A ghostly tale of ancient evil
Artwork: Enrique Meseguer, Pixabay
Ghost story Langley Hall is a tribute to the writings of MR James and Daphne du Maurier, seeking to combine the classic ingredients of MR James and the romantic, intense style of Du Maurier. I’ve given the novel a modern setting but created a sense of isolation evoking the 1930’s. Our heroine Laura has her own demons to battle alongside the perils of Langley Hall as she strives to uncover its dark secret.
Reading the will
23-year-old orphan Laura Mortlock is in a mess. For one thing, she’s just killed her minder, Alex Abramov, with a bottle of Smirnoff. She’s on the wagon and mostly staying there. And now she’s going to inherit. Not much, obviously. Maybe enough for a little house with a garden. A place of her own where the neighbours will never guess about her past, and no one might recognise her. Somewhere she can be happy and secure and hold down a job. Maybe one day have a family of her own, if she doesn’t spend 10 years in Styal Prison. Laura will be correct about one of her wishes. Dead wrong about the others.
The letter comes from a firm of solicitors in Buckfastleigh, Devon, England.
‘You are invited to the reading of Virginia Mortlock’s last will and testament, where you will learn something to your advantage. It is a condition of the will that you must be in the dining room of Langley Hall at noon on Saturday, October 5. Your travel and subsistence costs will be reimbursed.
Langley Hall, Gibbet Coombe, Holne, Buckfastleigh’
Laura wipes her fingerprints before driving from Manchester in her rusting Renault, praying it won’t die on her, obsessing about police cars. Several hours later, Laura sees Langley Hall for the first time. The place is a vast rambling maze, like something from a horror movie. When she enters, Laura senses the house does not want her, but something compels her to stay and she needs a place to lie low, even if its a country mansion.
Also present for the reading are ancient and formidable Peggy Joint and randy gardener son Joe, dour housekeeper Mrs Jezebel Gibby, and a second cousin named Michael Handley, a retired teacher and historian from Totnes. The reading is about to commence and the dining room doors are being locked when there’s a late arrival. Laura discovers she has a cousin named Miranda Bale, a young and beautiful aspiring actress. At the reading, Laura is stunned to discover that the reclusive Virginia was her aunt, and she is the new owner of Langley Hall.
About Langley Hall
Langley is a gaunt, rambling 17th century mansion built in the shadow of Holne Moor from slave money, located on the eastern slopes of Dartmoor. The walls are covered with moss and all feels damp. There’s no heating other than draughty fireplaces and a vast ancient Aga range in the enormous kitchen. The eastern wing of the building remains derelict following a fire in the mid-18th century, and the staircase has been blocked off.
When Laura asks about the fire, Peggy tells that it was used to house sick children and the fire was believed to be a holy cleansing. A disused quarry lies half a mile from the hall. The dead children were buried there under the instruction of Sir John Mortlock and Anne Harvey on their return from San Domingue, on Hispaniola. There was great scandal when Anne Harvey moved into the hall, and there were rumours of a child. During Laura’s first night in Langley Hall, she dreams she’s on a slaver’s ship and witnesses terrible things.
Strange events at Langley Hall
Determined to succeed with her new life and forget recent events, Laura adopts a new identity and takes a temporary job in the local library. The initial feeling of hostility has gone, and at first, she’s very happy in the great house, although she misses James more than she realised. She becomes friends with Miranda, who overcomes her initial resentment and agrees to stay. In time, Laura feels she can confide in her new companion, the closest she has experienced to a family of her own. However, Miranda also has a secret she will not share.
Whilst Miranda is away chasing work in London, a series of strange events drives Laura back to her old addictions. A pale rectangle on the wall of the dining room defies redecorating and keeps returning, and she imagines herself in the missing painting. A disturbing incident involving rooks in the chimney leave her shaken. Laura alone sees a man and a woman gazing down from an upstairs window in the fire-damaged wing, and Mrs Gibby is a glowering presence. Worst of all, the man she killed is back.
Laura calls the police, saying she’s worried about intruders. Detective Sergeant Harry Smith visits and listens to her fears. Harry is an experienced detective in his mid-thirties, previously with the Met serious crimes division before the accident. He takes Laura seriously and tells her to call anytime, giving her his card. Laura does call him and they have coffee together. Harry is a troubled man with issues to resolve, but she likes him and she wants to know if anyone has asked about her. They haven’t.
Laura has another dream – this time about an outbreak of typhus fever. She is helping care for the children in the west wing of the hall, but she witnesses cruelty and sacrifice.
Laura falls in love
Laura meets David Vincent in the library, a film producer undertaking local research for a new project. The mutual attraction is instant, and she embarks on an affair with David. James phones. He tells Laura that he loves her, but she doesn’t want to lose him as a friend. She tells him about David, and he warns her to be careful. They argue and she tells James not to call again.
Later, David tells Laura he’s separated from his wife, and she’s happy to believe him. He wants to move into Langley with her, but Laura has learned not to trust people. Finally she agrees, but David must return to London, promising to return if she needs him. He later calls and sounds very distressed. He tells Laura his wife has died, and he must stay in London for the inquest.
There’s no mobile signal or Internet access. Strange events continue and Laura’s only solace is the companionship of a ten-year-old girl from the village, called Charlie. She likes to play in the orchard and reminds Laura of what a happy childhood should be like.
On the evening of November 12th, local villagers perform the Scowaging, a local ritual to drive out evil and bless the cider making. Laura watches as the flaming torches approach through the mists. The villagers wear bizarre headdresses with antlers, and clothes of fur and feathers. Morris Men with blue faces dance and caper as the two effigies burn outside the gates.
David does not call, and Laura has another frightening experience as she hears a small child sobbing in the night. The sound seems to be coming from the door to the east wing. She asks Mrs Gibby the housekeeper, who relates that old houses contain many secrets. She also explains that the burned effigies represent Sir John Mortlock and Anne Harvey, a local witch. Both were fround guilty of murdering his wife in 1752 and sentenced to death by fire, despite Sir John’s power and influence. For the next few years, apples failed to grow and dropped from the trees, and a measles outbreak killed many children.
Laura visits the old orchard in search of Charlie but she doesn’t come. She finds a grave covered by bindweed, and a large black stone resting upon it. She moves the stone to read the engraving, but the letters have weathered off. Laura asks Peggy’s son to clear away the weeds, but he refuses. Later, Peggy finds her and tells her not to go to the old orchard. As Laura’s nerves fray, she searches for the drugs that Miranda left behind, finding a witch’s doll hidden in the chimney, and other manifestations follow. It becomes clear to others that she’s unstable and needs help.
In Laura’s third dream, she is trying to escape from Langley, pursued by Sir John and his hounds, but runs into Anne Harvey who has spun a giant web to capture her.
The truth will out
On David’s return from London, he’s not alone. He wants to re-enact the story of the hall and has given the leading role to Miranda. He’s invited her to stay at the hall to familiarise herself. Laura’s angry at David for not asking her. Laura detects hostility from Miranda, but David reassures her. Laura’s in trouble, and Miranda has brought cocaine with her this time. David arranges a dinner party, inviting all who were present at the reading of the will. During the dinner, David proposes to Laura and she gladly accepts. She realises her fears were groundless and she will be safe with him.
After several happy weeks, they marry in the old chapel in the west wing. Laura has managed to conceal her continuing addiction from David, believing her marriage will provide the stability she craves. Miranda continues to be a good friend, keeping her supplied whilst promising to help get her clean. The continuing deception takes its toll as Miranda and David spend time together with the new play, although he seems attentive, he is also troubled.
Michael Handley tells Laura he has something important to tell her in confidence. She arranges to meet him in Scorriton a week later. Michael crosses the road towards her but is hit by a black car, which fails to stop. As he dies, he gives her the papers he was carrying. She’s able to read them the next day, after giving her witness statement to Harry Smith. The papers concern the history of the great house and the curse laid by Anne Harvey, that the past would endlessly repeat on those living in Mortlock Hall.
Laura takes the papers to the old orchard. She learns how the murder of Sir John’s wife Hannah was witnessed by a local teacher as she was hurled into the quarry during a great storm. Their later executions are described in detail. Sir John was burned, but he was stabbed in the neck first to hasten his end. Anne was burned slowly and then decapitated to prevent her return. Their illegitimate child Charlotte was given away to a woman in the village to raise, in return for a small dowry. The body of Sir John was buried in the old Orchard, following the terms of his will. There was no mention of where Anne was buried. Harry finds Laura in the orchard and asks to read the papers. He doesn’t believe in the occult but he does believe in murder, and warns her again before he leaves.
Laura hears Charlie singing and soon after, the girl appears. She seems sad and tells Laura she won’t be able to play with her again. Laura now believes the girl she has befriended is Charlotte, and fears for her sanity as Charlie warns she’s in danger. A storm is coming, and the sky is blackening.
Laura returns to the hall as the storm breaks, needing to speak to David. The housekeeper opens the door. As Laura enters, she’s struck on the head and falls. When she recovers, it’s dark and she is in the boot of a car. She hears voices and realises that David and Miranda are changed. The car stops and David opens the boot. Laura is pulled out and realises they are not far from the edge of the old quarry, parked below one of the electricity pylons. Mrs Gippy is sitting in the car, watching them as Miranda beats Laura with the tyre iron, until David manages to stop her.
Miranda tells Laura that everyone knows about her drug problems and depression, and how she’s been obsessed with the dark history of the hall. It’s clear that Miranda is Anne Harvey, and David is John Mortlock. David hesitates as Miranda drags Laura towards the edge. They freeze as a girl screams out. Laura sees Charlie standing in the rain with her arms raised as lightning strikes the pylon in a shower of sparks. A cable breaks loose and the end stabs David in the neck before he bursts into flames. The cable catches Miranda and she is enveloped in fire as she tries to get into the car. The live cable buries itself in the petrol tank as Harry appears, dragging Laura away. The car erupts and Miranda’s charred head lands in front of Laura as she staggers and falls.
Several weeks pass before Laura can speak to the police about the accident. She learns that Harry is hospital with burns, but does not go to see him. Peggy Joint has moved into the house at Laura’s invitation and is helping her recover. Laura finds the missing painting of Sir John, Hannah and Anne Harvey, who is standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Peggy takes her to the old orchard where she tells Laura that Charlotte won’t be returning and the curse has ended. She shows Laura the grave where Sir John Mortlock and Anne Harvey were buried together. The black stone is back in place and Peggy insists it must always remain as it’s a devil stone, keeping evil spirits at bay. When Peggy asks what she intends to do with Langley Hall, Laura replies it will become a wedding venue.