Circle of Darkness, by Phyllis M. Newman [Review]

A haunting story set in the late 1930s, Circle of Darkness weaves together a sinister present and a tortured past with exquisite prose and a complex heroine.

The author captures the tone and atmosphere of the remnants of Southern aristocracy, clinging to the trappings of wealth even through the Great Depression. Gathered at a lakeside Louisiana resort, not all the well-to-do guests are who they seem to be. Sonja, our narrator, is an outsider, brought along as the personal assistant to her aging rich aunt. Through her eyes, we see the façade of luxury and can experience the story as a visitor to this exotic setting.

The tension builds slowly as the reader luxuriates in the descriptions of the Moorcroft Inn and its inhabitants. Each important character is introduced through Sonja’s interactions, and almost nothing is as it seems to be at first. Slowly, Sonja is drawn into the underlying mystery of missing young women and crop circles that may be attempts by some unnatural forces to find a labyrinth leading to . . . somewhere else. The threads of the story come together as Sonja is led deeper and deeper inside until she cannot escape.

Ms. Newman expertly uses language to establish the mood. “Sensing another presence, I retreated into the shadows, trembling. The towering building with its elaborate cornices and tortuous corbels loomed over me, gloomy and forbidding.” Images of claw-like hands, ominous shadows, and stabbing motions fill the story. “Outside, the scythe of the new moon pierced the night sky.” Even when the author drives you to your dictionary to confirm the precise meaning of an unfamiliar word, you won’t mind. “My eyes didn’t linger on deep recesses where crepuscular creatures lurked in the brush.”

The reader might guess at what’s really happening, and Ms. Newman sends up a few false signals to make you think you know what’s coming, but the eventual explanations are not what you will expect.

Much of the story takes place inside Sonja’s head, where the author guides us through her desires, passions, and fears. There are long stretches of impeccable description where the main plot is not advanced, but where the author establishes the feeling and mood of the setting. There are a few attempts to draw in the contexts of Southern racism, the politics of the Roosevelt administration, and the looming specter of Nazi Germany and the coming war. None of those subtexts really matters to the story or adds substantial flavor to the characters, leaving the impression that they could easily have been left out. But the quality of the writing here creates a leisurely ride along so that, even when the path does not lead to an important destination, the trip is pleasurable. (There are also a few hidden nuggets in the prose that reveal themselves in an amusing note in the Epilogue.)

There is no graphic violence or sex in the book, but like a Hitchcock film, the horror happens inside your head, not on the screen. For fans of the slow burn of suspense, an intricate mystery, and particularly the angst and emotions of a young woman plunged into an unfamiliar and terrifying situation, this will be a spellbinding read.

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