Brought to you by OBS reviewer Daniele
In 1919, Kitty Weekes, pretty, resourceful, and on the run, falsifies her background to obtain a nursing position at Portis House, a remote hospital for soldiers left shell-shocked by the horrors of the Great War. Hiding the shame of their mental instability in what was once a magnificent private estate, the patients suffer from nervous attacks and tormenting dreams. But something more is going on at Portis House—its plaster is crumbling, its plumbing makes eerie noises, and strange breaths of cold waft through the empty rooms. It’s known that the former occupants left abruptly, but where did they go? And why do the patients all seem to share the same nightmare, one so horrific that they dare not speak of it?
Kitty finds a dangerous ally in Jack Yates, an inmate who may be a war hero, a madman… or maybe both. But even as Kitty and Jack create a secret, intimate alliance to uncover the truth, disturbing revelations suggest the presence of powerful spectral forces. And when a medical catastrophe leaves them even more isolated, they must battle the menace on their own, caught in the heart of a mystery that could destroy them both. (Goodreads)
In this gothic style ghost tale, Katharine “Kitty” Weekes is twenty years old and in search of a fresh start. She ran away from home at age sixteen, away from her abusive father and the memory of a brother presumed dead in the war. After losing her factory job in London, she falsifies references and work history as a nurse and travels across England to Portis House, an isolated mansion turned hospital. After one of the nurses leaves without notice during the night, the matron is desperate for help and hires Kitty despite knowing that she is not qualified.
Kitty joins the meager, overworked staff of a few nurses and orderlies to care for the hospital’s nineteen patients. The patients are all veterans of the Great War, almost all officers with plenty of funds. They have come to the asylum with the promise of “an exclusive retreat of peace and solace,” committed by family who are afraid of or embarrassed by them. These men, once measured to be heroes, are now considered cowards. Men such as West who lost his legs to a grenade, Captain Mabrey who has fits and nosebleeds, Creeton whose parents feel he would be better off dead, Childress who cannot stop his hands from shaking after cracking under the pressure of grave duty on the front lines, and the mysterious Patient Sixteen while away their days and nights there. Shell shock was not well understood at the time, and the men are subject to structured yet unchallenging days, rudimentary care, and ineffective efforts at behavior modification (if they behave for the doctors, they might be granted a request, but more than likely not). The doctors really have no intention of ever releasing the patients.
Kitty finds it more difficult than expected to tend to them, and despite being warned not to care for them, that they will only manipulate her, she cannot help but want to assist them. All of the men seem to experience the same nightmare about the same man, but they will not confide in Kitty. The other staff members do not acknowledge that strange things happen about the house. There are odd sounds, foul black slime in the lavatory, unexplained changes in temperature, and possibly ghosts. Kitty seeks to find out why the Gershbachs, the former owners, abandoned Portis House, why all of their possessions are stored away in the disintegrating west wing, and who the ghosts are. She finds her best ally in Patient Sixteen, who is really Jack Yates. “Brave Jack” has been hidden away in isolation and on suicide watch because if the public knew he was there they would lose morale. Kitty is drawn to him, even though seeing him and enlisting his help breaks the rules. Together, after a flu outbreak threatens the whole hospital, they discover the secrets of the house’s history, earn the other patients’ trust, and face the ghosts.
I enjoyed this historical mystery quite a bit. I found it intriguing from the very beginning. The author did a fine job of developing the sense of place and characters. I felt I knew them and cared about what happened to them. In true gothic style, the house itself was also a character. Decaying, sinister, isolated with plenty of foggy atmosphere, the
“house is a vampire, feeding on the pain, the insecurity, the despair of these men…It was going to kill them, and it was winning.” (p.232)
This novel is plenty creepy but by no means a horror story. The author’s voice seemed appropriate for the time period, her writing lovely and flowing. The romance between Kitty and Jack did not overpower the rest of the story.
My only complaint is that it all seemed to wrap up rather quickly. The rest of the novel builds at a steady pace, but the ending seemed a bit rushed, everything tied up a little too neatly.
I would confidently recommend this book to World War I buffs, those interested in how the mentally ill were treated in the early twentieth century, fans of historical mysteries, and those who like an eerie atmosphere with ghosts.