Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
A ghost is to horror like a knight is to fantasy. It isn’t required of the genre, but it is fundamental. The first thing that comes to mind when speaking of horror is the ghost story. The roots of these stories intertwine with folk tales and legends as old as the earth itself. However, their height in popularity appears to have risen out of the Gothic Literature movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Abbot’s Keep, by Benedict Ashforth, is a 21st century ghost story written in the Gothic style. It is an ode to ghost stories of the past, while maintaining a narrative that is accessible to a modern day audience. Many of the aspects of Gothic Literature are present. These include evil clergy, the slow but inevitable decline in one’s fortune, and elements of the grotesque.
Central to any story within the movement is setting. It is often a character unto itself. Here, Abbot’s Keep is a 16th century house built adjacent to an abandoned monastery. Wrecked by fire in the early 20th century and all but forgotten, the English wilds have begun to reclaim it.
It is to this locale that Simon Fox is invited by an old acquaintance, Alexander Everett-Heath. A failed architect and recovering alcoholic just out of rehab, Fox really has no other place to go. His wife has abandoned him and his brother has disowned him. Heath is all he has.
Hence, Simon Fox travels to Abbot’s Keep. It is there that he is propositioned by his old friend. Rumors of gold hoarded by long dead monks abound. Heath implores Fox to search for it and watch his house while he is on holiday. Fox agrees, but finds the task to be a daunting one. He struggles to come to terms with both his own failures and the ghosts of the past which surround him at Abbot’s Keep.
The narrative is told through a series of letters written by the various characters in the story. Each of the actors is fully developed and speaks with a voice all their own. Dates on the letters place the series of events in the early 1980s. It is a time before the advent of cell phones and email. This allows for a familiar setting to the present day reader, while affording Ashforth the means to maintain the epistolary format made so famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula. He needn’t explain away why certain technologies are not used, because they simply do not exist yet.
At only 125 pages in length, Abbot’s Keep is more of a novella than a novel. As with traditional Gothic Literature, horror elements in the novella are subtle. There is no shock or gore, but rather a slow building dread. Yet, the pacing is perfect. It allows for a quick read that never fails to capture the reader’s attention.
Abbot’s Keep is highly recommended for fans of Gothic Horror. Ashforth does Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker proud delivering a solid contribution to the literary movement. It is time that the ghost story made a comeback. With writers like Benedict Ashforth writing Abbot’s Keep, a revival just might be at hand.