BLOOD HARVEST: S. J. BOLTON
I have to confess I’d never heard of S.J. Bolton before now. The piece below was almost totally written before I read the author’s notes on her website about writing the book. My conclusions were actually borne out by her comments.
It will probably come as no surprise that I liked the book – a lot. In part it was because it was set in the area of England where I grew up – indeed there are references to the market in the small town where I lived – Rawtenstall – and the story is rich in the atmospherics of the curious rural/urban setting of the Lancashire/Yorkshire borders. The author is from the area, though is a bit coy about specifying exactly where.
I read the book at a setting, and enjoyed it so much that I took out and read her two previous books, Sacrifice and Awakening. All three books have certain similarities of style and content, and frankly I think this one is the best of the three – it’s more controlled and slightly more believable and with fewer loose ends. Sacrifice, for example, set in the Shetlands, features a cult carrying out savage and ritualistic killings; the book ends without any explanation of the how and the why of the ritual. Awakening , set in Dorset, features deadly poisonous snakes, though it is memorable for another reason- an Elmer Gantry, Ian Paisley style Pentecostal preacher.
All three share some great descriptive pieces of locations, all have been meticulously researched and all feature as heroes (though perhaps that’s too strong a word) outsiders or loners. There are strong hints that perhaps Ms.Bolton is related to a Cof E clergyman though there are in addition enough references to horse riding and to the activities of a rural vet to point to a personal familiarity with rural life in general. In two of the books also the heroine has a physical disability or deformity. In all three the heroine has a medical qualification.
I wasn’t sure at first whether Blood Harvest was scheduled to have a supernatural element (along the lines of John Connolly) to help the story along. This after encountering the early graveyard settings and the sightings of a mysterious figure. Indeed it could have functioned well as a ghost story, suitably amended. If you google the author, her notes on writing the book bear out her interest in a supernatural thriller as well as acceptance that it was never a runner. She also reveals that the opening incident, of a subsidence adjacent to an old cemetery, beside a new house, was based on an actual event which happened to her sister and family. This gave her the germ of the idea for the story (hence the dedication of the book “To the Coopers”).
She set the story also in a location very close to where she grew up, though calling the village in the book Heptonclough (rather than Heptonstall), a clearly mythical Pennine town fringing one of the moors straddling the Lancashire/ Yorkshire border, not too far from Halifax. Throw in also the gothic setting of a ruined abbey, an accompanying later church and crypts and you have a dual purpose backdrop (a ruined church is central to Awakening also). I would not be surprised were she to try a supernatural thriller before much longer.
The hero is a distinctly unclergy-like clergyman, a Geordie (it’s hard to picture a vicar or priest with a Geordie accent) whose preoccupation seems to be with pursuing the heroine rather than tending to his flock. The heroine is a wheelchair bound psychiatrist with a passion for horse riding. The tragic figure is provided in the first instance by a young woman riven by guilt over the death of her infant child in a fire.
The story includes intriguing references and examples of English rural customs such as the harvest festival , corn dollies, Pennine spirals and the like. The festival unique to the book is the Blood Harvest festival , a late autumn occurrence dating back to times when superfluous livestock were solemnly ritually slaughtered for consumption over the winter. (There’s some interesting stuff in Wikipedia on the various pre-Christian annual festivals – look up Wheel of the Year; cf also references to Bealtaine Lammas and Samhain festivals.)The book features an interesting variant on Bonfire Night (5 November) suggesting that it was in some way an adaptation of the earlier All Souls festival. (Possibly it was – but the fact remains that Guy Fawkes was found in the House of Lords on the night of 4 November)
The body count begins to mount – mostly very young girls, indeed the theme, according to the author, is children in danger. The tale as it eventually unfolds involves incest and pedophilia in an almost droit de seigneur fashion towards young local children by the town’s patriarchal magnate. Interwoven with this is a sad tale of generations of children in the locality suffering from congenital hypothyroidism, a disorder arising from a diet deficient in iodine, which in the case of the townspeople of Heptonclough was attributable to eating locally produced vegetables! Environmentalists take note!
By the end justice has been done, the bad vanquished, the vicar has decided he doesn’t have a vocation and the novel’s sad Ophelia has met her fate. The surprising killer, though with mitigating circumstances – insanity – is female. The psychiatrist heroine is recuperating but unwilling/unable to allow the budding relationship with the vicar to develop. Interestingly, in Awakening, the facially disfigured heroine, who is a vet, also has trouble relating to others (though with a very valid reason), while in Sacrifice the heroine doctor long harbours grave suspicions of her husband.
I found the book to be a page turner and a very good read, but then perhaps I was biased from the off. The book uses widely the device of short chapters (83 in 380 pages before a lengthy blockbuster final chapter); this is a considerable development from her earlier novels, where the chapter lengths were roughly one and a half or twice as long. There are fewer loose ends, in the form, inter alia, of the introduction of secondary characters, never fully developed but with important roles to play. The author herself seems to be pleased with the character development in Blood Harvest, and to regard it as an advance in style, with which I concur.
A further development in her evolution as an author is that in her most recent books she seems to be creating a serial heroine – Policewoman Lacey Flint – for the future. On balance a writer to watch, certainly one to enjoy. Seven out of ten.