It is so rare to find a thriller that delivers chapter after chapter in a tense plot that keeps me reading far into the night. This is the first of Bolton’s novels that I have read, and I only hope the others are half as riveting. Set in the moors in Northern England, the scene is richly atmospheric, a new family having built their home near the ruins of an ancient cathedral and another church built in a later century only recently reopened for worship. Alice and Garth Fletcher settle into their picturesque home, theirs sons - Tom, ten, and Joe, five - ranging over the wild, unkempt grounds and the two cemeteries that abut the Fletcher’s property.
Little Millie, two, is a bright and happy child, blissfully unaware of the menace that hovers near. While Tom and his little brother are standing up to the animosity of local boys who have made Tom a target, Tom’s fascination with his new environment turns to fear as he increasingly senses that he is being watched. Someone is lurking in the shadows. Even Joe is aware of this presence, although he is not afraid. And while the children inhabit their particular interpretation of the village of Heptonclough - and the dangers therein - the Fletchers do not take Tom’s concerns seriously until Joe and Millie disappear.
The novel is peopled with eccentric characters who fuel the mysterious activities in the parish. There is Henry Laycock, the handsome new minister who arrives just in time to give Tom an alibi when the cathedral window is broken. Harry is hardly prepared for the rituals embraced by this superstitious village on the moors, but he heartily endeavors to be part of the community, befriending psychiatrist Evi Oliver, who is treating one of Harry’s parishioners since the death of her small daughter in a tragic fire. Gillian is unable to believe her daughter is dead, walking the moors in search of the child.
It appears little girls are not safe in Heptonclough, the objects of murder all too frequently. Unfortunately, Harry’s attraction to Evi interferes with her ethical treatment of Gillian, who has developed a crush on the minister. But all this soon seems insignificant in light of the gruesome discovery of the skeletons of tiny victims when a wall collapses near a grave.
Herein lies the dark soul of mankind: ancient harvest rituals and bonfires, the tension building in a village virtually owned by one wealthy family, secrets buried, the Fletchers, the minister and the psychiatrist desperately trying to comprehend the sudden malevolence of this place and the spirit girl Tom claims watches his every move.
Ratcheting up the anxiety and the threat, Bolton’s pace is deliberative and deadly, little Millie at risk, Joe snatched from a school outing, and tumbled headstones a grim reminder that death is nearby and innocents are its prey. The presence of evil is undeniable, as is the urge to resist imagining the impossible. But something is stalking these little girls, tiny skeletons dotting the landscape of a nightmare.