What I Found At Hoole
by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Back in 2001, author Jeffry E. Barlough began his second Western Lights novel, The House in the High Wood, thusly:
“Not long ago, the occasion of my receiving a substantial legacy from an uncle I had never met necessitated a journey by traveling-coach to the distant town of Hoole, where my late kinsman had resided.”
This unnamed narrator subsequently went on to recount a horrific and totally unrelated story told to him by a fellow coach traveler about the titular house in the high wood, returning in the book’s final passages to wonder briefly what he would find at Hoole, trusting that it wouldn’t be half so monstrous as the story he had just heard.
Well it took 11 years, but that anonymous narrator has at last revealed his name—Ingram Somervell—and he finally tells us about his trip to Hoole, in the aptly named What I Found at Hoole, the seventh volume in Jeffrey E. Barlough’s Western Lights series.
I’ve long been at a loss to classify Barlough’s Western Lights novels, which take place in a mysteriously sundered world where an ice-locked Victorian society coexists with a host of prehistoric beasts. The series wonderfully mixes horrific, fantastic and supernatural elements—with a dash of Science Fiction thrown in—cooked up into a string of stand-alone Victorian-esque potboilers.
But Barlough himself calls his books fantasy mysteries, and What I Found at Hoole fits that description to a tee.
Upon arriving at Hoole, Ingram takes up residence at the upland estate of his estranged uncle Henry Clement, part of which has been bequeathed to him after Sir Henry’s unfortunate death in a riding accident. Inheriting the bulk of the property is the orphaned daughter of Sir Henry’s oldest friend, a Miss Perta Solsgrace, who has become a black-veiled recluse in the main house after being hideously scarred by small pox.
Ingram has no designs on the estate, and only wishes to settle his affairs and return to his prosperous business in the city of Crow’s-end. But his interest is piqued when a mysterious light appears atop Cowdrie Beacon, the high peak that looms above the great house. Enlisting the help of his uncle’s friend and neighbor, Mr. Capel Grange, Ingram learns that the men were excavating archeological ruins on Cowdrie Beacon, which Sir Henry believed to be a tumulus—or grave-mound—of the mysterious elds, the legendary creatures that dwelt in the hills before the coming of men.
But the mystery takes a horrific turn when Ingram starts seeing the ghost of his late uncle, angrily imploring him to inspect something in the estate’s dilapidated chapel; on top of this, certain facts come to light that suggest that Miss Solsgrace may not be the person she appears to be.
In many ways, What I Found at Hoole represents Barlough’s most focused Western Lights narrative to date, foregoing his usual sprawling casts and plotlines for a more streamlined mystery that unfolds in a relatively straightforward manner. There are very definite reasons for this (as the story will reveal), and it is at once the book’s key strength and chief weakness.
On one hand, Ingram almost immediately cottons to the bigger picture implied by the individual clues he discovers, sparing readers a needlessly long deductive slog to plot turns they’ve already figured out. But at the same time he tends to reiterate his discoveries and deductions every few pages, to the point of distraction. It makes you wonder whether Barlough was bulking up the word count, trying to compensate for the narrative constraints that the story forced upon him. If so, it was completely unnecessary. What I Found at Hoole is an eerily wonderful addition to the Western Lights canon, and still would have been even as a novella.
Alert readers will almost immediately pick up threads from the previous Western Lights novel Anchorwick; but the darker tone and haunting outcome of the story makes What I Found at Hoole a perfect companion piece to The House in the High Wood. The books are of a kindred, horrific spirit.
Now seven books into the series, it’s nice to see Barlough obliquely referring back to other corners of his Western Lights universe. It allows him the freedom to continue his tradition of crafting stand-alone novels that will appeal to new readers, while at the same time constructing a broader narrative mosaic for regular fans to enjoy.
What I Found at Hoole adds substantially to that enjoyment.