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The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Bloomsbury USA Children's Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781599907451
Date: 31 January 2012 List Price $16.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Blog / Show Official Info /

Michael Vyner has just been orphaned by the death of his beloved mom. He is forced to live with his new guardian, Sir Stephen Clarendon, who is indebted to him; during the Afghanistan war, Michael's father sacrificed his life in order to save Sir Stephen. Unfortunately, the mentally ill Sir Stephen resides in an ancient, secluded, castle-like mansion, Hawton Mere, which was built in the Middle Ages. Soon after his arrival, Michael discovers that Hawton Mere is haunted by several ghosts. One of them is of a young woman who was murdered. Michael must find her killer before he becomes the next one to die.

Chris Priestley's Dead of Winter is an old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of suspense and mystery. Michael Vyner, who is now grown, is writing his account of the events that transpired while he was living at Hawton Mere during the Christmas holidays. Dead of Winter is written in the vein of Henry James's classic The Turn of the Screw in which a young governess narrates her ghostly experiences while taking care of two young children. Reading Dead of Winter also brought back fond memories of reading Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Both novels involve mental instability following the death of a loved one. I daresay, this YA novel also reminded me of my beloved gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, and the movies that it spawned: House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows.

Anyone who knows me can testify that I have a craving for horror/mystery novels and films that are set during the holidays, especially Christmas. (There is a perverse irony when a killer is stalking his/her victims during what is supposed to be a beautiful, celebratory occasion.) Ancient Hawton Mere, with its hidden passages, spiral staircases, maze of abandoned rooms and forbidden towers, is covered with snow and surrounded by marshland. The Christmas festivities attempt to add warmth to a chilly, winter environment but fail because of the suffocating presence of evilness that permeates every corner of the gloomy mansion--an evilness that is derived from specter and human alike.

A creepy blend of Gothic horror and historical mystery, Chris Priestley's Dead of Winter will garner many fans of all ages. (I didn't find anything objectionable for its targeted YA audience.) It is the type of novel that one will be tempted to read at night in one sitting. In fact, I lost sleep reading this one; my eagerness to learn the killer's identity kept me turning pages until late at night. After reading Dead of Winter, I'm now tempted to read Priestley's previous novel, Mister Creecher, another Gothic horror novel set in Victorian England.

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