The Literary Salon – A Modern Gothic Mystery

“It’s a dark and stormy night….the November winds are howling around the house as the last of the leaves go scurrying across the yard.   Inside, all is silent except for the sound of sleet pinging against the window.   It will be snow tomorrow.”      

Thus reads my journal entry for last weekend.   We had eight inches of snow on Monday, Veteran’s Day, a record for this early in the season.   It was the perfect day to snuggle inside and read a good book, preferably one with lots of atmosphere.

Gothic mystery is heavy on atmosphere – there’s always a haunted house with a dark history, a slightly sinister caretaker, an unexplained murder or two and some ghostly phenomena to set the proper tone of creepy ambiance.  Add in a determined but solitary heroine who confronts terror head on, and a dash of potential romance with a male of the strong and silent type, and the genre is complete.    Dauphne du Mauier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights set the bar high for this standard.    But if you want a modern update on the Gothic mystery then Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Turn of the Key, provides a modern twist – a haunted house with Smart technology set on the windswept Scottish moors…but maybe it’s not a good idea to be too Smart. 

The Turn of the Key - Ruth WareThe Publishers Blurb:

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

About the Author:
Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game and The Death of Mrs Westaway were smash hits, and she has appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family. Visit to find out more.
Why I Liked It:

This is the third Ruth Ware book I have read, and by far her best.   I blogged about The Death of Mrs. Westaway in last years post A Gothic Read for Halloween.   While I enjoyed that book, it took over a hundred pages to establish the protagonist as young, poor and alone, although she did an excellent job of describing what it’s like to live never knowing where your next meal is coming from.   While The Woman in Cabin Ten was more of a psychological thriller, her last two books rely on the haunted mansion theme to supply the needed atmosphere.   Her first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, was my least favorite but they were all good reads.   I do love it when I discover a new author and find she churns out a new book every year that I know in advance will be good.    So often I pick up a promising thriller in the library, start into it and then abandon it from sheer boredom.      

The Turn of the Key is told in first person, which is not my favorite, being so limited in scope, but somehow it works.  The young protagonist isn’t even all that likable, as many of her heroines aren’t, and they’re not always the brightest either.    If someone offered you a nanny position with high pay, but you knew the four previous nannies had quit, would you take it on?   You would if you were poor and struggling….and had another reason.     Scotland seems a popular locale for books these days but there isn’t even that much about it in the book.   At the center is the house with its modern Smart technology – the owners are IT/tech specialists who travel extensively (thus the need for the nanny), so the house is equipped with all the bells and whistles to control everything from lighting to music to locks.    Well, someone is controlling it….   

The annual hospital lottery Dream Home in my neck of the woods is equipped with all the latest technology, and although I intend to buy a ticket I’m not sure I would want to live in such a place.   It creeps me out knowing that Smart TVs and Alexa are listening in on our conversations, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned and you grow used to all these modern devices and wonder how you ever lived without them.   I’ve noticed that many of the protagonists in her books tend to have a wee bit of a drinking problem.   This is a plot device which started with The Girl on the Train but the fuzzy alcoholic memory thing has been overdone IMO.    Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the popularity of binge drinking among young women.   I don’t know, we never had the money or the inclination for that type of recreation.   (Note – the protagonist in The Woman in Cabin Ten is drunk throughout the whole cruise).    Other than that small criticism, the plot here is nicely revealed and the ending well done although perplexing in some ways.   Technology is great but it can sometimes make life more complicated.   Perhaps there’s something to be said for old haunted houses full of ghosts who aren’t too Smart….

Fairbanks mansion

Fright Night at the Museum


“Have you ever noticed the lights flickering in the Barry House at night or felt a presence as you wandered through the building? Come out to the Museum on Friday and Saturday night to hear the gang from Paranormal People talk about what they do and share a few ghost hunting stories and then stick around at 8 pm to join them in your own night at the museum adventure as you get hands on and search for spirits in the Barry House. The cost is $10 for just the lecture and $20 for the lecture and participation in the investigation.  Space is limited and $20 tickets for the investigation must be purchased in advance.”

They say that on Halloween, the veil between this world and the next is at it’s thinnest.    So when I saw the Facebook invitation to Fright Night at the Museum back in September, I thought how perfect, and then did what I normally do…I clicked on maybe interested and forgot about it.  This is a relatively recent habit of mine, probably a reaction to working life when everything was so finely scheduled, but now that I am retired and have acres of time I am reluctant to commit to things so far in advance.   Who knows what I may feel like doing that day?   Unfortunately, by the time I remembered and had recruited some friends to join me, (no way was I driving home alone after what was bound to be a spooky night), the house part was sold out.   I guess they really did mean space was limited… 14 people.     Oh well, not meant to be.    

The next week I met one of the new part time librarians, and it turned out she was the curator of the museum….what a coincidence!   It must be the universe, telling me I should go.   I told her I was thinking about writing a blog, hoping this might score me some points, but she said they already had a big waiting list, so I bought a ticket from her for the lecture only, thinking I could always change my mind later.   My friends had backed out by then, no one wanting to drive all that distance for a one hour talk and I couldn’t blame them.   At any rate it might be interesting to see the ghost-hunting equipment.    She said either night would do, they had space for 50 people, but had only sold 14 tickets for each night……um.     Normally this small museum is only open in the summer but has a winter lecture series with topics of local interest.    I had attended a talk there previously on The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, because I had a great uncle who died on one of the ships.   As well as the museum and cultural centre, there is also the Barry house beside it, built in 1881 and decorated inside like a typical Victorian home of the era – 1880-1920.    I had toured the house a few years before during a Blueberry Social Sunday, as they had an exhibit of one hundred antique dolls someone had donated to the museum and my mother wanted to see the Shirley Temple/Betty Boop dolls.   My mother really enjoyed the house, especially the kitchen as it was full of furnishings she recognized from growing up in the Depression – the old wood stove, an icebox, etc.    I remember the tour guide mentioning that the house was supposed to be haunted, but I certainly did not feel any presence at the time.  (It was the middle of a summer afternoon, the ghosts would be sleeping, they are nocturnal creatures).    Several people had died in the house, the owner, his wife, and a small child, but that would not be uncommon in that age, as people did not go to the hospital to die.   If you were Irish Catholic like my farm ancestors, you may even have held the wake at the house and had the body laid out in the parlor.

Friday morning, I woke with a bad case of the flu.   Although disappointed, I was in no shape to go anywhere other than from the bed to the couch and back again.    As well, it was raining, and very windy, and it turned into a thoroughly miserable dark and stormy night, (although lacking the lightening necessary for a classic haunted house scenario).   It must be the universe telling me to stay home.    I did –  it’s important to listen when the universe speaks, especially when you have a fever and ache all over.  Best to leave the ghost-hunting to the more able-bodied souls.   

A few days later I telecommunicated with the Paranormal People (the old-fashioned way via email), to see if they had encountered any ghosts, and they said to watch for the Podcast and video to follow.      So, I’m sorry to disappoint that I have no first-hand experiences to relate, merely some  thoughts about this and other hauntings.

Summary of Podcast:  

The five Paranormal People (think your classic geek squad, but big and solid guys with nerves of steel), split up on Night One – one team went upstairs, one down.   They said the found all those antique dolls particularly creepy – think Chucky from those old horror movies multiplied times one hundred, all those eyes staring out in the dark.   They found it colder upstairs, which was odd.    They had been in the house a few years ago, and found nothing major, although  they “felt a vibe”, and tonight was not much different.    The Echovox was quiet for the one group, (it didn’t want to talk to him), and spit out nothing but gibberish for the other group when they switched, although when asked how many people were there, said 12.  (Not all ghosts are good at math).   It also said his name twice and the museum.   The Spiritbox was a zero.   The K-2 meter went off  downstairs but it was found to be a ground wire problem in the office.   They said part of their mission is to debunk issues – to explain things logically if they can.    On their website they say they don’t charge for paranormal investigations, this is a voluntary thing for them investigating haunted places.   They mostly do private investigations for home owners, but  occasionally when they are doing a public reading such as this, a ghost will attach himself to a guest, so instead of hearing from the house ghost, you may hear from a guest’s ghost.   (Kind of like BYOB only in this case – bring your own ghost).    And this is exactly what he says happened on Night Two.    Someone named Clara spoke on the Podcast and said she heard her name Clara on the Echovox numerous times, and also her name from a previous life, (obviously already a convert).   She felt a strong presence in the room upstairs, “someone wanted to talk to me” and recognized his voice.   The K2 meter went up when this was happening.   It went higher when they asked it to verify.   Clara was “buzzed” and was going to buy her own Echovox.   He said all this ghost-hunting equipment can be easily purchased on Amazon and E-Bay although some of it is expensive.    He seemed most concerned that everyone had enjoyed themselves and had a good time. 

I am still waiting for them to post the video, as one of the crew was taping parts of the evening. 

My Observations:

I did a bit of research on some of this ghost-hunting equipment and remain skeptical, especially after I read an article debunking it via a reasonable scientific explanation.  (Once a scientist, always a scientist).  Ghost hunters use EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomena) for demonstrating the existence of the paranormal, either EchoVox, Spirit Box or a digital recorder.   They ask questions and wait for a reply.   These devices are phoneme generators and they take advantage of the fact that the human brain is pre-programmed to latch on to any shred of a word and turn it into a real word or phrase, something with meaning.    EchoVox is a  cellphone app type program which has a database of phonemes, and Spirit Box picks up it’s phonemes from surrounding radio broadcasts.   Phonemes are parts of words, and with 44 of them, you can make almost every word in the English language.   When you have a lot of phonemes being thrown at you randomly, some of them will begin to sound like words, because your brain database subconsciously matches it according to context (your expectation), and then delivers the product (a whole word or sentence) to your conscious mind.    Basically, your brain can interpret and perceive patterns out of randomness, a process called Audio Pareidolia.    I experienced this myself when viewing a video on the Paranormal People website before I had done any research, and thus was as unbiased as a first impression can be.    The Paranormal Person was in some other haunted house and asked if there was anyone there who needed help?   (Yes, ghosts need help, otherwise they wouldn’t be stuck here between two worlds).   And then I heard help, help, help,  (I guess that’s why they call it an Echovox, if you don’t hit the delay on the recording it echos), which the PP guy interpreted as an answer and reassured the poor soul, yes we can help you.   (We are Ghost-busters!)   There was a suggestion, and then the expected answer.   We hear what we expect to hear, but if you listen to the audio reply without the context, (the questions or video), it just sounds like a bunch of gibberish.    K2 meters detect spikes in electro-magnetic energy, as indicated by a range of multi-colors lights at the top of the meter which may signify activity or communication from spirits from the other side.     If you buy into the theory we all turn into energy after we die I suppose it is plausible….but they found a faulty ground wire, so that too may be subject to interpretation.   I am not convinced, but it would be interesting do more research, or hear about other people’s experiences.   

 While I may have chosen to disregard Clara-with-the-previous life who so obviously wanted to believe, there was one anecdote on the podcast told by a member of the audience, and this is the kind of thing that is spookier to me than all the rest.  A woman told a story about driving late at night and hitting a girl with long blonde hair, but when she stopped the car she could not find the body – there was nothing at the side of the road or in the ditch.   She was sure she had hit someone, so being very shook up, she contacted the police, but the police officer said not to worry about it, a girl had been killed previously on that road and they had received several similar reports over the years usually around the anniversary of her death.   There was no damage to her car, but when she drove to her mothers, the dog went crazy, clawing at the front of the car.   It’s difficult to disregard this kind of  story, where more than one person has experienced the same thing in the same place.   I do recall several young girls being killed in that area in the past, one while rollerskating at dusk, she was hit from behind by an elderly woman, another a young girl who was killed while trick or treating by a drunk driver who fled the scene.   So perhaps the universe sent me this miserable flu, so I might lie on my nice comfy couch in my nice warm house and not encounter any phantom girls haunting the river road on my drive way home.  Sometimes it’s all in how you wish to interpret things, but I’m glad I stayed home.    

While not all old houses are haunted, the ones which are tend to be over a hundred years old, and it is usually those who have some unfinished or unpleasant business in their past.   Something awful has happened to keep the departed tethered to this place and this life.    They are setting up a film shoot in another town nearby, for a teenage scream movie and the house they have chosen is the perfect setting.    A twenty room Victorian mansion at the edge of town, covered by a maze of creepers and overgrown trees, it has been abandoned for over half a century.    Someone bought it a decade ago with the aim of renovating it into apartment units, but there was a fire and the roof caved in from the water and he lacked the funds to continue.   It really should be classified as a heritage building but no one can afford to fix it up to it’s former glory.    They had to get permission from the town to let the grass grow all summer and the other day when I drove by, they were setting up ladders outside.    Yesterday in the paper there were photos of the film crew, with lots of mist generated in the background to make it look extra creepy.    Giant lights suspended from a crane illuminated it, casting an eerie glow – and are those zombies on the front lawn?     

Fairbanks mansion

Fairbanks mansion

Fairbanks mansion

The house has a ballroom which occupies one of the upper floors, and every time I drive pass, I have a visual image of the ghosts waltzing on Halloween to the strains of an orchestra.    While I have never heard that this house is haunted, it certainly would qualify.   

 There is another Victorian mansion nearby which does have a reputation for being haunted, although when a paranormal group visited there a few years ago, they failed to register anything untoward.    Bequeathed to the city by it’s former owners, it now houses a thriving arts centre.   They are always looking for people to staff the art gallery,  but I would never volunteer there, even for the afternoon.    It’s okay to visit on a First Friday when there is a crush of people around, but the elevator has been known to go up and down on its own, and strange things have happened in the turret room upstairs where they hold small concerts at night.   The ghost is female, and haunts the attic.   Too spooky for me, but I hope she appreciates the art.  

My mother told me recently that in her early married years in the old farmhouse they used to hear footsteps on the upstairs staircase at night.    I never felt uncomfortable growing up there, although we never went into the attic when we were younger.   The attic door was adjacent to my bedroom, and occasionally it was ajar a bit, but we knew it was just a draft that blew it open, as the latch was flimsy.   The small peaked attic, crammed full of old antiques, was over the original log cabin part of the house (1849), which was joined by a partition to the newer part of the house (1880).    Old farm houses were either yellow brick or white clapboard like ours, with additions added as families grew.    As my great-grandparents had nine children, perhaps it was haunted by one of them (below), but certainly by the time we were old enough to sleep upstairs, any ghosts had long departed, driven away by a gang of noisy children.      


While I do believe there are unexplained paranormal happenings, and  strange links exist between here and the afterlife, I remain skeptical that this kind of investigation can be quantified by communication devices in a public atmosphere.   Unlike some medical people, I do not discount near-death experiences, (despite some perfectly plausible scientific explanations for such), and in fact read extensively on this phenomenon after a death in my own family many years ago, (I found it comforting).   But then NDE’s are a whole other topic.  Whatever you chose to believe is a personal choice – I prefer to believe in ghosts, but not ghost-busters.   However, it is one thing to believe in a spiritual afterlife, (even if we just change into orbs of light or energy), but another to try and make contact with it.    Ghosts are not easy to summon.   They don’t wish to be hunted down.   My philosophy is if they want to get a message to you, they will, not the other way around.    Still, if the Paranormal People were to return next year, and I can attend, I remain open to being convinced otherwise.   At the very least, a fun night was had by all….except for the ghosts, but seriously can you blame them.   Do you really expect ghosts can be coaxed out when 14 people are staring at them?   I think of ghosts as anti-social creatures at the best of times, (well except perhaps when they are dancing).    While the veil may be thin on All Hallow’s Eve I bet most of them fear for their lives….all those weirdos on the streets!     Happy Halloween and may all your hauntings be pleasant ones!   

Do you have any paranormal experiences you would care to share?

Movie of the Day:    Magic in the Moonlight – if you have not seen this 2014 Woody Allen film about seances and the paranormal, it is a visual treat.   Set in the south of France in the 1920’s, the scenery and fashions are absolutely gorgeous,  plus it stars two of my favorite actors, Colin Firth and Emma Stone.   Break out the Ouija board!