Laura Purcell’s debut, The Silent Companions was a creepy gothic thriller. That book featured everything a reader might want from this style of tale – asylums, strange villagers, a dark manor house, whispers of witchcraft and of course the titular Companions – wooden effigies that seemed to move on their own. She followed that up with two more gothic tales – The Corset and Bone China. In all of these, there is a craft of some sort at the centre of the action. In the case of her new book, The Shape of Darkness, that craft is silhouette making. And nothing says gothic more than shadow pictures of people.
Agnes is a middle age woman living in Bath. She makes money by cutting and selling silhouettes, although since an event known as The Accident and a bout of pneumonia she has not been as productive as she would like. When more than one of her customers is found dead, Agnes is pulled into a darker world of spiritualism. She not only wants to communicate with those who have recently died but also, potentially with her long lost naval fiancé. At the same time she fears that she is being haunted by her long dead sister. Pearl is an eleven, she and her sister Myrtle run seances, Pearl channelling the voices of the dead for their clients, or at least claiming to. Agnes’s connection to Pearl sets off an unexpected chain of events.
The art of silhouetting is a perfect one for channelling the darkness of the gothic, and when the silhouettes mysteriously move or fall off the wall readers will know they are deep in this territory. Upping the creepiness quotient, Purcell couples this with the 19th century obsession with spiritualism and an ambiguity about the Pearl’s ability to act as a conduit for the spirit world.
With The Shape of Darkness, Purcell has delivered a pitch perfect gothic horror novel with some late twists. While some of these are fairly standard of this type of thriller, others are genuinely shocking. While it draws on some of the themes and techniques of her earlier books, this is the most of effective of Purcell’s books to date and shows her developing as a gothic horror stylist.