“In Chapel Croft, You don’t have to play with fire to get burned…” and so goes the blurb on this thriller laced with supernatural elements, mystery, and horror. The story gets off to a cracking start with a short prologue which the reader later learns to be a flashback.
The novel is set over three time periods. The Burning Girls of the title were convicted of heresy during the Protestant purge (1553-8) of Mary I’s reign. Along with six other villagers of Chapel Croft, the girls were burnt at the stake. The Sussex Martyrs are commemorated each year on the anniversary of the purge by the burning of small twig dolls.
The second period is set thirty years ago when two teenage girls vanished from the village without a trace. Best friends, Joy Harris and Merry Lane are presumed to have run away together, but the reader is quickly lead to believe there may be a far more sinister explanation.
The third time frame finds the reader with the main protagonists, the Reverend Jack Brooks and her 15-year-old daughter Flo. Jack has temporarily been transferred against her wishes from an urban parish in Nottingham to Chapel Croft as cover following the suicide of the previous priest whilst a permanent replacement is found. Jack hopes the move will offer her and Flo a fresh start as all has not been well in her Nottingham parish. Jack has a mysterious past which she is keen to escape from and is frequently on edge that it may catch up with her soon.
There are other characters I very much liked, the creepy curate Arron for instance; is he to be trusted and what does he know, clearly far more than he is letting on. And who is the recently released disturbed homeless man searching for Jack, and why is he so obsessed with finding her?
Flo is lonely and isolated, going off with her camera to photograph the graveyard. She meets and becomes friendly with Wrigley, a local misfit who it turns out started a fire at his previous school. Flo is attracted to him, but Jack is not so sure.
The reader is left guessing until the last few chapters how these elements of the story relate and come together. All of this is set against a backdrop of insular and unpleasant villagers, some frightening apparitions and ever-mounting tension.
The supernatural elements work well, but the main genre here is a thriller with a mystery at its heart for the reader to puzzle over. Some excellent folk horror spills over into horror which can be graphic at times.
The writing flows well and is a quick and easy read. There is great tension, compelling atmosphere and unease as the story moves from a hidden crypt in the Chapel to a deserted and derelict house in the woods filled with symbols of satanic ritual and worship.
The two main characters, Jack and Flo, are well-drawn and likeable. The relationship between mother and daughter has tensions and difficulties readers with teenagers will readily identify with. Jack is a female reverend and perhaps not what you would expect of someone in that role. Still, she quickly adjusts to the claustrophobic and gossipy nature of the rural parish as she begins to unravel what happened to her predecessor and opens a whole can of worms that has been buried for decades.
The twists and turns come thick and fast, the pace never letting up with short chapters, usually ending with a cliffhanger so leading the reader deeper into the story. At times the plot did seem a little over-complicated, and with the occasional event, just a little too convenient or predictable but overall this is a pacy mystery thriller with plenty of creepy, spine-chilling moments for readers to relish. The Burning Girls as an engrossing and enjoyable novel and I look forward to reading more from C. J. Tudor.
The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor is published by Michael Joseph.