Like a white bird, the scream flew up from the depths of the cellar, then became trapped inside Marion’s head. As it flapped its wings against the inside of her skull, she wondered how had it got through three floors of the big strong house to her dusty little room in the attic?
Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.
When her older brother, John, has a heart attack, old Marion is forced to go down to the cellar herself and face the gruesome truth that her had kept hidden.
As questions are asked and secrets unravel, maybe John isn’t the only one with a dark side
Marion’s father had been fifty-two when she was born and her mother forty-three. They were the same age as most of her schoolmates’ grandparents, and their lives had the sepia tinge of a bygone era when people rode penny-farthings and had kitchen maids.
As we enter the story, we get to meet Marion, at first a young girl, plain looking and chubby, who had difficulties fitting in at school due to her eccentric family. When she does get invited to a party, she is ridiculed and not allowed to play with the pet chinchilla. Upon telling her mother the problems she’s encountered, she receives little to no advice and very little affection. Her entire family is cold and unfeeling, and her brother John sounds like a buddying psychopath. He goes and kills the chinchilla and spreads its fur across the windshield of the people who had the birthday party.
Later on, the girl who made fun of Marion is found wounded in a ditch after someone had thrown stones at her while she was cycling.
In her older years, Marion watches as her house falls into a state of disrepair. She is unable (or unwilling) to clean up after herself and is so panicky about the outside world that she keeps every advert and flyer passed through her mailbox.
As she crossed the kitchen, dark fluff and grime filling the gap between the sink and the refrigerator caught her eye, making her think of hairy armpits. She really ought to do some cleaning when she got back, but there was so much that needed doing, where to start? Why pick one place rather than another? The bathroom tiles were all black around the edges, dust balls got fat beneath the beds, and each room was filled with so much junk and clutter that it was hard to cross the floor without tripping.
We get to meet her brother, John, a fat, balding man who spends most of his mornings in the cellar with “the visitors”. Marion sees everything – a scratched inner wrist, the way that John prepares mini-sandwiches for the people down there and she wants to know nothing of it.
As John reached for the salt, the round scar on his wrist caught her eye and she noticed it was made up of several little red lines, were those teeth marks? Had one of them bitten him? What terrible circumstances might have led to such a thing happening? A picture of John down in the cellar with them flashed into her head, but she refused to let it stay for more than a second. No, I’m being silly, it’s just his eczema flaring up again, I must get him some cream, she told herself.
As I kept reading, I thought John must be some obsessed serial killer and I wasn’t far off. He vacillates between syrupy concern for Marion and lashing out at her in anger over trivialities. But what makes him special, he’s a smart one. But he does not kill his visitors, he simply finds vulnerable young women from Eastern European countries and promises them a job in England as maids and a potential romantic relationship with a make-believe guy called “Anthony”. “Anthony” does not exist. The pictures of this man are from an old Facebook profile from one of John’s former schoolmates. He literally catfishes women off the internet and then locks them in his cellar for his own personal pleasure and entertainment. They never see the light of day and they are chained to the wall. One of them gives birth down there but the baby dies shortly after.
Marion is willingly clueless about all of this and does nothing, leaving her brother with all of the responsibilities.
“It had to be done, to win the war.” John patted the box affectionately. “ People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf . George Orwell said that, Marion,” he said, wagging a thick, red finger for emphasis.
“It never ceases to amaze me the things you know, John.”
My question is: Who’s the actual baddie here? I would have thought John as he’s a kidnapper and a rapist. But isn’t Marion to blame too? The book feels like a mashup between Psycho and Bates Motel set in modern times. The flyers advertise broadband and double-glazing. There is internet. It’s a gothic novel, with gothic characters, set in the present day England.
Once I started reading, I was utterly transfixed by the character of Marion. The story is told from her P.O.V. and she is a very unreliable narrator. She forgets things. She is agoraphobic to a point similar to the women in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
And because she did not do anything or take any risks or has gotten out of the house (except for shopping), Marion has become a little mad. She’s a virgin in her 50’s and her entire love life can be summed up to a guy who gave her biscuits when she was 14.
She had always been plain, but now she was old and plain; it seemed doubly unfair to have aged prematurely when so little had happened to her. How had she got worn out so quickly? She felt like a little girl inside, and yet she was an old woman on the surface, an old woman with the experience of a child.
At first you feel sorry for Marion, especially in childhood flashbacks which show the cruelty she endured at the hands of her peers and the neglect and coldness from her parents, but then you realise she has become a monster too. When she went to a show featuring a psychic reading, he yells at her from the stage:
“You are the kind of evil that comes from nothing, from neglect and loneliness. You are like mold that grows in damp dark places, black dirt gathered in corners, a fatal infection that begins with a speck of dirt in an unwashed wound.”
I was a bit taken aback as these shows are known to be hoaxes but the host hit the nail on the head with Marion. Or maybe Marion misheard him? Maybe she heard him say the actual truth because she was aware of it like she was aware of the fact that she and her brother were doing something bad?
Marion lay awake all night, imagining stories on the news about a middle-aged brother and sister luring young foreign women to England then imprisoning them in a cellar. She heard Mother’s voice in her head:
No one cares about these girls. They’ve got nothing. That is why they come to this country. John can help the poor unfortunate things. He can give them an education and protect them from the evil men who want to use them.
But what about their families? she wondered. Someone must miss them and wonder what happens to them?
Their families don’t want them, no one does , replied Mother. Think how lucky you are, Marion, to have been born in England to a good family who took care of you. To have a decent home and financial security.
When John has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital where he is slowly undergoing a slow recovery, Marion is forced to stand on her own two feet and take care of the visitors herself. She is forced to take action and she is upset from being taken out of her comfort zone. When she was lost in the Hospital, it felt like she was explaining Schrodinger’s theory:
As long as I can’t find out where he is, then no one can tell me he has died. So if I stay lost, he will live, Marion thought. Then Mother’s voice scolded her for being so silly. He’s your brother, Marion. He needs you. You have to find him. He is depending on you.
And I think this is where the issue was with Marion. She didn’t have anyone that needed her as a primary care giver. She had the neighbour’s daughter in her care (due to terrible parenting on the neighbour’s side) and only for her she steps up and cleans and goes shopping. Now that John was incapacitated, she needs to go and deal with the Visitors.
When she sees the squalor they live in, she wants to back out.
Marion took a deep breath. “I want to help, of course. But the situation—really, it is very complicated—you see. I have to think things over—to decide what is best—really, I don’t know—” Marion picked up the gag and went to put it back on Sonya.
Marion is a really terrible person. Even faced with the truth of her brother’s actions, she is incapable of calling the police or letting the girls go as this would be an inconvenience to her life. She ends up killing one with a chair and letting the other one starve chained to the wall.
“But I didn’t bring them here. You did. They are nothing to do with me. If they die, it won’t be my fault.”
“It couldn’t be avoided; what happened simply couldn’t be avoided,” until eventually the voice dimmed and faded away altogether. For the first time in her life she slept alone in the house, yet instead of feeling afraid, she was overcome with a sense of relief, as though an abscess, after troubling her for years, had at last been drained.
This is definitely a must-read for horror fans and it manages to grip you from the first few pages until the horrific ending. I’m not going to spoil it but I will definitely tell you it has some dark humour in it.