This is one of the scariest books that I have read in a long while. Not because it is set in a small village in a remote part of the west coast of Scotland, along a sea loch. Not because of the brooding hill that looms over that village. Not because of the stone circle on the summit of that hill. Not because it is set in the eighteenth century. Not because of the strange object found in the peat bog.
All of these, of course, can be used to create an atmosphere that is scary, and many a writer has done that over the years. Iain Maloney, however, knows that what is truly scary is the very human, and although he uses atmospherics to underline his effects, it is the impact of events on the villagers themselves that is frightening, truly frightening.
The tale begins with an old man discovering an artefact as he digs for peat in the bog near Silma Hill. He knows that the local minister in the village of Abdale has an interest in such things, so he takes it to the manse, and gives it to the Rev. Burnett for him to study. Then the old man returns to the bog to continue cutting the peat, and there he dies.
That evening the old man’s grand-daughter sees a pair of golden eyes staring at her, and others report strange goings-on in the village. This being eighteenth century Scotland, people look for explanations in the supernatural. For instance, there is no mention of the word “wildcat” anywhere in the book, although, to me, that seems a perfectly sensible explanation of the sighting of these eyes. Hysteria sets in. Old stories are told of the Vikings and their gods. The stone circle on Silma Hill casts a pall over the village.
To the modern reader, it is obvious that a stone age circle on the top of a hill has nothing to do with Viking Gods, at least not in Scotland, but that kind of knowledge was not available to villagers in eighteenth century Scotland. Then someone says the word “witchcraft”, and sets off a train of events that proceed with an inevitable logic. All I am going to tell you is that the Witchcraft Act of the early 1560s was still in force in Scotland, and that required the Kirk to use torture to extract confessions.
To tell you what happens to Fiona and Murdoch, the young couple at the centre of the story, and to Murdoch’s sister, Eilidh, would ruin the story for you, so I will not do that. It is sufficient for you to know that Iain Maloney will scare you witless, not with tales of “things that go bump in the night” but with the certainty of the knowledge of what people, when scared and panicking, are capable of doing to each other. And he adds into that mix, local rivalries and class divisions to produce a tale that is truly terrifying.
This is a story worthy of comparison with “The Turn of the Screw”. But there are no ghosts, only people. And in “Silma Hill” it is people that should scare you.