Described as a ‘Ghost Story’ on the front cover but I think I personally would call it more of a psychological thriller, either way it’s a perfect winter chiller. In one sense, it’s a typical Victorian coming-of-age meets rags-to-riches story, think Pip’s story in Great Expectations. Up until the age of 10, William Bellman lives a rather uninspiring childhood. Abandoned by his father and living alone with his mother, only a beautiful singing voice setting him apart from his peers. One day an estranged uncle contacts William, seeing something in him that he doesn’t see in his own son and invites him to work at the family fabric factory. William proves to be both good at the job and popular amongst the workforce, moving his way up the ranks to eventually becoming owner of the factory when his uncle dies. William marries well and marries a girl he loves, he has a beautiful family and he keeps expanding his business, so far so good. A rags-to-riches story would end here but as William is yet to find out, there is a price to pay for all his luck.
Back to when William was just 10 years old, in a foolish childhood act long forgotten by others, William kills a rook with his catapult. This act plays on Williams mind especially as his perfect life begins to fall apart. People close to William begin to die and at each funeral he see’s a man in black who he doesn’t recognise but feels drawn too. Eventually he catches up with the mysterious man and makes some sort of bargain that he can’t quite recall but knows that is somehow tied up to his success and good fortune. Knowing that he owes the man he terms ‘Mr Black’ some sort of recompense, he goes about trying to pay back his debt. Thinking it’s monetary, William makes Black a partner in his new business, a ‘mourning emporium’ but still feels like he hasn’t repaid his debt. As William becomes more and more tortured by the fact that he can’t repay Mr. Black, he hands over increasing amounts of profit until he has nothing left but William still can not find any peace and is still troubled by the thought of the rook all those years ago.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the book for me was very reminiscent of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. In the same way that Dorian can’t escape the aging painting in the attic, William can not leave the childhood incident behind. Whilst it seems outwardly both are rich, successful and happy internally both men are driven mad by the deals they have entered in to with William and Dorian only temporarily able to suspend the inevitable as all debts must be repaid eventually