“By candlelight it was all different”: Extract from Bitterhall by Helen McClory

  24 Oct '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Bitterhall by Helen McClory is a haunting gothic novel that is breathtakingly ambitious in scope, questioning the notion of objective reality and authenticity with mesmerising writing. McClory has been described by Ali Smith as ‘a writer completely unafraid’ and her writing as ‘shiny dark licorice mind candy’ by Margaret Atwood. An inter-war themed Hallowe’en party is at the heart of the book, leading to a longed-for sexual encounter, a betrayal, and a reality-destroying moment of possession. What more could you ask for this Hallowe’en? Get a taste of Bitterhall in our excerpt below.

Extract from Bitterhall by Helen McClory

It was later.

I perched on the great central wooden stairs, watching the drift of people around the features of the house I knew so well. By candlelight it was all different, by Hallowe’en graces it was too, the veil thinning, but not at its thinnest yet, too many people milling, too much braying and the smallest, most soothing small talk going about in the air as if they needed cushioning, as if they knew what was coming, soon. I had been drinking steadily but my mouth was always dry. I had vanished, I had let the night strip away the others and time in the way parties could, a little mournful before it had already ended. Órla caught sight of me and handed me something dark bronze in a glass, and sat on my step, arranging herself carefully, the staircase wide enough that there was a lot of space between us. Through the stairs, the floor below. It was dim, with slants of light.

‘Shh,’ she said, and so I was quiet.

Then she said, ‘How old are you?’

Startled, I said, ‘Tinder age, or real age?’

‘Tinder? Old school. You’ve never been on Tinder in your life.’

‘I have, you know. Once. It was intimidating.’

‘I’ll bet,’ she said, lying.

‘I’m thirty-six,’ I said, ‘same age as Mark.’

‘No way! You don’t look it,’ she said, ‘no grey at all, and you don’t have the kind of – the kind of look people have. Old and tired like. You look young.’

‘Wow,’ I said.

‘I’m twenty-eight. Sorry.’

‘My anxiety makes me look younger I think. Don’t apologise for not having existed as long as me.’ I looked down at my drink. I was holding it strangely, at an angle. The darkness on the stairs made my hand seem alien. I wondered if I might ever see Tom again. You will, I told myself, what a thing to think. Morbid. He’s probably in the kitchen, Mark’s probably clapping him on the back. Contacts everywhere. Or telling him – no, I wouldn’t believe Mark was telling Tom.

‘Can you tell me something else, about yourself?’ asked Órla.

I got myself more comfortably situated. I looked up at the ceiling.

‘I’ve been coming to this house for thirty years and I always love it. There’s always something new to find. Mr MacAshfall was a collector of antique books. When he died Mrs MacAshfall sold most of them off, but there are boxes in the attic that have treasure in them. Gilt-edged books, singular editions, personal memoirs, hand written, letterplates of extinct birds.’

‘I suppose that tells me something about you,’ said Órla.

‘I could tell you more personal things,’ I said, ‘but I’m not nearly drunk enough.’

‘Let’s sort that,’ she said, and pulled herself up, bringing back from the kitchen a whole bottle of bourbon, and sloshed out two glasses full.

‘Loose lips sink ships,’ I said.

‘They don’t tonight. Early nineteen-thirties, everything still to be lost.’ She said.

And sipped, and waited.

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