“Imprisonment was never the real punishment: it was the people you were stuck with.”
The Silent Companions is Laura Purcell’s unnerving tale of Gothic horror that gradually reveals itself over multiple timeframes. The novel opens during an undisclosed year as the main character, Elsie Bainbridge, finds herself imprisoned in an asylum. She is suspected of murder and arson and has lost the ability to speak. Inexplicably, she is also covered with terrible burns.
The Silent Companions then flashes back to 1865, just before Elsie’s imprisonment. Elsie has been left widowed only a short time after her wedding. She is expecting a baby and travels to her late husband’s family estate, the Bridge, where she stays with her younger brother, Jolyon, and her husband’s reticent cousin, Sarah.
While staying at the Bridge, Elsie and Sarah discover a set of silent companions, i.e., cutout wooden boards with realistic paintings of people, also known as “dummy boards.” Silent companions were introduced as an artform in England in the 1600s. A quick Google search of “dummy board” will show you exactly how creepy they look. The silent companions give Elsie and Sarah the impression of being possessed.
Sarah discovers a diary of her ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, from the early 1600s. The diary tells the story of Anne’s daughter, Hetta. After having only sons, Anne wished for a daughter and apparently brought Hetta into the world through herbal witchcraft. But something went terribly wrong, and Hetta’s tongue never developed enough to allow her to speak. Hetta is strangely drawn to the group of silent companions brought into the house by Anne, and a series of gruesome events soon follows.
The Silent Companions continues along the three timelines of Anne and Hetta in the 1600s, Elsie and Sarah at the Bridge in 1865, and Elsie at the asylum. The Silent Companions is brilliantly crafted for maximum suspense as Elsie tries to understand what happened to herself and to her deceased husband, and to uncover the source of evil infecting his estate. But to understand these mysteries, Elsie must also come to terms with her own haunted past.
All of this leads up to a perfectly crafted climax, until the final word of The Silent Companions drops like a bomb on everything you thought you knew.
The Silent Companions is Laura Purcell’s masterpiece and the original reason I fell in love with Gothic horror. I consider it to be the perfect entry point for readers new to the genre and wanting to give it a try.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.