The warning from her father-in-law could not have been any starker or more unequivocal:
"You won't bring yourselves to Ladygrove before the child is born....If you try to come [there], I swear I wont allow it."
Far from being perturbed by this Judith Brobury is secretly relieved. Something about that old ancestral pile hidden away in the remotenesses of rural Herefordshire, where her child had been conceived the previous Christmas, disturbed her. Visits there plagued her with strange grotesque dreams and left her with the conviction of there being something wholly wrong about the place; "out of true, out of time". But when the bluff and roguish Sir Mortimer dies suddenly in a riding accident barely six months later his son David inherits the Ladygrove estate. As a consequence Judith suddenly finds herself marooned in the place with the course of her pregnancy fast approaching its full term.
What is the basis for the Brobury curse that promises marital strife for the lords of Ladygrove until such time as a first born son be offered back? Back to whom? And why does Judith find herself inextricably drawn back repeatedly to the ruined hermit's cell at the heart of the garden maze? What is the competing power at work there that steadfastedly refuses to allow her to enter it? And why should a medieval inscription in the local church perversely implore deliverance from the resident holy woman rather than for her? These are just some of the problems posed for the Caspians in this the third and final of their novel length adventures.
First published in 1978 there is something distinctly OMENish about this story, what with its ancient prophecies and its animal servitors, but its a corking read in its own right and deserves more than just a glib comparison with something else.
To begin with Alexander and Bronwen are present at Ladygrove purely in a private rather than professional capacity as friends of the Broburys. But when the conceited modernist vicar Frederick Goswell is coerced into performing an ill advised exorcism the Caspians find themselves singularly equipped to appreciate the sudden darkening atmosphere of the place. And they find cause to worry too about the pernicious influence which the manipulative Dowager Lady Charlotte is beginning to exert upon the fragile Judith. Events culminate in the enactment of a grisly ancient ritual, with Alexander hastening through the Herefordshire night in a desperate bid to save not only Judith and her child but Bronwen too who has become trapped in Judith's mesmerised mind.
This is simply an exceptional read. It is more of an intimate story than the two preceding novels with its cast of characters being relatively small, but this only serves to intensify the drama. As ever Burke is sparing in his use of sensation and shocks but, again, that only exacerbates their impact. The decapitated dog's head gaping on its stake leaves a lasting impression. The book makes excellent use of both history and prehistory, of suggestion and supposition, to ferment a potent brew of escalating horror.
If there is one discordant note the book strikes then it is probably in the marital discord which Alexander and Bronwen suffer in the midst of their enquiries. It simply doesn't ring true and seems something inserted purely for the purpose of inhibiting their telepathic powers and so prolonging the story rather than any more constructive purpose. It is an episode entirely at odds with Alexander's previously established progressive character and serves only to paint him as an unreconstructed misogynistic Victorian hypocrite.
But that miscalculation aside this is a remarkable book and an absolutely fantastic read; one which I ended up enjoying even more than the preceding two and they were outstanding books in their own right.
While it remains regrettable that - for whatever reason - Burke chose to terminate the series at this point ["The Blackshore Dreamer" notwithstanding: thanks again Johnny] LADYGROVE stands as a fitting finale to the Caspians' adventures. It is a book I recommend unreservedly not only to those with even a passing interest in psychic detective fiction but anyone who simply enjoys a gripping yarn.
M'lud, this cover stands accused of an egregious example of slanderous cover copy. We concede that Mr Burke's books may be classified as terrifying but staunchly refute that he himself was.
Incidentally, the back flap cover info states that LADYGROVE was John Burke's 100th published book.