Penelope Tredwell is no ordinary thirteen year old. Writing under the pen name Montgomery Flinch, she has Londoners of 1899 spellbound with her macabre tales of murder and horror, published in her late father's literary magazine, The Penny Dreadful. When she receives a letter from London's infamous asylum, Bedlam, she is drawn into a mystery more chilling and disturbing than has ever appeared in her stories. Every night, at twelve minutes to midnight, the asylum's inmates are waking up and scribbling words everywhere they can. These strange ramblings seem to be visions of the future. At first Penny sees new material for her writing, but she soon realises what is really going on is scarier than fiction...
And scarier even that this kitten.
Christopher Edge is the author of The Dead Ways, which featured on my spooky Halloween blog. The Dead Ways was a pacey, cinematic conspiracy thriller with a generous helping of two of my most fave ingredients: antiquarian bookshops and zombies. Twelve Minutes to Midnight has the same breakneck pace and spookiness, with a Victorian setting. You may know that I am quite partial to the nineteenth century (I WANT TO LIVE THERE) and so I found this very exciting.
I found this book absolutely gripping and loved the combination of Victorian London - with its Dickensian scar-faced villains and possibly-mad beautiful widows - and the supernatural, with the eerie predictions of the asylum inmates. The fragments of sentences, which tell of the great advances and horrific wars of the twentieth century, coming from the minds of the mad sound just that - mad - to Penny in 1899. But to the reader the words have an added weight and it gives the book a creepiness, and also a Dr Who timey wimey feel. Speaking of doctors, I was also reminded of Dr Jekyll, with characters dabbling in forces they don't understand with disastrous consequences.
There's a literary theme running throughout with Penny's authorship of The Penny Dreadful, which puts her in the same league as the late-Victorian greats like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard (who all put in an appearance). The literary magazines put writers in contact with their audiences in a way that was wholly new - they could work the great scandals of the day into their stories and published in serial form, with readers 'tuning in' for the next instalment like a soap opera. Of course, being a thirteen-year-old girl with a secret identity, Penny is free from - but also unable to enjoy - the trappings of fame. She employs an amenable, if occasionally drunk, actor, Monty Maples to put in the public appearances and readings expected of a great writer, while Penny remains in the background.
And that brings me to my favourite thing about the book: Penny. She's a feisty teen in a world of crusty old moustachioed men, but she just gets on with it and does what she enjoys - writing (while also being much cleverer than all of the moustaches and also solving mysteries).
Like the readers of The Penny Dreadful, I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Penny (Shadows of the Silver Screen).
Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge
Published by Nosy Crow, 1 Feb 2012