This week saw the release of The Golden Key by Marian Womack, through Titan Books, a richly woven tale of mysterious disappearances, seances and sceptics set against the backdrop of a country in mourning for Queen Victoria.
London, 1901. After the death of Queen Victoria the city heaves with the uncanny and the eerie. Séances are held and the dead are called upon from darker realms.
Samuel Moncrieff, recovering from a recent tragedy of his own, meets Helena Walton-Cisneros, one of London’s most reputed mediums. But Helena is not what she seems and she’s enlisted by the elusive Lady Matthews to solve a twenty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of her three stepdaughters who vanished without a trace on the Norfolk Fens.
But the Fens are a liminal land, where folk tales and dark magic still linger. With locals that speak of devilmen and catatonic children found on the Broads, Helena finds the answer to the mystery leads back to where it started: Samuel Moncrieff.
I really enjoyed this book and I’m so excited to be able to share with you this exclusive excerpt!
This dismal place wasn’t a new landscape. Eliza’s father was from around here, from a place called Waltraud Water; and so she had spent a few years of her childhood coming down from Lincoln to the cottage for little holidays, all year round and in all kinds of weather. She knew of young college men skating in winter or sailing in summer all the way up to Ely, usually to find some girl or another. The short sailing boats with two cabins, climbing up the Little Ouse. Those were the memories of youth, she thought now, kinder than a summer’s breeze. Her father had recounted it with pride, that long-gone world of fishing, fowling, of common wetland that was self-sufficient, well managed, cared for. Of the domestic geese that supplied the whole country with quill pens, those long feathers she marvelled at when she was little. Wildfowling season, from May to September, ‘fen slodgers’ carrying their decoys, and their tame ducks. The overabundance of pasture. The dykes dug up among the reeds, practically unseen when covered by snow or grass. And the moments when the snow started to melt, with those spring tides in motion. And the lost children, and the children that died in the eerie floods, and the children who were lost even before being born. For of course, there was no fairy tale here, and those were treacherous roads, deadly if misunderstood.
Crumbled churches like the one at Wicken Far End were a reminder that nature would reconquer, eventually. Or would she?
The Matthews’ abbey was nearby, and Eliza sometimes walked there in her morning stroll. As soon as she left behind the tamed landscape of its grounds, still holding some shape even after years of neglect, the view of the world changed immensely. From time immemorial, that countryside had been composed of those same fields of faded green, all of them covered by marshy reeds, unkempt patches scattered here and there, surrounding little islands of sturdier land. It was difficult to imagine all that expanse submerged, but that is how it had been. The fenmen had reigned over the water, conquering it. As the land had been drained, all that had changed forever. When the land was dried and cut and divided into those disorientating fields, traversed by thin unmoving rivers, what had happened to it? It had gone to men like Sir Malcolm Matthews’s ancestors. Eliza thought she understood that this countryside was haunted, by the bitterness, by the sorrow, by the suffering that went into its making. The same men who were forced to drain it lost their way of life while they did it. They had not benefited from the change. No one had given them a piece of land to grow crops and feed their families. Was it possible that the land itself was furious, as those men might have been?
The scientist in her was recounting the missing birds, the spring that didn’t want to come. It had begun by mere chance, this exercise in vanishings. She had failed to find the tern, at a time when it should be here. There were other oddities: lack of some insects, strange pulpy grass, and, worst of all, some places where you could hear no birds at all. Something was going on. She had seen an eerie green light moving over the marshes as well. It seemed that all living creatures were making themselves scarce, getting away from its path; as if they knew that it was an uncanny thing, something that had no business being here… But of course, she insisted to herself, these were only fancies. There must be a scientific explanation, cause and effect, a reason behind those absences, removed from those strange green shades that seemed intent on advancing inland, intent on devouring it all.
Following it, she had got to what she thought was its source, a ruined Tudor manor house by the North Sea. It wasn’t very imposing, but almost cosy and small; nonetheless, Eliza had felt a creeping unhappiness there, as if her life had no meaning somehow, as if she had founded all her beliefs on lies until that moment. There was a white sticky substance floating around the ruin, posing on places where multicoloured fungi sprouted; she did not have a lot of mycological knowledge, and thought of Peter. She would have to ask him. If she ever were to return to the place; for what she had felt, more than anything, was as though an invisible boundary between two places was slowly lifting, and was going to trap her at the wrong side.
She needed to breathe, and had walked around the odd structure, looking for the flat sea. The marshes, the reed swamp, the open water at the end. In a moment, a wrong vista had revealed itself.
The tide had freakishly receded, and the water, distant in a flat, eerily never-ending expanse, was nowhere to be seen. At the end of her vision, the same soft greenish mist, but no clear line where the water and the land touched. The ground itself also seemed to have been taken back by the water, to have sucked itself up and out of place—and then she saw it. Enormous, shining black and green, traversed by unexpected orange streaks, the largest seam of umber green rhyolite, the stone that, she knew, was found in Madagascar, Oceania, the Pyrenees, Germany, Iceland, and in this particular stretch of the coast of East Anglia. A black and green sea of hardened stone, as hard indeed as a witch’s heart.