Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Story Review - Tasha Alexander's That Silent Night

That Silent Night by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: October 20th, 2015
Format: Kindle, 63 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Colin and Emily have fled to town to run a few last minute Christmas errands and to avoid their neighbors. It's not that they haven't enjoyed the festivities at Montague Manor, though Colin did refer to them as The Festival of Horror, there just comes a time when enough is enough. For Colin that point was reached at the proposed daylong charades tournament that would include the entire population of a neighboring village. Therefore they are ensconced in their Park Lane house while the snow blankets the city ignorant to the fact that a different set of neighbors is about to cause them a bit of a bother. While Colin finishes some work for the Palace Emily finishes a chapter in the newest Elizabeth Mary Braddon book and looks out the library window to see the most astonishing sight. A woman has appeared out of nowhere and all the warmth of Emily's cozy library has vanished. The woman's clothes are out of date but more disturbingly she had no coat. On such a cold night Emily knew she must help and rushed out into the swirling snow to find no trace of the woman. Not even a footprint. Colin claims that this is what happens from reading sensationalist literature but Emily is convinced otherwise. The next morning their new neighbors, the newly wed Leightons, ask if they can borrow some coal as the delivery vehicles can not come through. Emily and Colin gladly offer up the coal as well as an invitation to dinner. Mrs. Leighton shares a strong resemblance to the lady Emily saw in the street, but tries to brush it off. But when she finds out the young newlyweds have returned from Switzerland where Penelope was taking a cure for her nerves... could it be the young bride is connected to the disturbing sight that Emily saw? And can Emily help her before Penelope is beyond hope and committed?

As I sat down to read That Silent Night there was a bite in the air and the first hint of snow was forecast. In other words, I had circumstances align perfectly to read this tale. Unlike Tasha's previous holiday offering, Star of the East, which went for the more Agatha Christie tradition of all the suspects snowbound in a manor house, here she went for the more ghostly Christmas narrative. Because while Dickens popularized and in some ways standardized this tradition of ghostly tales told around the fire with A Christmas Carol, he didn't start this tradition which goes all the way back to Shakespeare. Just think of some of the most famous ghost stories of all from The Turn of the Screw to The Woman in Black. These stories are framed by people sitting around a fire and trying to scare each other with tales of the otherworldly and supernatural while Christmas Day draws ever nearer. In fact an article that resurfaced this past weekend from last year, "A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghostly Tales," is something I couldn't agree with more after reading That Silent Night. Tasha taps into this tradition and delivers what I easily believe to be a true holiday classic deserving to be read on Christmas Eve that while a part of the overall series can easily be read by anyone unfamiliar with the exploits of Emily and her husband Colin. Over the course of her two Christmas novellas Tasha has written almost pastiches of Wilkie Collins's work, moving from The Moonstone to The Woman in White. But it's the atmosphere of Collins's The Woman in White that makes it a perfect augmentation to this tale. There's more ambiguity, more mystery, and definitely a supernatural bent. That in fact is why I love this tale so much. Tasha doesn't discount the supernatural. She leaves us with ambiguity.

Yet with all the Wilkie of this story in the end it comes down to the Dickens of it all. Not just because Colin is bemoaning Dickens and the pestilential carolers but because That Silent Night couples the ghostly Christmas tale with a social conscience. Dickens strongly believed in showing us the worst of humanity not just to make us feel better but in order to educate us so that we can help others. Christmas might be a time for spooky stories but it is also a time for giving. And not just giving thanks. Emily's social conscience has evolved over the course of the series with many worthy causes being taken up, from suffrage to the plight of the factory worker to female education reform to name a few. Here we see a world of suffering most strongly connected to Dickens, that of orphanages. Through the course of Emily and Colin's investigations into Penelope's past and the ghostly form appearing in Park Lane they end up at an orphanage that Emily says is bleaker than even Dickens could write. The reality of what an orphanage is like, especially during the Victorian era, is terrifying. While the man in charge of running the establishment admits it lacks a certain warmth and holiday cheer he says the sad truth, that at least it's better for the kids than being out on the streets. But it also shows how easy it was for someone to fall through the cracks. In the 1800s, in fact any time before people's identities were so closely monitored and enforced through identification cards and passports and online profiles, you could literally just disappear. You could be lost to this other world of poverty and despair. But in true Dickensian spirit, while we might wallow in misery for a short time, in the end we get our happily ever after. It wouldn't be Christmas if the cockles of our hearts weren't warmed in the end.


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