North West Reads Book 16: The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements
Scarcross Hall, situated high on the moors of Yorkshire, a bleak and unforgiving land that tests the strength and resilience of anyone choosing to live there. This place, however, has other challenges, darker ones. The land and Hall are rumoured to be cursed with residents subject to misfortunes and mysterious deaths. Mercy Booth, the daughter of the current owner of Scarcross Hall Bartram Booth, knows of the tales, the rumours that makes people wary of venturing near, or that hired workers will not pass by the crossroads after dark. The Coffin Road, that is used to bring the dead to be interred in the church, passes by. The road is overlooked by the White Ladies, a set of ancient standing stones, said to have been the scene of a massacre in pre-Christian times and from where the curse, and the evil that resides there, originated from.
Bartram had bought the farm and Hall towards the end of the English Civil War, moving from Lancashire to Yorkshire. His wife had died during the conflict and in his grief and anger he had sought a place to retreat to with his young daughter and servant, Agnes. Scarcross Hall was not the first building to have existed on the site but it had been by far the grandest, a large Tudor mansion with a grand hall, beautiful furnishings and tapestries on the walls. The building had not been maintained by Bartram, however, and was slowly falling into disrepair.
The man who’d had the house built, a wealthy Merchant from Halifax, had been found dead inside it along with his wife and child. They had been found with golden discs in their mouths. The discs had pre-Christian images on them. The identity of the whoever placed the coins remained a mystery. The Hall had lain empty for many years, the only visitors being boys from the villages, daring each other to visit this cursed place.
It is 1675, one hundred years after these tragic deaths, Mercy Booth who runs the farm while her elderly father stays at home, is preparing for the start of the lambing season. She has never married having lost an opportunity to do so when young; Mercy hardened her heart, closed herself off and dedicated herself to the farm which one day she would inherit as her father’s only child and heir. Bartram now dealt with the farm’s paperwork, no longer having the strength for the farmwork, but this was not the only change that old age had brought to him. Mercy had noticed that he seemed forgetful and distracted and is aware that this is gradually getting worse.
Mercy has a deep unbreakable bond with the land; she never wants to leave here despite the stories about the curse and the hardships experienced living in such surroundings. She had always felt much closer to God and his creation and power out on the fells than she had ever done at her church. This was not something she would share with Pastor Flynn, who as a Puritan minister would have frowned upon such thoughts that smacked of animism. The Pastor was a friend of Bartram and, aware of the history of the house, he would come to Scarcross Hall and perform a prayer ritual to keep the Hall and its occupants safe from evil, and from the Devil, for another year.
The first lambs start to come in February and the weather is icy with snow still on the fells. Out in the bitter cold she found a birthing ewe who was struggling. Mercy manages to save the lamb but knows the mother cannot be saved and has to be left behind on the moor. She wraps the newborn in her coat and makes her way back to the Hall, however, as she walks, she knows that someone, or something, is watching her and whatever it is she senses that it is malevolent. She sees a figure in the mist and when she gets back to the Hall she locks the door. Although rattled by the encounter with the mysterious figure, Mercy is in the habit of finding rational explanations for things such as this; she reasons that strangers do wander the fells, people who are rootless, homeless or for some reason wish to be away from regular society. She also tells herself that the sounds and mists on the fells had played tricks on her mind, but despite this her sense of unease refuses to leave her. This, in fact, would be the start of a series of disturbing occurrences in the house and on the fells. These would pull her family apart and place a huge strain on their relationship with the farmhands, the local community and their Church.
Soon after the sighting of the figure, Bartram reports that he has lost three coin-like object that he had found some time ago at the White Ladies. They had ‘pagan’ images on them, and Bartram kept them for luck. Mercy wonders whether Sam Garrick, the young son of her head shepherd Ambrose, had taken them, playing a misguided game with Bartram; Sam denies taking them and is very hurt at being questioned. When his inkwell goes missing Bartram, whose temper had got worse with age, accuses Agnes of taking this and the coins and selling them, which she denies. Mercy was used to their squabbles and pays no heed to this, but she is still disturbed by this mystery. Then she hears noises from upstairs from an old bedchamber that was being used as a storage area for fleeces and old farm and household items. She assumes that it’s Sam upstairs, but when she goes to investigate she finds nobody in there. Then there are the brief glimpses of faces in windows and out of the corner of her eye, and the sound of footsteps at night. Mercy’s attachment to the land and to her home means that no matter what she will not leave here. She knows that she would not fit in anywhere else, nor might she be accepted by people living in better places, so she faces her fears and carries on.
The start of the lambing season sometimes brought strangers to farm seeking work. They were not always welcome, these rootless men, as they could sometimes bring trouble. When Ellis Ferreby first makes his presence known to Mercy out on the fells, she regards him warily, but she is surprised when her dog, Bracken, takes to him immediately. Mercy senses that he is weighing her up as she is considering whether to take him on for shepherding work. She decides to let Ambrose decide, as he was a good judge of character. Ambrose agrees to take him on trial for a month; Ellis had been recommended to look for work at Scarcross Hall by a man known to Ambrose, and additionally he had experience of hill farming in Cumberland and York. He proves to be a good worker, but Mercy is aware that he is observing her, not in a lecherous way, but not respectful either. He says nothing about his past and holds his own secrets as do all the others on the farm. A number are still haunted by the events of the Civil War, the deaths, hardships and brutality of the conflict, and the social and political upheavals in its wake. To survive you had to be hard and resilient, there was little time for sentiment, and many kept their own counsel on what they had experienced during those troubled times.
The coins begin to turn up one by one. The first under Sam’s pillow, who again denies that he took it and did not know how it got there. His mother, Dority, thinks he’s saying this because he is afraid of Bartram’s temper. The family had also experienced the tragedy of losing Sam’s brother Will in an accident some years earlier, a loss which Sam had still not fully come to terms with. The second coin was found by Ellis near the hayloft where he slept. He had tried to give the coin as a reward to Sam for his work with the lambs. Sam retreated from the proffered coin and was very upset at the sight of it. Ellis, completely unaware of the significance of it, is bewildered by his reaction. Mercy cannot ignore the fact that there may be something sinister, possibly supernatural, occurring; and then the first of several dead and mutilated lambs are found on the fells. Ellis, Mercy and Ambrose keep these discoveries quiet, but then one is discovered near to where the seasonal labourers are at work. The mother of a homeless family, who had been given work by Bartram, accuses Mercy of witchcraft and shouts that the stories are true, the land here is cursed. They leave straight away. Inevitably, the rumours of devilry and witchcraft spread throughout the district. Ellis has seen in the past how this sort of hysteria can consume people and hopes this does not happen here, but the farm does begin to suffer as workers leave to find other jobs elsewhere. Those who are left have to cope as best they can with the remaining work.
Mercy’s security and hold on the farm is vulnerable in another way as well. She had been having a clandestine relationship, of sorts, with one of the workers, Ravens, a married man. There was no love in this, just the sating a physical need. When the relationship breaks down, suspecting that Mercy is attracted to Ellis, Ravens threatens her with exposure if she leaves him. Adultery was taken seriously by the Church and authorities in the Seventeenth Century and Mercy realises she could lose everything should she be hauled before them. In the face of Raven’s jealousy and much to Mercy’s relief as she had come to rely on his support, Ellis chooses to remain at Scarcross Hall. He explains that he wishes to end his rootless life and settle here, even if that means facing the ongoing unsettling and mysterious occurrences. However, what Mercy does not realise is that Ellis had other motives for coming to the farm than just seeking employment. Aware that she is keeping her own secrets, notably from her own father, Bartram, she allows others to keep theirs.
As the year progresses Mercy struggles with her growing unease at incidents that have no rational explanation. Caught between her love of her home and the feeling that something is out to get them all and to get them out she desperately works to hold the farm together. It is a household that is full of secrets, something that only makes the difficulties worse as truths come to light and betrayals, guilt and tragedies are revealed. Is it human agency, the ancient curse or the Devil at work causing the fear and conflict between them all; or had the dead returned to wreak revenge on the living? Both Bartram and Mercy had placed their faith in God to keep the Devil at bay, but he is a trickster, wily and cunning. The hauntings suggest that their faith in God, their prayers and even Bartram resorting to fasting, cannot stop his evil influence, that he could be mining their deepest secrets and temptations to destroy their lives. Agnes tells Mercy that she had concentrated so much on the farm and the sheep she had failed to notice these other dangers, dangers she had told herself for many years were just stories. She now makes amulets against evil and the wicked things that inhabit the hills. Isolated on the farm Mercy, Ellis and Bartram watch and await their fate.
This is a superb atmospheric and unsettling supernatural chiller. The Yorkshire moors on which Scarcross Hall stands are bleak, but beautiful and inspiring, but contain undercurrents of unseen menace and danger. Mercy is confronted by dangers from several directions, from the men in her life, the community that is suspicious of her as an independent, unmarried woman, and from the unseen and unknown who have inhabited her home since ancient times. The White Ladies stand in silence overlooking the land and watching as another set of residents confront forces beyond this world and beyond their control.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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