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A Review of The House of Dead Maids

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 | Posted by John ONeill

house-dead-maidsLast 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

 
maids3Tabitha:  What’s Wuthering Heights about?

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?

Yeah!

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.

wuthering-heights5Sounds creepy.

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.

Scary!

Heathcliff puts the moves on a honey in Wuthering Heights (1939)

Heathcliff puts the moves on a honey in Wuthering Heights (1939)

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.

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.

wuthering-heights3Uh-huh. They’re always cold. Do they ask for a drink of water?

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.

Super creepy.

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.

maids1Later 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.

wuthering-heights4Why?

Most grim horror features murder, the undead, you know, that kind of stuff.

How many books featuring the undead have you read?!

Exactly?

Give or take.

I’ve read some, but mostly I’ve heard about them from others.

Ah… you mean your brothers.

Yes.

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.

Ooooh, yeah.

Anything you want to wrap up with?

I’m thinking.

maids5What about that scary artwork you showed me? The chapter headings?

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.

Yeah.

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.

11 Comments »

  1. Best. Review. EVER.

    Yeah, rent the Lawrence Olivier Wuthering Heights. After I did, I liked to run around shrieking to people in a transatlantic accent, “NELLIE! I AM HEATHCLIFF,” a la Cathy. There’s another version, BBCish, and I own it, but it’s pretty bad. And there’s ANOTHER one, with Juliette Binoche (beautiful) and Ralph Fieness (beautiful, but demonic), only for some reason that one rubbed me the wrong way too.

    In fact, none of the film versions have yet captured QUITE the essence of Wuthering Heights. I wait in hope.

    And now you’ve made me want to read ANOTHER book. You and “Tabitha.” Who has TIME for these things, O’Neill?

    Still. A GREAT review.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - September 21, 2010 6:47 pm

  2. John, you and your daughter should do more reviews. I think she’d give John Clute some serious competition,

    Absolutely charming and well done. If I ever see that book in a used book store I might even…

    –Dave

    Comment by Dave Truesdale - September 21, 2010 9:28 pm

  3. The book’s only been out a week, and I’m already sure this is going to be my favorite review. Not only is it thoroughly charming, but it’s dead-on accurate–“Tabitha” has grasped the spirit of the book better than most of the adults. It’s all about children facing a very dangerous world because so, as a matter of fact, is WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Good for you, “Tabitha”! This is exactly why I love to write for teens.

    Comment by ClareBDunkle - September 21, 2010 11:03 pm

  4. Dear Ms Tabitha,
    Extremely well done!! May I say that we here in the underground offices of Goth Chick News are entirely impressed with your amazing reviewing skills and insightful thoughts on grim horrors. We are prepared to immediately fire this term’s entire gaggle of worthless interns and offer you a permanent position.

    Our offices are the last door on the left at the end of the hall past the interrogation room and the entryway marked “explosives.”

    Most Respectfully,

    Goth Chick

    PS: I’ve got a Wii system down here which is at your disposal.

    Comment by Sue Granquist - September 22, 2010 11:19 pm

  5. […] Girl in Training, “Tabitha” whom you likely remember brought you the very engaging review of The House of Dead Maids sometime back. I certainly wouldn’t trust your amusement to just anyone, you […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Goth Chick News: Magical Expectations from a Tough Audience - October 21, 2010 12:04 am

  6. […] she’s asked our resident Goth Chick in training, eleven year-old Tabitha, author of our recent review of The House of Dead Maids, to fill […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Goth Chick News: Featuring Tabitha, Goth Girl in Training - October 28, 2010 1:38 am

  7. […] advice on book selling; which Black Gate author reached #1 on Amazon sales list; which BG staffer interviewed his own daughter, and a road trip to clone a woolly […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Keep up with the Black Gate Staff with the BG Staff tag - March 15, 2012 1:54 am

  8. […] what my family reads, obviously, so these reviews-by-proxy tend to be an odd lot (the last one was The House of Dead Maids, which I discovered my daughter reading a while back). Last weekend I noticed my wife had casually […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: Andre Norton’s Velvet Shadows - January 5, 2013 10:07 pm

  9. […] here at Black Gate – we give them to Tabitha, the thirteen year-old reviewer who covered The House of Dead Maids and All the Lovely Bad Ones for us, among others. We’re glad to have her join us again, even […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Tabitha Reviews The School for Good and Evil - June 2, 2013 11:26 pm

  10. I miss doing these; they were fun. Right now I’ve got a stack of books to read at home (who am I kidding-I’ve got four stacks that go up to my knees) and I’ve been trying to work my way through them and get to the ones I promised to review. I’m glad people liked these, because it looks like we’ll be getting a few more soon!

    Tabitha

    Comment by Tabitha - October 22, 2014 4:21 pm

  11. Glad to hear it, Tabitha. But if you’ve got so many books to read, why do you keep asking me for new ones?

    Dad

    Comment by John ONeill - October 22, 2014 4:43 pm


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