This is one creepy book, written by one of my top-favorite creep-writers, Daphne du Maurier. Best known for her gothic romantic thriller Rebecca, she wrote much more than that
one, and many better than that, too (and this is one of her very best!). And she didn't limit her writing to gothic fiction, either. This one is a sci-fi
romance, published first in 1969 at the height of the LSD era. The sci-fi part takes place in the 60s, but the romance takes place in the early fourteenth
century! The sci-fi part is about time-travel to the era of Queen Isabella of England and her lover Mortimer, thus making it also a historical novel. In
addition, the places in England are real (du Maurier's own home) making it a travel novel as well. Furthermore, there is a sub-theme about drug addiction.
Add to that a bite-your-nails, grit-your-teeth thriller, and you have one hell of a good book.
The story is about a biophysicist, Professor Magnus Lane, who has developed a drug that takes one back in history, and while offering his country house, Kilmarth in the Cornish village of Tywardreath, to his friend Dick Young for the summer, he cajoles him into being his guinea pig. Magnus is a well-known, respected scientist, but the drug he has created here was produced in the privacy of his basement lab at Kilmarth. Dick is an out-of-work publisher who has quit his rat-race job in London. His American wife, Vita, has secured him a job in New York with her brother's firm, of which Dick has little interest, and even less interest in relocating to the States. Vita has two sons by a previous marriage.
Dick is glad to be in the house (and temporarily away from his family, who will join him later). It belonged to Lane's parents, whom Dick adored, and he spent many college breaks here with Magnus. We really don't know much about Magnus—he is elusive and darts in and out of the novel through brief and often cryptic phone calls and messages. He is probably gay, and though Dick is not, we get the feeling there has always been something strange in their relationship. Magnus is domineering. Dick does what Magnus tells him to do. The story is told from a distinctly masculine viewpoint. If one didn't know it was by a woman, the assumption would be that the author was a man. I had to keep reminding myself of this fact, adding to my reverence toward du Maurier's talent.
Magnus has already tried the drug, but doesn't tell Dick much about what happened when he took it. He wants to know if his experience was an hallucination or if he really traveled back into time. We meet Dick as he is on his first trip (in both senses of the word), in the early 1300s where he meets his guide, Roger. Though Dick can fully see and hear everything, he is invisible to those around him. His first meeting is brief, and he learns that the Bishop is to visit the manor. The Prior is nervous—he is rather filthy and disgusting and so are his living quarters. He must clean up himself and his charge. Though Dick has been warned not to attempt to touch any living being in the past, at one point he feels that someone there has actually seen him, and instinctively raises his hand to fend them off. He wakes up at Kilmarth, bleeding, having shoved his hand through a window, and retching, because that's what happens when one comes into physical contact with a being from the past.It takes a while for the vertigo and nausea to pass. Soon after, he speaks with Magnus and is not too happy, although Magnus laughs it off. While Dick says he will not do another "trip" Magnus knows he will, and he does. Magnus also warns Dick that the drug is addictive.
On Dick's second experience, he is in the graveyard of the local church, St. Andrews. He learns more about his characters, and meets the rest of the sordid family during the celebration of the Bishop's arrival. Roger is steward to Joanna, wife of the Lord of the Manor, Sir Henry de Champernoune. She is a bitch, waiting for her husband to die so she can marry Sir John Carminowe, who awaits his wife's death. Roger is out for himself, and therefore has aided Joanna in her secret meetings with Sir John. Sir Henry, however, is pious and respectable. Sir John's brother, Oliver, is married to Isolda, and it is she with whom Dick soon becomes enamored. Isolda, however, is in love with Otto Bodrugan, Joanna's brother. Quite a relative mess! Bodrugan is honorable, but rebellious. He fought against the King, and had the last Bishop murdered. He is also plotting to give Queen Isabella full power, against her son, Edward III. (Historically, it is believed Isabella was also behind the murder of her husband, Edward II.)
Dick completes this trip with no side effects, other than very exuberant energy, because he hasn't touched anyone. He also realizes that he is moving around in the present with his body as his mind is in the past. When he awakens this time, it is because the vicar is speaking to him inside the church where he has walked into in the fourteenth-century. Dick is able to recover himself and speak with the vicar, and becomes extremely interested in the lay of the land and the old buildings, their history and their inhabitants. The vicar gives him some good information and suggests the St. Austell library—a book called Parochial History. Dick also learns that Tywardreath or Tiwardrai, means The House on the Strand in the Cornish language. He speaks with Magnus, and they both begin research and attempt to locate all the houses and their present owners. The manor house is in ruins and Kilmarth was Roger's house, (he is Roger Kylmerth). He also realizes that much of the land in the surrounding area, in the fourteenth-century was under water.
Vita is still days away from arriving, so Dick goes out into the fields, leaning on a hedge where he once again takes the drug. Wishing to become aware of the moment of transition, he concentrates on the change, but only notices primroses and a cuckoo flying above. It suddenly dawns on him that these would be seen in the spring, and it is now nearly August. He knows he is in the past once again.
This time, he is within the manor house, and Sir Henry is dying, being treated only by an iffy French monk with a knowledge of herbs. The family is mostly there, and Isolda believes foul play has been committed. Soon after, it is announced that Henry has died. Isolda accuses Roger of complicity, and he moves toward her. Dick steps in the way to stop him, but gets his foot caught, awakening, retching, having actually caught his foot on a stone near a quarry filled with junk (the remains of the manor house). As he stumbles and makes his way back to the car, he realizes there is another car parked by him. It turns out to be a doctor, Dr. Powell, who doesn't buy the story he makes up, and escorts him home. It is after this trip that he receives the information sent by Magnus, confirming historically, that all the people Dick has met in the past were real.
The next trip Dick does is right in the basement lab, now knowing that it is Roger's house in the fourteenth-century. Though moving chronologically forward, he can never tell where in time he will arrive, but there is usually a gap of several weeks or months. A clandestine meeting is taking place now in Roger's house of those who are aiding Sir Otto Bodrugan in the rebellion to give Queen Isabella full power. Roger's younger brother Robbie is a messenger and assistant. They all go to the stable and mount their ponies, heading north to cross the valley by Trefrengy and Lampetho. On the way, they stop at Julian Polpey's, a friend of Roger, where he gives the bad news: the rebellion has been crushed before it had a chance to take place. Isabella and Mortimer have been taken prisoners. The plan is defeated. Isolda is also present, and just as Otto is about to kiss her hand, the sound of an automobile stops them. Dick wonders why they didn't hear the car, then realizes it is the mail truck and he is standing in someone's driveway. He had been wading through the bog, and his trousers her all torn. He sheepishly tells he mail carrier he has gotten lost and is offered a ride home. And things are even worse when he arrives back at Kilmarth: his wife and stepsons have unexpectedly showed up early.
Things become much more intense now, because his family is the last thing Dick wants intruding upon him. Plus he has to explain why he is such a mess, his eye has become bloodshot, and to his horror, he finds he is beginning to mix up events of the past with the present. Vita thinks he has another woman.
That's as far as I will go, because this book simply must be read. It is one of my top favorites and believe me the pages will fly by. And though it is fiction: (the characters in the present are purely fictional) but the characters in the past are real. There is a family tree in the front of the book, and these people can be Googled. Du Maurier herself got the idea for the book while she was researching the history of her own home, Kilmarth and its original owner, Roger Kylmerth.
Here is a beautiful photo of Daphne du Maurier's home, Kilmarth, in Tywardreath, Cornwall, England.
All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.