The Mark of Cain

Long Lankin is one of my favorite middle school/teen horror books.  It's delightfully and earnestly creepy, with a fantastic atmosphere and sense of place.  The paranormal elements are well thought-out, and the menace feels like it's going to leap off the page and strangle you, or at least hide under your bed and make scary noises (woooooooo!).  So, when I heard that Lindsey Barraclough was writing a companion novel, I expected another tome chock-full of spooky moors and vengeful ghosts and tight plotting.

Instead I got a book that started out with a bang and then petered off into a low, irritating hum that slowly drove me off the edge.

Aphra Rushes' story, which takes place in the Middle Ages, was by far the best part of this book.  Raised by two witches in the wild woods of medieval England, Aphra demonstrated uncanny power from an early age.  When anti-witch vigilantes murder and burn her mothers, Aphra is consumed with rage and determines to make everyone suffer.  She roams the land, eventually staggering, wounded and starving, into the hut of a recluse on the marshes.  Lankin has many deformities of the body, which are augmented by his leprosy, but his soul has also been ruined by harsh treatment.  Now,  he is cruel and rejoices with Aphra in her rage.

They become lovers, and Aphra bears a stillborn child.  As she becomes more and more bitter and as the leprosy takes hold in her, she revenges herself on the local manor family.  The scion has been raping his maidservants for years and begetting bastards by them (charming fellow!), but Aphra gives him a gift in return: a family curse with a side of leprosy.  Even after she is burned at the stake, her consciousness remains.  To truly destroy a witch, her ashes must be burned twice, and Aphra tricks the local constable into leaving her be and bringing Lankin's body back through the town lychgate (which plays a very large role in Long Lankin).

Hundreds of years later, the descendents of that lord are almost extinct, except for two girls: Cora and Mimi.  After surviving the vengeance of Cain Lankin's spirit four years ago and losing their Aunt Ida, the girls return to Guerdon Hall.  Their dad, a dodgy sort, brings along their Auntie Kath, his current girlfriend.  Somehow, no one seems to think this is a bad idea except for the girls.  If I were their father, and a few years ago had sent my daughters to a family estate for the summer that ended up with a family member dying, I certainly wouldn't go back there.  Besides, dear Dad pulls this weird avoidance/macho power play and basically abandons Kath and the girls inside a mouldering old mansion while he gallivants around London.  What a git.

Cora worries about Mimi, who becomes withdrawn and taciturn, and she fears seeing the villagers again--specifically Roger and Pete, two brothers who lived through that harrowing summer of Long Lankin.  I'm not quite sure why, as I am unsure of why many things happen or do not happen in this book.

You can guess the plot: Aphra Rushes comes back, possesses someone, and tries to kill the last of the Guerdons.  Unfortunately, the story does not retain the menace and fasciation that Barraclough creates in the first chapters detailing Aphra's origins.  Nor does The Mark of Cain have that special sense of place that is like a living blanket of dread, seeping through your skin and right into your bones, as its predecessor did.  The book just is, but it doesn't really do anything.  There is a lot of Cora slogging back and forth across snowy fields, and I confess that as I neared the 3/4 point, I wished for a snowy field to slog through instead of the increasingly dull prose.

Readers would have been better served by Aphra's story as a standalone short, and leaving Long Lankin be.  That story was nigh-on perfect Gothic horror, whereas its "companion" (which is really a sequel; let's not beat around the bush) is a maudlin and exhausting retread of the vengeful ghost story.

I highly recommend Long Lankin for shivery delights; skip The Mark of Cain and read a nice Lord Peter mystery as a warming chaser.


  1. Yes, it does sound more like a sequel than a companion volume. What a disappointment for you! But absolutely, Lord Peter Wimsey, yes!


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