrived. I know when the stars have aligned, and sat down with a notepad and pen to interview her minutes after she finished reading The House of Dead Maids.
We’ll call this young reader “Tabitha,” because of what happened when her mother found out I was going to use her picture and real name on the Internet.
A Conversation With ‘Tabitha’
Conducted and transcribed by John O’Neill, Sept 18, 2010
Black Gate: I don’t know, I’ve never read it. It’s like a classic. It’s very famous.
Is it about an evil boy named Heathcliff?
Maybe we can rent the movie. Let’s talk about The House of Dead Maids.
It’s actually a prelude to Wuthering Heights. What’s a “prelude?” Don’t write that down, Dad.
I’m writing everything down. And a prelude… it’s the opposite of a sequel.
What happens before?
Yes, exactly. Did you like the book?
Okay, that’s not much of a review. What more can you tell me?
It starts out as a 19th Century orphan girl becomes a maid. The house in which she works is sort of like… a fallen dream, you could say. It starts out bright, but by the time she comes in it’s ruined. Her name is Tabby.
In the very beginning you meet a woman named Miss Winter, or Old Maid, and Arnby the groundskeeper. Do I earn play time on the Xbox for this?
Yes. Please continue.
Arnby and Miss Winter take Tabby to Seldom House. On the way there, you get a sense that something’s wrong with Miss Winter. Arnby seems to be like a helper, like if Miss Winter is ever cruel to Tabby, Arnby is the one she would run to. Seems like foreshadowing to me.
How do you spell — wait a minute. What do you know about foreshadowing?
I learned about it in fifth grade, Dad.
Wow. Chalk one up for public schools. Why does it seem like foreshadowing?
Well, just the sense you get for Arnby. He argues with Miss Winter on the way there. He seems like a free spirit, someone who’s not afraid to defy authority. Least that’s my first impression.
What happens next?
They arrive at Seldom House. Tabby goes to her room. Actually, she falls asleep on the ride, and they carry her into her room. When she wakes up next morning, she hears Mrs. Sexton. The housekeeper. And Tabby thinks that there was someone in the room with her that night. She thinks someone was in the same bed as she was.
The housekeeper seems rather cold towards Tabby. Instead of saying, “Would you like breakfast?” she says “If you want breakfast, go to the kitchen.” She doesn’t give Tabby any directions. Tabby is told she’s not going to be a maid, but a nurse. She’s going to take care of the Master’s young child.
Is that Heathcliff?
That’s not actually his name. She goes out to find the kitchen, and as she’s wandering around she sees that the house has fallen into disrepair. Furniture is covered in cloth – you know, like those big canvas sheets – and there’s dust everywhere. You’d never stop sneezing, Dad. The house is dark; it’s like a haunted house all year round. She’s not given any work, which is confusing. She finds a cash-say —
Cache, whatever. When she goes back to her room, she finds that someone’s been in there.
A cache of what?
In the clothes press, there’s a loose floorboard. And in it is a cache of various treasures… things that would be junk to adults, but gems to kids. There are feathers, wax dolls, several buttons, snail shells, all sorts of things. That night when she goes to sleep, she knows someone’s in the room with her. She can feel someone climbing into bed. It’s a child, burrowing next to her.
That happens to me all the time.
Whoever it is, they’re wet and cold. She’s trying to warm them when she falls asleep.
No, Dad. They’re silent. When Tabby wakes up, there’s no one there.
Like that ever happens. You guys always hog the bed.
No one there except the housekeeper. There’s a beautiful black dress on a chair. The housekeeper says the villagers made it. Later that day, the Master arrives. Wait, there’s something important that happens first. She puts on the dress and goes out to attend church. There’s just one problem: there is no church.
What happened to the church?
It was never built. There’s just a graveyard.
When she wanders into the village, the villagers come up and watch her. One of the villagers touches here with a metal thimble. Tabby thinks, “As if I’m dead or a fairy!” She explores the village and plays on the shore; the villagers follow and watch. When she’s nearly back to the manor she encounters Arnby, who’s carrying a spade. He talks with her a bit, and mentions about how people take from the Earth and ruin the Earth, and give nothing back. I thought nothing of it, but that has an important part to play later in the story.
Okay, no giving away the ending or anything. We should probably wrap up the plot description – you’re not supposed to give away too much.
So, like, just stop there?
Uh… maybe wrap up in a sentence or two.
Later on she meets the old Master and the new Master. The old Master is Jack Ketch, and the new Master has no name. Tabby called him “Himself.” I’ll just end with this: there is something evil going on at Seldom Manor. Something that involves both Himself and Tabby. Okay, I have something else to say, but don’t know if I should.
Don’t worry, I can edit it out if I have to.
Well, Tabby and Himself have only a limited amount of time to figure out what’s going on. But they’ll need to be careful, or they’ll end up like everyone else who’s gone to the House of Dead Maids.
Boy, that sounds ominous. Anything you want to say about the book in general? Why you liked it, maybe?
If you like a mix of grim horror and bad children, then this is a really good book for you. Personally, I liked it because you can tell that there’s something off right away about the adults in the house. Himself doesn’t see it, but Tabby’s knows something’s wrong. It’s sort of a kid’s survival versus adults tale.
Wait a minute… are you saying you like grim horror?
Not necessarily. I don’t like all those books. The House of Dead Maids you could say was an exception.
Most grim horror features murder, the undead, you know, that kind of stuff.
How many books featuring the undead have you read?!
Give or take.
I’ve read some, but mostly I’ve heard about them from others.
Ah… you mean your brothers.
Clearly, I need to talk to your brothers about scaring their sister.
As I was saying about the exception, The House of Dead Maids takes things from a child’s perspective. Almost all grim horror books take it from an adult’s or teenager perspective. Children are involved, but not necessarily the center. The House of Dead Maids basically says… well, that there are certain cases in the world where children experience things adults can’t even imagine. And that’s what I liked about it! Adults think they’re superior, but in some cases they’re not. And this proves it.
I bet you liked that.
Anything you want to wrap up with?
A lot of the pictures that went with the chapter headings were either disturbing or grotesque. It’s kind of unnerving – you look up and see someone crawling out of a grave, or watching you through a window, for example.
Did you like the drawings?
I liked them in the sense that they were realistic for the story, and not just random, but I didn’t like them in the way that they were rather icky.
You kept showing them to me.
Who would you recommend the book to?
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good fantasy, or a mixture of horror and historical fiction. Seeing as it takes place in the early 1800s.
Yeah, we should probably mention that. Are you going to read Wuthering Heights now?
Possibly. I’m kind of curious to find out what happens to Himself.
If I know my 18th Century literature, he gets the girl. And there might be kissing.
Do you mean Tabby?
You’ll have to read Wuthering Heights.
If you mean Tabby, you’re absolutely wrong.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle is available from Henry Holt & Company, and was published September 14, 2010, priced $15.99. The icky chapter headings are drawn by Patricia Arrasmith.