England 1812. Since the death of her mother and brother, Ella Winterton’s life has been consumed by keeping her drunkard father out of trouble and the roof of their crumbling cottage over their heads. But even isolated deep in the Norfolk broads, Ella has never been afraid of the marshes surrounding her home, despite their being riddled with treacherous bogs and local smugglers. Until one night a man masquerading as a Lantern Man—a frightening figure of local legend—waylays her in the marshes near her home, and her world suddenly begins to spiral out of control.
Ella can tell her friends and the local villagers are all hiding something terrible, something they refuse to share, and she can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the Lantern Man and his secret activities in the shadows of the seemingly quiet broads. But when Ella’s father is caught with smuggled brandy by the authorities and levied a crippling fine, she is forced to turn to the stranger for help, despite her distrust and his alarming ability to kiss her senseless.
Now she must unravel a twisted trail of deception and secrets, and uncover once and for all whether the Lantern Man is friend or foe. Or else risk being dragged down into the marshes, like the victims from the myth, and buried in a watery grave.
Taking a break from her Lady Darby historical mysteries, Anna Lee Huber has embarked upon a new series entitled Gothic Myths, a set of linked but standalone gothic romances. The first of these, Secrets in the Mist, is an enjoyable and well-developed story of mystery and suspense in which the author makes the most of her chosen location – the East Anglian Fens – to create a splendidly eerie atmosphere of danger and unease.
Ella Winterton lives an isolated life in a run-down cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads. Since the death of her mother and brother, she has faced an increasingly difficult struggle to keep her alcoholic father out of trouble and to keep them fed and housed. Her one real friend is Kate Rockland, the sister of the young man Ella had, at one time, hoped to marry, and it is concern for Kate that prompts Ella to venture out late at night, in spite of the treacherous marshland that riddles the local terrain, and the stories of the mysterious Lantern Men who haunt the Fens. Kate is seriously ill and Ella, who is nursing her, needs to return home to gather some medicines and remedies, desperately afraid that without them, her friend might not last the night.
I was old enough and educated enough to recognise the legend of the Lantern Men for the fiction it likely was – a story meant to convince curious and unruly children to behave, an anecdote to explain the unexplainable. But I had also seen the lights – the will-o’-the-wisps, as they were called – mysterious glowing balls that sometimes hovered over the marshes, seeming to defy all logic or explanation.
When Ella spies the balls of light glowing through the fog, she tries to convince herself that they are nothing but a mirage, summoned up by her housekeeper’s warnings and the swirling mist. But even so, she hurries on her way, suddenly intensely aware that she is being followed. She tries to evade capture only to crash into a solid, dark shape that grabs and holds on to her – a shape clad in darkness from head to foot with a pair of piercing dark eyes and an air of menace that shakes her profoundly.
Ella manages to escape and carries on towards her destination, trying to tell herself there is a rational explanation for the presence of the lights and of the – man? – she encountered on the marshes. His presence, and Ella’s increasing awareness that all is not well in the locality only add to her unease as she tries to cope with her father’s mood swings, the presence of an unwelcome visitor, and the fact that she finds it more and more difficult to stop herself seeking out the Lantern Man, whose enigmatic presence makes her feel alive in ways she’s never before experienced.
When her father’s fondness for French brandy draws the attentions of the Customs Men and a massive fine is imposed upon him which they can’t pay, it’s to the Lantern Man that Ella turns for help. In spite of her attraction to him she isn’t completely sure she can trust him; but desperate times call for desperate measures – and things turn very dangerous indeed when Ella finds herself embroiled with a treacherous smuggling ring that threatens to do more than simply provide illegally imported luxury goods to those who can afford to pay for them.
Right from the start, Anna Lee Huber skilfully creates an atmosphere of foreboding with her superb descriptions of the bleak landscape and her evocation of the supernatural by means of the legend of the Lantern Men. As an accomplished writer of historical mysteries, it’s a given that her plotting would be sound and that she would also incorporate an interesting and well-described historical background – but she also does a great job with the more character-driven side of the story too, thoroughly exploring Ella’s circumstances and her thoughts and feelings.
I cut my gothic-reading teeth on the novels of Victoria Holt back in the 1970s, and one of the things I continue to enjoy about those books is the way the author takes the time to set the scene for her stories and gradually familiarise her readers with her characters and their backgrounds. Ms. Huber has taken a leaf out of that book, so to speak, and almost the entire first half of Secrets in the Mist is set-up. I will admit that I found it a little slow to start, but it wasn’t long before I was completely immersed in world the author has created, and in particular her descriptions of Ella’s daily life and complicated relationship with her father, which is brilliantly depicted. The emotions Ella experiences – anger, shame, fear, disgust, love – are all palpable, and I really felt for her as she tried to come to terms with all her conflicting feelings about the parent who has become such a disappointment to her. Ella is an extremely well-developed character; a young woman who has been repeatedly let down by those around her, yet who continues to soldier on in spite of it and whose realistic responses to her father and to others around her make her a heroine who is very easy to relate to.
Equally well-done is the growing relationship between Ella and the mysterious Lantern Man. Gothic romances tend to be heroine-centric with the hero being almost a secondary character, but this is one of the better-developed romances of its type I have read. While the story is told from Ella’s point of view, the attraction between the couple is there right from their first meeting, and although we are never in the Lantern Man’s PoV, it’s completely clear that he is smitten from the start and he is a strong presence throughout the novel.
Secrets of the Mist is one of those books that creeps up on the reader in that it starts fairly slowly but quickly transforms into a book that is difficult to put down. Ms. Huber’s writing is intelligent and assured, and her descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere are highly evocative, putting the reader right in the middle of those mist-filled marshlands, watching the mysterious lights bobbing around through the fog. Fans of historical mysteries and gothic romances should definitely consider checking this one out, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.