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Falling Creatures

March 9, 2023

Falling Creatures, by Katherine Stansfield, has the atmosphere of a fairy tale, the period detail of a historical novel, and a mystery that will keep you reading to find out who done it. Based on actual events, the novel is set in Cornwall in 1844. I got interested in the novel from reading about Stansfield, who grew up in Cornwall, at Booker Talk.

The way the tale begins reminds me of a fairy tale: “Charlotte Dymond gifted me blood-heat on the day we met. She took it from another living creature without any cutting. She carried no knife that I saw. She didn’t need such a tool. Her workings were in her hands.” The first-person narrator goes into service with Charlotte, both of them working for Mrs. Peter at a farmhouse. Because on her first day she doesn’t wake up before dawn, they tell her “no shilly-shallying” and call her “Shilly” for short.

Shilly believes that Charlotte can cast spells, and she certainly casts one on Shilly, along with most of the men she meets. Shilly says “I felt like the whole world was mine, because she was mine. I knew it” and adds “I knew what she was too.” Charlotte teaches Shilly some of her charms and protections, like how to “weaken the terrible things that were sure to happen once the hay was cut”:
“The thorn tree would help us because it was a tree of protection. She told me to pick its leaves and as I did so I must think about what I asked of it because that would make the charm stronger. We steeped the leaves in water from the well to make a wash, using one of the dairying pails. When it was ready Charlotte bade me walk the field’s walls and rain the wash on them, as if my hands were clouds. St. Michael ran ahead of me through the long grass to show me my path.
Then she bade me cut ragwort from the Mowhay’s hedges. It was a plant of safety, she said. She asked the well to make the ragwort strong and then bade me set a clump in each corner of the field. St. Michael sat on her shoulder and lastly the three of us walked seven times widdershins round the well, Charlotte counting out loud so we shouldn’t lose our place. On her saying ‘seven’ there came a scream. I clutched her arm and whimpered but she was pleased.
‘A fox,’ she said. ‘The charms have been heard.’”

When Charlotte disappears, everyone is under suspicion, and when her body is found, almost everybody has motives to pin the crime on a scapegoat. The most convenient scapegoat turns out to be a farmhand named Matthew, and once he is charged by the local magistrates, newspapermen begin showing up, some of them from London.

One of the newspapermen, Mr. Williams, teams up with Shilly to try to prove Matthew’s innocence. Mr. Williams has secrets and Shilly has her own secrets; as they learn more about each other and the case, Shilly feels that she is being guided by Charlotte’s ghost to find her killer.

Since Shilly is telling the tale, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not. When she hears about how Charlotte was killed, she imagines the scene so vividly she imagines how it feels:

“I coughed up blood and bile and something else. Something hard and coarse. It ripped my mouth as it left me. A bead from her necklace….’Do you see now what she can do?’ I tried to say, though I didn’t know if I had body left to make words. I held out the bead I had coughed from myself so that he should take it from my blood-wet hands.
‘A stone, Shilly?
….A stone? Why would he not see–?
He was right. My fingers were clutching a small piece of moor stone. My hands and dress were clean of blood. I touched my opened throat. Skin. Smooth and whole.”

The Victorian-era Cornwall dialect gives a distinct flavor to the story; the people talk about “mizzle” and various other kinds of “dirty weather,” meaning different kinds of rain and wind. When Shilly sees someone crying she calls it “scritching.” When they offer each other tea, it’s a “dish” of tea.

Shilly gets the murderer to confess by convincing him that Charlotte’s ghost is in the room, coaxing him to relate the whole story of how she was killed by telling him “Charlotte wants you to say it.” The murderer confuses Shilly with Charlotte, looking at the living woman while apparently talking to the ghost.

At the end of the novel, we learn Shilly’s real name, and it makes certain little fuzzy edges of the picture snap into sharp focus. It’s a well-told tale, and a captivating one.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2023 11:23 am

    This sounds distinctive and atmospheric, an author worth seeking out. Thanks for the review.

  2. March 14, 2023 6:54 am

    Ooh this does sound really fun! I’m not typically a big historical fiction reader, but you’re making it sound tres alluring. 😀

    • March 14, 2023 9:33 am

      I don’t read much historical fiction unless it’s about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but I did enjoy this one and think you probably will too.

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