Horrors both of our own imaginings and of the supernatural come home to roost in Catherine Cavendish’s The Garden of Bewitchment [February 2020, Flame Tree Press].
When the Wainwright sisters move to the country to escape the judgmental eyes of their neighbors—after all, what could be more scandalous than two spinster sisters living alone, unwed, and wealthy in the end of the 19th-century England?—what is meant to be a quiet respite quickly becomes a tale of deadly horror. And it seems to all start with the appearance of a mysterious, eerily sentient toy called the Garden of Bewitchment.
Atmospheric and rich in detail, Cavendish masterfully draws the reader into the slow-burning horror that makes well-crafted Gothic literature so delightfully addictive. It all starts with tension between sisters. Identical twins Evelyn and Claire might share the same physical characteristics, but they exist in almost two completely different worlds. Evelyn is pragmatic and responsible, Claire unkempt and somewhat unhinged, infatuated with Branwell Brontë, who although deceased is very real in Claire’s mind—and her heart. The one thing the sisters do share: Calladocia.
Like the Brontë sisters, the Wainwrights are writing a novel about Calladocia, a universe of their own creation. Their existence at opposite ends of this imaginary world provides an unsettling allegory for the widening gap between the sisters as Cavendish’s story unfolds, pulling the sisters apart with it. When a strange toy featuring a miniature mansion surrounded by a beautiful garden, the Garden of Bewitchment, appears in their cottage, the boundary between the real and the imaged begins to crumble. As the separation between reality and the nightmare the sisters have found themselves trapped in becomes ever-frightening, Evelyn and Claire are forced to try to sort out which of the horrors are consequences of the toy’s unnerving influence, and which might be of their own making. No one—and nothing—is as it seems in The Garden of Bewitchment.
Though at time the pacing seems a little uneven, The Garden of Bewitchment delivers as a gothic tale of unexpected horror, unraveling insanity, and what happens when the realities we’ve constructed for ourselves turn against us.