Karen Maitland is fast making the Gothic novel a thing of unsettling beauty.
The Gallows Curse, a dark and labyrinthine tale of medieval murder and mystery, is a big read in every sense - 570 pages of amazing storytelling jam packed with death, religion, treachery, sex, witchcraft, treason, perilous prophecies, war and shocking secrets.
With an inspired and truly inventive plot, an eclectic cast of villains and heroes who wouldn’t look out of place on a horror movie set and all the action taking place during one of the lesser known but most turbulent periods of English history, Maitland’s book is the stuff of dreams...and nightmares.
The six-year Papal Interdict in the early 13th century brought untold misery to England when a vengeful Pope excommunicated the whole country because King John refused to accept Cardinal Stephen Langton as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
The sacraments were withdrawn, baptisms were banned, priests were unable to give people the Last Rites, superstition was rife and the irate barons would soon be forcing a reckless king to sign the Magna Carta.
In 1210, times are hard, there is danger in the air, people are terrified of dying in sin and in Norfolk 15-year-old servant girl Elena has been plucked from obscurity to work at Gastmere Manor.
What she doesn’t know is that she has been deliberately chosen as a young virgin to become part of a vile conspiracy and to carry the burden of the secret sins of Gerard, the dying young lord of the manor.
As the terrors that begin to plague Elena’s sleep grow worse, in desperation she turns to the local cunning woman who has been waiting for the chance to fulfil an ancient curse conjured up at the gallows.
Her only friend appears to be Master Raffaele, the manor’s middle-aged steward, but he has a murky past including horrendous crimes for which he believes there is no forgiveness.
Now pregnant, shadowed by the terrible curse and threatened with death for a crime she didn’t commit, Elena flees the village only to discover that the worst is yet to come.
For treachery lurks in every shadow of the country as King John’s brutal reign makes enemies of brothers, murderers of virgins and sinners of one and all.
As Elena fights to save her life and that of her child, an unspeakable buried secret emerges and her pursuer, the evil Lord Osborn, will stop at nothing to track her down.
Maitland recreates the devastation and turmoil of life in England during the interdict whilst playing out a claustrophobic, atmospheric and chilling tale steeped in ancient folklore and a spine-tingling sense of foreboding.
Her writing is fast-paced and superbly descriptive, the story is brutal, bold and brilliant and the master stroke is one final extraordinary and unforgettable twist.
(Penguin, paperback, £12.99)