The House in the High Wood
by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Grab your smoking jacket and favorite pipe and prepare to be carried away to a land of mastodons, foggy moors, ancient evils and proper manners, all of which provide the backdrop for Jeffrey E. Barlough’s engaging and entertaining Western Lights series. Barlough’s fictional universe has two strong entries to recommend it thus far, Dark Sleeper (ACE 1999) and The House in the High Wood (ACE 2001). How to describe that universe? Imagine mid-19th Century England, throw in prehistoric creatures like saber-cats, then add a sprinkling of specters and you begin to get the idea.
Barlough might easily be classified as a writer’s writer—an author whose talent for prose, tempered with just the right combination of flare and nuance, can easily make you struggle between envy and admiration. Reminiscent of M.R. James, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Barlough’s writing is most easily classified as scientific romance. His stories are an amalgam of Victorian drama, classic horror and fantastical fiction that makes you feel as if you’re reading with your feet up in a snug study beside a cozy fire, even if you’re stuck in a bus station.
Like the doodads and knickknacks strewn around a Victorian study, so are the details sprinkled throughout Barlough’s sentences—each is interesting in its own right, but when taken as a whole make for a dynamic end product. This combination lyrical writing and colorful characterization provide a nice counterpoint to Barlough’s dark subject matter.
In Dark Sleeper, Barlough transports us to Salthead, a foggy town perched on a craggy bluff overlooking the sea. Strange matters are afoot in Salthead. A dead sailor roams the streets, his sunken ship raising itself and sailing into the harbor. Ghosts have begun to materialize at a local inn. Unholy creatures are prowling the night, and an ancient evil has been reawakened that threatens every soul.
In the course of investigating these events, we are introduced to the vicious miser Josiah Tusk, richest and meanest man in town; Samson Icks, a man of questionable repute; Titus Vespasianus Tiggs, professor of Metaphysics; Hatch Hoakum, a driver of mastodons; Mr. Jack Hilltop, a stranger of mysterious origins; and countless other denizens with names and occupations at least as interesting, all playing their own part in unraveling the mystery that lies at the heart of the sinister goings on.
It’s hard to summarize beyond that. There’s just too much happening. Rich in character and plot, Dark Sleeper is filled with a well-drawn, believable cast and a storyline that unfolds at an unabashedly leisurely clip. But, as is often the case, the scenic route turns out to be well worth it.
While similar in style, The House in the High Wood is smaller in scope. Here we join Mr. Oliver Langley, a city man from Crow’s End, as he summers in the small mountain village of Shilston Upcot, guest of his old school chum, the reclusive squire Markham Trench.
The whole of Shilston Upcot is abuzz with the arrival of a certain Mr. Bede Wintermarch and family, who have taken up residence at Skylington Hall, the long deserted, insidious mansion that overlooks the town from its craggy perch in the high wood. Their arrival has coincided with a number of ghostly omens and a plague of nightmares that has afflicted the townsfolk. In the course of investigating the new tenants, Mark and Oliver begin to uncover a dark secret from the town’s history that with roots deeper and more dangerous than they at first guessed.
As with Dark Sleeper, House in the High Wood is steeped in detail and filled with wonderful characters that make you feel as if you’re living among them. Of the two, books, House in the High Wood is the scarier read, with some genuinely disquieting moments. Though both books are set in the same universe, each is complete in itself. But you may want to start with Dark Sleeper, since it provides a bit more history and will help ground you firmly in Barlough’s reality.
This review can provide only a flavor of that reality. Read the books and find out for yourself what Jeffrey Barlough has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.