I’ve had The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine sitting on my unread shelves for a while and when the R.I.P. IX Challenge came up I thought it would be a good book to include in the challenge, because the cover blurbs describe it as a ‘horrifying mystery’, ‘chilling’ and with a ‘horrible climax’.
Jenny Warner is a carer at a retirement home, Middleton Hall where she meets Stella Newland, who is dying of lung cancer. At first Stella never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know.
Their stories intertwine, some narrated by Jenny and some by Stella as she records events in her life on a tape recorder which she leaves to Jenny. They have more in common than Jenny initially thought and as Stella slowly reveals her past the tension in the book begins to mount.
The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. The description of the house is superb, set in an overgrown garden, with clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, food and champagne still sitting in the fridge and a red Ford Anglia locked in the garage. It’s all very subtle at first with tantalising hints about what had really happened in Stella’s past, but the full horror is left to the end, which by that time I was itching to find out if it was what I suspected it was. I was not disappointed; it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad.
Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, nothing is left out but there are no superfluous characters or sub-plots. Everything ties in well and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. It is indeed a ‘chilling’ book. It’s about love, hate and indifference, about relationships between couples and families, and about obsession, deceit and betrayal.
Here are just a few quotations that I noted as I read. The opening sentences, set the scene and illustrate Jenny’s superstitious nature. Throughout the book there are numerous examples of her beliefs:
The clothes of the dead don’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she had. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she’d never known anyone as superstitious as me. (page 3)
When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them. (page 17)
She is also aware of ill omens – a bird dying in your hand means your hands will shake for ever, it also means a death in the family and red and white flowers mixed are the worst possible omen at a funeral meaning there will be another death. I was wondering what significance the title has: Jenny has been married for thirteen years, which according to her mother is a ‘Brimstone Wedding’ anniversary. Jenny thinks:
Maybe because it’s explosive or because it’s hard and dark like a burning stone, which is what brimstone means. (page 231)
I think The Brimstone Wedding is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. It certainly qualifies not only for the R.I.P. Challenge, but also for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014 and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.