Julie Myerson excels in making her readers feel uncomfortable. Her last novel, ‘The Quickening’ (for the ‘Hammer’ Horror imprint) brought together the themes which surface in much of her work, primarily the relationship between parent and child in often extraordinary circumstances.
While ‘The Quickening’ used a mother’s fear of the unborn child to great effect, ‘The Stopped Heart’ looks takes the parent/ child relationship and uses it to examine the effect of human barbarity and the nature of grief
In the 19th century a storm brings with it a red-haired stranger who ingratiates himself on young Eliza and her family. A hundred years later, Mary and Graham have moved into what was once Eliza’s home, a beautiful country cottage, in the hope of escaping the pain, horror and publicity of a terrible loss.
The two narratives mirror and intertwine with one another, pushed home by the ghostly projections which drift back and forth across the century: the sinister red-headed stranger James Dix murders a pet dog and a dead dog is seen in the present day. While Eliza’s sister, Lottie, speaks about an unknown person called Mary Cole. Mary senses a gaggle of ghostly children…
Is this simply Mary’s grief taking strange new forms? Is she going mad? Myerson tells us how, as a child, Mary used to sometimes speak in ‘a language which sounded like Greek’, a trait which Virginia Woolf uses as a sign of Septimus Smith’s shellshock in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’- perhaps the biggest clue that this is not a ghost story in the traditional sense. Myerson uses the form the examine grief and perhaps more effectively, the nature of ‘evil’ and its effect. She clearly understands the form and excels at tiny, creepy moments which throw the reader off kilter:
‘When I was dead, she whispered in her darkest voice, I just aid there on the floor with the blood coming out of me.
Lottie, I said, that’s horrible. I wish you wouldn’t say such things. Where do you go getting sich horrid ideas from?
From the man who killed me.
Lottie smiled. Here eyes were raw and furious.
He couldn’t help it. He was a bad man so he just had to do it and God let him because God is bad.
Lottie! I said. Just stop is right now. The man hit me till I was dead. Just like the little girls.’
The flitting back and forth across the century is also a wonderful device, inverting the traditional notion that a ghost must always be from the past: is a spectre from the future, an omen of what is to happen possibly more frightening? It certainly makes for an effective ratchetting up of both fear and page turning, each narrative drawing us onwards. We hear Eliza describing how James Dix ingratiates himself into her family, wooing this young girl and taking her virginity, leading her towards brutal murder. Red headed he is, like the ‘gingerish’ protagonist at the heart of Mary’s loss. Through this earlier narrative we can begin to feel the horror of Mary’s reality, understand her feelings as the tragedy unfolds. And yet, is history about to repeat itself? Dix is persuasive too, like the slippery, passive aggressive Eddie, one half of a couple who befriend Mary and Graham, forcing himself into Mary’s world. What is it that he wants?
Don’t expect any easy answers or neat endings. Myerson’s novel rightly leaves those to the reader, allowing us to take away the glimpse of real horror: not ghosts or spectres but the brutal depravity which dwells within humankind.