The eye that fears a painted devil

Roof boss of the Devil eating Judas, Southwark Cathedral © C A Lovegrove

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
Line illustrations by Stephen McNally.
Head of Zeus, 2019.

“‘Tis the eye of childhood, That fears a painted devil.” — Macbeth Act II Scene II, 64-5

Michelle Paver’s historical novel, a combined murder mystery, Gothick fantasy and supernatural thriller, is a rich blend of psychological drama with elements of folklore, local dialect and period details, set in the East Anglian fens near Ely during the years leading to the Great War.

It’s also a tale of class divisions, domestic abuse and coercive control, set on an estate on the cusp of great changes, environmental as well as social. In addition to looking forward to the future – principally the 1960s, when fashions and attitudes had altered beyond all recognition – Wakenhyrst draws heavily from a past characterised by superstition and perilous existence.

And for those who love words and their meanings Wakenhyrst is chock-full of puns and allusions which can further enrich the reader’s enjoyment or, alternatively, merely add to the mysteries surrounding our young heroine Maud.

© C A Lovegrove

Wake’s End is a manor house somewhere, we surmise, in the vicinity of Wicken Fen and Soham Mere, except that it’s just over the Cambridgeshire border, in the northwestern corner of Suffolk, with access to Ely and Bury St Edmunds. In 1967 interest focuses on the house’s reclusive spinster Maud Stearne because three surreal paintings by her father, completed while an inmate at what now is Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, have suddenly achieved iconic status. What is the story behind his incarceration after he admitted committing a murder at Wake’s End in 1913? And what further light can Maud, as the sole witness then aged 16, throw on the crime?

Wakenhyrst thus gives us a mystery to ponder, answers to which are frustratingly but deliberately revealed only through layers of narrative: newspaper reports and letters from the 1960s, a third person chronological account (beginning in the first decade of the 20th century) interspersed with extracts from private diaries and notes, and quotes from a typescript of a medieval account in modernised English. This technique gives us access to a handful of viewpoints, thereby revealing psychologies but also forcing us to consider different motives, different scenarios, different solutions.

But it is primarily the relationship between the teenage Maud and her cruel, misogynistic and humourless father Edmund – Stearne by name and stern by nature – that is our focus; that, and, in an age when premature death was commonplace, the succession of premature demises brought about through multiple miscarriages, seeming misadventures, and murder. Where does the malevolence come from – pure psychopathy, something supernatural, or both?

I got so much from this hugely enjoyable novel, not just because of the disturbing but credible characters but because Paver has given huge thought (as her Author’s Note confirms) to the historical backgrounds in which she has embedded her narrative. The fenland was and is indeed a shifting landscape of wonder and secrets, and motifs included within the pages allude to the Norfolk mystic Margery Kempe and the late medieval Wenhaston doom painting near Blythborough, down on the Suffolk coast.

To these we may add (as I surmise) the legend of a witch’s curse uttered before Ely and deflected by the Anglo-Saxon warrior Hereward the Wake, whose epithet must surely have inspired the name of Wake’s End (as Wicken Fen may have suggested Wakenhyrst). Then there are subtler echoes – such as the fictional mystic Alice Pyett, whose name etymologically relates to the chatterpie, local dialect for a magpie and a bird which features prominently in the novel.

Do we learn everything, and are all mysteries solved? No: for there remains the baleful influence of a painted exhibitionist devil who lurks at the corner of our perception. Does it have agency (as the paranoid Edmund fears) and is it responsible for the unaccountable incidents that appear periodically? Is there truth, in fact, in the belief that poltergeist activity may manifest in the vicinity of pubescent girls and disturbed young women? Paver isn’t at all explicit, leaving matters open for us to use our imagination; but there’s no doubting how inventive her own imagination comes across in this marvellously wrought Gothick tale.

@WyrdAndWonder Flying witch artwork by astromoali, magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Read for Wyrd & Wonder 2023

Here is a helpful illustrated webpage that allows us to examine the Wenhaston Doom painting which Paver notes as a major influence on her novel:

In Bookforager’s picture prompts I’ve selected the skeleton image for Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst. This follows the books icon (for Borges’s ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, the pistol (for Jo Nesbø’s Midnight Sun), the tree (Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter) and the castle (the graphic novel of Scott’s Ivanhoe).

26 thoughts on “The eye that fears a painted devil

    1. I very much did, Helen. 🙂 The irritating thing for me though is that we had a longish break in Southwold in 2021 and we drove regularly through Blythborough and past Wenhaston and I had no idea then that this doom painting existed!

      But even though the novel’s set on the opposite side of Suffolk it’s still filled with the particular atmosphere I associate with East Anglia. A beautifully realised story, well told.


  1. I read this one a while back during Readers Imbibing Peril and can remember enjoying it too. Pre-blogging days (I think) I also read Dark Matter by the same author, about mishaps on an Arctic expedition, so it was very different, but I remember that being good too, and very creepy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do want to read Paver’s Dark Matter now, especially after re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness with its epic journey across icy northern wastes. And then, after that, Thin Air, about, erm, a journey across icy mountain wastes… 😁 But I may also wait for Readers Imbibing Peril!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely a bit of a theme going on with these titles.

        Thin Air is one I haven’t read yet but worth thinking about for Peril. I tend to like stories with quite extreme settings. The Terror was another one. I’ve only watched the adaptation of that though, I think the book is pretty massive.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the ambiguity of this one – was the evil caused by madness or was the madness caused by evil? I loved Dark Matter even more, but it’s very different – much more traditional horror than this, and incredibly spooky!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ambiguity there certainly was! The unanswered questions for me were the windows mysteriously opening at night, and the shadows creeping over bedroom ceilings – which is why I suggested Paver might’ve had poltergeist activity in mind here, with Maud as the conduit. Anyway, more adult stuff from Paver is definitely on the cards for my future reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m sure I’ll get around to both in due course, Annabel, this has certainly whetted my appetite for more by her, whether subtitled ‘a ghost story’ or not!


  3. A pandemic with so many deaths has given us moderns a taste of what it might have been like to live during the Plague years, when things didn’t make much sense and were terrifying all around.

    It matters not that we knew more about why than they did – the impression of being absolutely at the mercy of – what? – leads to images like that devil one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, of course, Alicia – knowing ‘how’ may be of some comfort to us now but there’ll always be a ‘why me?’ when disaster strikes. Then the ‘how’ might have been ascribed to devils’ work but the end result is no comfort at all.


      1. I’ve never been so entitled as to ask, “Why me?” of the illness that has destroyed life as I knew it. “Why not me?” is equally as valid.

        I do wish it had been one of the illnesses we already knew about and had treatment or cure protocols – but there are plenty of those I’d rather not have, if possible.

        It’s weird – being a First World person and not being able to do that and enjoy that. Makes me philosophical when I can’t do anything else, while I keep hoping the medical researchers get their act together and figure out long covid and it happens to help us/me.

        Disasters come in different sizes. Mine is in many ways a one-person bubble. But I’ve already lived far longer than Flannery O’Connor, who battled lupus, so I can’t/shouldn’t complain.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve not been so egoistic as to subscribe to a ‘why me?’ mentality – at least not since I was a kid! – and in theory tend to lean towards ‘why not me?’ (though not without some resistance).


          1. I have a tiny cramped life – but with a roof over my head and many facilities. There are so many people in the world who don’t have the support. Mind you, not something I would CHOOSE, not that the choice would be offered and despite the fact that I like the fiction that has resulted.

            NOTHING compensates for not having your health.


    1. She’s written one or two series of well-regarded books for younger readers but her adult titles appear designed to spook the reader. I think you might like this at least for its sense of place if you’re familiar with that area of Norfolk as it merges into Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had wanted to read Wakenhyrst last Halloween for the RIP Challenge, but was never able to get to it. It stayed at the back of my mind, however, and so your review makes it seem even more promising. Definitely going to pick it up in October!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This has been on my radar for a while having read and enjoyed Dark Matter which is deliciously spooky. It sounds as though the setting adds to its appeal and I agree with you about the atmosphere associated with East Anglia. A tempting review, Chris. You’re bad for my bank balance! I think I’ll check the local library catalogue.


    1. I find that area spooky anyway, Anne – I’m used to living on hills and by mountains and, frankly, knowing the highest points in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex don’t rise above 100 to 150 metres is a bit unsettling! I’m sure your local library should be able to access a copy – or your nearest charity shop, which is where I found my copy!

      Liked by 1 person

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