I’d read a number of Philip Hemplow’s previous novels before now, notably The Innsmouth Syndrome and Sarcophagus and I’d enjoyed both of those works, as they take well-traversed Lovecraftian paths and twist them subtly to work in a contemporary setting. As Hemplow’s work has progressed over time, it’s been pleasing to note that the subtlety of the Mythos overlay has been even more deftly employed in later works. Which brings us to Ashes.
This is the author’s most recent work and it’s a very effective modern-day supernatural chiller, with historical threads, set in and around the Yorkshire Moors; the historical aspect comes from a callback to Elizabethan times thanks to the device of an centuries old, age-damaged diary found at the heart of the broken 16th Century house around which the story revolves.
The novel has shades of Lovecraft too, it seems, but those shadows form so faint a skein over the proceedings that they’re barely there at all and don’t intrude on the narrative or overstay their welcome. For those who know something about Carcosa, there will be that added frisson of recognition and excitement, but unlike some Lovecraft-inspired fiction, you don’t need to be steeped in the work of the Old Gentleman, and his admirers and imitators, to get the most from the novel. What is there adds piquant flavour to an already good story and perhaps the names to invoke here should be Bierce and Chambers; only distantly, through the lens of the centuries, do we catch a glimpse of that place where the black stars hang.
The principal characters are women (as they are in the other two books mentioned above), and they come across convincingly on the page. For reasons that become clear early on, the main protagonist, Patricia, is not a particularly likeable person and the author captures her mounting anxiety rather well as the story progresses.
The numerous excerpts from the Elizabethan diary add a layer of authenticity to parts of the story which could easily have fallen flat if not handled properly. But handled appropriately they are: the story is well-paced and Hemplow keeps the tension running high right up to the rather startling conclusion. Granted it’s perhaps a little obvious what is going to happen in the end (at least in part), but Ashes is a taut, well-written and highly entertaining short novel – I read it quickly (in the course of two or three days) and with real zest to learn how the story would conclude. With its focus on the razed Gaunt House, soon to arise from the titular ashes as the sympathetically restored Phoenix House, the book is, in a sense, a haunted house tale but that would be to read it too narrowly, I think. It’s much more than that and I’d encourage you to seek it out if you like deftly-handled modern tales of subtle horror.