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Bea Northwick
The Cruel Dark

Adult; Romance; (Publish)

Millicent Foxboro is haunted.

Not by ghosts, but by the anguish of her past and the uncertainty of her future. After all, even in the progressive year of 1928, most people would balk at hiring a woman who’d spent two months in a mental ward for traumatic amnesia. So when an uncommon assistantship to a reclusive Professor of mythology falls into her lap with an ungodly salary attached, her desperation for stability overrides her cautious nature.

To Millie’s dismay, the widowed Professor Callum Hughes and his estate, Willowfield, are more than she bargained for. The once magnificent home, known for its sprawling gardens and dazzling parties, is falling to pieces after the death of the professor’s fragile wife. What’s more, the staff has been reduced to the only three people not frightened away by rumors of ghosts, leaving the halls empty and languishing in bitter memories.

The professor himself is a grim, intense man with unclear expectations, unpredictable moods, and hungry eyes that ignite Millie’s own dormant passions. The closer she finds herself drawn to Professor Hughes and his strange world of flowers and folklore, the more the house closes in, threatening to reveal her secrets. But the professor is keeping secrets of his own and the most dangerous of all is hers to discover.

Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 9 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9.75 out of 10


Plot/Idea: In The Cruel Dark, Northwick delivers a superb work that blends romance, mystery, and the supernatural, all set against a historical backdrop. The story flows engagingly, with twists and turns that hold the reader captive and wanting more.

Prose: The author is a gifted writer, able to convincingly recreate a bygone era, simultaneously telling a captivating story, moving the plot line forward and seamlessly recounting past events. The writing is succinct but telling, holding the reader's interest as the story unfolds.

Originality: This is an original work, populated with memorable characters and events that will stay in the reader's mind. The author does a fine job making the work stand apart from others in the romance field with rich detail, particularly relevant in a period work, while the supernatural elements are a delight.

Character/Execution: Characterization here is handled expertly, with a well-defined protagonist with a history of mental illness who is suddenly finds herself in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation as she works to find herself.

Date Submitted: April 01, 2024

Northwick’s debut is a spicy 1920s set Gothic inspired dark romance focused on love, families, memory, mysteries, and—of course—the supernatural. Millie Foxboro, a naïve young woman afflicted with traumatic amnesia, arrives at the foreboding Willowfield mansion to assist Professor Callum Hughes, the brooding but handsome owner, with his work on a book on Celtic mythology. Haunted by the deaths of her anguished father and abusive mother, Millie finds herself increasingly drawn to and repelled by Hughes’s equally wounded soul and foul temper, as well as the strange mystery of his wife’s madness and death, which might have been caused by Willowfield’s ghosts—or by Callum himself. Millie also meets the housemaid Felicity and her flirtatious brother Rodney the groundskeeper, who seems to know about Willowfield’s secrets. Desperate for money, Millie is reluctant to leave, even as Willowfield’s dark past and her own shaky sanity threaten her life.

Northwick conjures a compelling mystery in the classic gothic mode, with intriguing characters and a crumbling estate brought to vivid life by the assured prose. Millie is a vulnerable heroine, who starts off defying Callum’s controlling behavior, refusing to wear the clothes that he bought for her, though soon she’s caught up in an abusive romance, with the sex rough after their violent arguments. The Cruel Dark suggests cycles of abuse, as Millie has disturbing memories of her mother beating her. Callum, meanwhile, is driven by memories of his own eccentric mother who was obsessed with Celtic folklore. But it’s not just their paths that are haunted, as Northwick stages harrowing encounters with what seem to be ghosts.

While mostly fast paced, the story occasional slows or turns repetitive, focused more on the destructive romance than the many tantalizing mysteries. Lovers of dark romance and stories of creepy estates will find much to relish, though, as Northwick guides readers through a shadowed world of chandeliers and “decaying cornices.” This gothic is sumptuous, jolting, and occasionally—like Willowfield’s gardens—blooming with hope.

Takeaway: Sumptuous gothic romance of memory, ghosts, and a destructive love.

Comparable Titles: Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock. Alexis Henderson’s House of Hunger.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A