and voodoo spells Review of Ray Celestin’s “Palace of Shadows” – a tale of gothic horrors and mystical voodoo.
During the late 1800s, Sarah Winchester, heiress to an American weapons fortune, embarked on a well-known construction project: the Winchester House in San Jose. The building process spanned several decades, resulting in a sprawling, maze-like structure intentionally designed with odd features such as staircases leading to dead ends and a tower that was demolished and rebuilt over a dozen times.
Palace of Shadows fictionalises that story and transplants it to the Yorkshire moors. Ray Celestin’s gun magnate is Mrs Chesterfield, who expands her labyrinthine mansion further and further out into the moor, perhaps to repel the spirits of those killed by her company’s bullets – or to lure them in. The real house in San Jose is strange enough, but the Chesterfield house is an even more unsettling structure, like something Lovecraft might have designed in collaboration with Piranesi.
Although this book marks a notable change for Celestin, the time period and plot of murder are closely related to his previous City Blues crime series. Palace of Shadows openly displays its gothic elements and utilizes a frame narrative interspersed with found texts. Our narrator within the frame is Sam Etherstone, a widowed artist in need of employment. Tempted by Mrs Chesterfield’s offer of a high-paying commission, Sam quickly realizes that the house holds more than just an eerie atmosphere. There are spirits present: girls who disappeared years ago, Sam’s own late wife, and the architect of the house, Francisco Varano.
Reworded: The use of frame narratives can be challenging. In this particular story, we follow Sam for over 150 pages, so when the focus suddenly shifts to Varano 50 years earlier, it can be jarring. This type of storytelling, seen in works such as “Dracula,” can be intimidating for writers. Should they evenly alternate between different narrators to give the reader a clear understanding from the beginning, which may slow down the pace? Or do they take the risk of causing frustration by introducing a new narrator one-third of the way through? While the transition may be abrupt in this instance, it ultimately adds value to the story.
The main challenge of the gothic genre is determining the moral boundaries. Historically, it has been known for its extreme grotesque elements, comparable to the Saw franchise of the 19th century. For instance, Melmoth the Wanderer features a scene of cannibalism, Mr. Hyde brutally kills a young child, and Edgar Allan Poe’s unfortunate character meets a gruesome fate at the hands of an orangutan. However, the question remains: how much is too much?
In this passage, one of the storytellers commits repeated acts of sexual violence against a young girl. It is often the case that villains engage in evil actions, but even Sam, who is generally a good-hearted storyteller, fails to recognize the brutal and horrific nature of the situation. Instead, he rationalizes that the child is able to triumph over her assailant because she already suffers from syphilis – “why else would she smile at him after each attack?” The child’s perspective is never shown, and the main purpose of this scene appears to be to establish the perpetrator as a despicable individual. This type of morally instructive assault, used solely to showcase the immorality of another character, is rarely directed towards adult men. And when it is, it is not treated as a minor plot point with little impact – and rightfully so, as that would be a significant failure of imagination.
The gothic influences each of us to create our own boundaries. However, Palace of Shadows surpasses mine. The concept of a large group of spirits haunting the moor is impressive. The choice to portray the story solely through the eyes of peripheral, untrustworthy characters is cleverly done. The fragmented storytelling is masterfully executed in the voices of 19th-century characters. The book is mostly thrilling with a touch of disturbing content, making for an unsettling combination.