September 17, 2019
A town gripped by fear. A woman accused of witchcraft. Who can save Pale Harbor from itself?
Maine, 1846. Gabriel Stone is desperate to escape the ghosts that haunt him in Massachusetts after his wife’s death, so he moves to Maine, taking a position as a minister in the remote village of Pale Harbor.
But not all is as it seems in the sleepy town. Strange, unsettling things have been happening, and the townspeople claim that only one person can be responsible: Sophronia Carver, a reclusive widow who lives with a spinster maid in the eerie Castle Carver. Sophronia must be a witch, and she almost certainly killed her husband.
As the incidents escalate, one thing becomes clear: they are the work of a twisted person inspired by the wildly popular stories of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. And Gabriel must find answers, or Pale Harbor will suffer a fate worthy of Poe’s darkest tales.
Hester Fox comes to writing from a background in the museum field as a collections maintenance technician. This job has taken her from historic houses to fine art museums, where she has the privilege of cleaning and caring for collections that range from paintings by old masters to ancient artifacts to early-American furniture. She is a keen painter and has a master’s degree in historical archaeology, as well as a background in medieval studies and art history. Hester lives outside Boston with her husband.
The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox introduces us to Sophronia Carver, a widow has become housebound after the death of her husband. Most people in the village of Pale Harbor believe that she murdered her husband and is a witch. Their beliefs become even more firmly rooted after the occurrence of strange events around town.
Gabriel Stone is a widower who has come to Pale Harbor as a transcendentalist minister, his late wife’s dream, not his own. He’s hoping that by carrying out her wishes, he can do right by her. (She was a cheater so this felt a little naive to me.) Immediately, Gabe is told to avoid the widow in Castle Carver, which, of course, makes him even more intent upon meeting her.
I loved Hester Fox’ debut novel The Witch of Willow Hall from last year. You can read my review here. It had that gothic feel, the atmosphere was almost palpable. The Widow of Pale Harbor on the other hand, falls short of evoking those same emotions. Rather, it reads like a historical mystery and despite one red herring that tried to dissuade me from my guess of who-dun-it, the suspect was obvious.
I didn’t feel invested in the characters of Sophronia and Gabriel enough to care about their romance, which amounted to love-at-first-sight and somewhat reckless behavior–but maybe that’s supposed to show heightened passion?
That said, this is not a bad novel by any means. It’s a fairly decent mystery and romance, but the gothic elements I was looking forward, which made Fox’s debut novel so good, were missing. My reactions were probably colored by that.
If you like historical mysteries, verging perhaps on the macabre, with a hefty does of romance thrown in, The Widow of Pale Harbor may be for you.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Sophronia took the first page and ran her gaze over it. It was one of Mr. Poe’s stories; she’d read it when it had come out, but it hadn’t made much of an impression on her and she’d subsequently forgotten all about it. Nathaniel, her deceased husband, had never liked Poe; he’d said the man’s stories were too sensationalist and catered to the excitable nerves of women. But that hadn’t stopped him from falling all over himself to get one of the macabre stories published in the magazine when the submission landed on his desk. The suspenseful installments kept readers coming back for more, which meant money. And Nathaniel never turned down money. As she read, the familiar words from the note fell into place. She had seen them before. The Fall of the House of Usher. This particular story had something to do with a house…it collapsed at the end, if she remembered correctly, taking with it twin siblings who were the last two living members of their family line. The second paper was an illustration of a one-eyed cat, another story penned by Mr. Poe.
Her thoughts raced. The birds, the feather nailed to her door…in an instant it came to her. “The Raven,” she said, breathless. “There’s a poem by Poe called The Raven.” Even she, someone who never left the house, was familiar not just with the poem, but with how fantastically popular it had become. Fashionable families held dinner parties and read the poem aloud around the fire, students recited it in diction classes, and a number of magazines and newspapers had already run parodies of the spine-tingling composition.
Mr. Stone nodded gravely. “I’ve read it. You said something about candles the other day, as well… I wonder…”
He trailed off, but Sophronia was already scrambling to remember a story or poem by Mr. Poe that included candles. Nothing came to mind.
“Wait here,” she said, thrusting the pages back at Mr. Stone. She ran to Nathaniel’s study, pushing aside the unpleasant memories that it brought, and forcing herself to grab bound copies of the magazines by the armful. When she came back to the parlor, Mr. Stone was just as she left him, one dark brow raised in question.
Laying out the magazines on every surface in the room, Sophronia began to sort through them, separating those that contained stories or poems by Mr. Poe.
“The answers are in here somewhere,” she said, a ray of hope breaking through the clouds of despair that had settled over her in the previous weeks. There was a pattern, a riddle—she only had to crack it and perhaps she could put an end to this.
Link to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven