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.
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.
Design and typography: A-
Marketing copy: A