Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story
The subtitle sets this up to be a discomforting read, and indeed, it is, but it is also completely engrossing. As a boy, William Bellman unknowingly determines the course of his life when he throws a rock at a rook, striking it dead in front of his friends. William is the poor relation, the nephew of a well-to-do mill owner in 19th-century England. His uncle takes him under his wing, as his son, William’s cousin, can afford an education and shows no interest in the mill. William applies himself and goes from success to greater success, marries, and has four children. Life is good. He is disquieted, though, at the presence of a stranger in black who appears at the funerals of friends and family, funerals which happen with increasing frequency. When death strikes even closer to home, William makes a bargain with this stranger.
Setterfield tells an effective ghost story that is not so much scary as unsettling. William gives himself over to the bargain he makes with the stranger, revealed to be an emporium devoted exclusively to funerals – the grand Victorian idea of death, with mourning clothes, jewelry, stationery, and other funeral trappings. The amount of business the emporium does is frankly ghoulish. And it brings William no joy, just a determination to work harder and increase the profits.
I was held hostage to this book, almost until the end, where I was expecting a greater denouement. Black failed to work as an antagonist for me, but William, in his fevered drive to live up to his bargain, proved to be his own antagonist. Work, with the exclusion of all else, was his undoing.