It’s 1976 and a heatwave has hit the UK. Loo and her many siblings, including her older sister Bee whom she must share a room with, are relocated to an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in their parents’ attempt to start a new life. But strange things begin to happen on Iron Sike Farm and after a series of loud knockings from the walls and unexplainable bruises on Loo, the family are terrified of what is haunting their house.
The novel, in thriller-esque style, splits into two timelines, that of Loo as an eleven-year-old in 1976 and then of her as an adult, now calling herself Lucy. The “Then” chapters take us through the ordeal of the haunting itself, including the original paranormal researchers, Simon and Michael, investigating the ghostly phenomena of the household, along with journalist Issy. The “Now” chapters show the farm as derelict while amateur researchers – Nina, Hal and Lewis – decide to reinvestigate exactly what happened all those years ago. They reach out to the mother of the family, Cathy (who now has dementia), and Lucy finds herself revisiting the house, stirring memories from the crumbling walls. The two timelines serve to heighten the mystery, build-up, and inevitable crescendo of this thriller-horror.
It is worth stating straight away that The Wayward Girls is creepy. Ghost stories are not new to the author Amanda Mason, who has had plenty of ghostly short stories published before. Her first novel does not disappoint. Each bit of phenomena is described in just enough detail to retain gothic mystery and Mason is exact in what she wants her readers to know and when. There are never too many red herrings or any overkill on the horror descriptions, which, plot-wise, is no mean feat to construct.
There are many relationships to explore in The Wayward Girls, toxic or otherwise – whether it’s between Cathy and her children, Simon and Issy, or Nina and her student friends. The one that struck me as the most powerful was that between Loo and her fourteen-year-old sister Bee. Mason has managed to depict a realistic sisterhood, one of envy, control and care. This relationship provides the core of the novel and will hook readers from the start.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first book of 2019 to be set in the heatwave of 1976. Earlier this year saw the publication of Water Shall Refuse Them, a folkloric horror set in this boiling summer. There is clearly something haunting about hot summers and people often remember their hottest summer and/or coldest winter. In an interview with Sublime Horror Mason stated she wanted to explore the juxtaposition of horror in daylight in The Wayward Girls, and it works. The prickly heat of the summer with the equally prickly cold of the haunting creates an uneasy atmosphere, one where the reader never feels entirely comfortable and relaxed with the story.
Ultimately, The Wayward Girls is an exploration of doubling. Of heat and chills, of two girlhoods, of “then” and “now” and of reality and perceived reality. In this liminal book, it is almost impossible to know what is real and as such, Mason has served a wonderful exploration of human emotion and memory. The ending (don’t worry, no spoilers) is a whirlwind of unleashed secrets and a reckoning of the truth. However, Mason has retained enough mystery for elements of the ending to not feel fully finalised. This will not please everyone, as some people may feel more satisfied with a definite conclusion. However, I feel it worked well and was in line with the overall feeling of the novel. Sometimes, a magician shouldn’t reveal their secrets.
The Wayward Girls is a dark and shimmering tale of palpable unease. Mason’s ability to weave mystery and eeriness together will appeal to fans of thrillers and horror alike.