Josephine Pennicott is a multi award-winning writer in the crime genre. Her story Birthing The Demons won the 2001 Scarlet Stiletto, and in 2012 she became one of only five writers to win a second Scarlet Stiletto with the story Shadows. Josephine has also won the Kerry Greenwood Domestic Malice Prize twice, with Hail Mary (2003) and Tadpole (2004). Josephine’s previous novels were in the dark fantasy genre: Circle Of Nine (2001), Bride Of The Stone (2003) and A Fire In The Shell (2004). Circle Of Nine was named as one of 2001′s best debut novels in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (Terri Windling & Ellen Datlow, editors). A Fire In The Shell was shortlisted for Best Horror Novel in the 2005 Aurealis Awards. Poet’s Cottage, a haunting mystery of families, bohemia, fairy-tales, truth, creativity, lies, murder and memory, set in 1930s Australia and the present day, was published in 2012 by Pan Macmillan.
Today celebrates the release of Josephine’s latest novel, Currawong Manor, described as, an evocative tale set in the spectacular Blue Mountains, Currawong Manor is a mystery of art, truth and the ripple effects of death and deception, and I have an exclusive excerpt to share in advance of the review I plan to post later today. Enjoy!
The Currawong Manor estate included Owlbone Woods, three hundred acres of bushland with a beautifully forested glen and a waterfall on a fork of Baxter’s river in Megalong Valley. Of particular interest to Elizabeth, the Mermaid Glen waterfall at Weeping Rocks featured several of Rupert’s statues. Always privately owned, the property had never been a tourist attraction, although Holly was now hoping to open it up to the public. Scraps of information Elizabeth had gathered from her mother over the years suggested the locals of Mount Bellwood avoided Owlbone Woods as an unlucky place. Not only had Shalimar Partridge drowned at the glen, but Rupert had also gone missing somewhere there after her death. ‘It’s only fifteen minutes’ drive from Mount Bellwood,’ said Elizabeth, checking her watch, ‘but it feels as if we’re in the middle of nowhere. Can you imagine how much more isolated it must have felt in Rupert’s time? The constant worry of bushfires in summer must have worn them down.’
‘I still find it odd that Lois won’t come near the place,’ Fleur said.
‘There’s no way Mum would return,’ Elizabeth said. ‘She gets angry every time I mention it. I’ve given up trying to convince her. But I always found the woods in Rupert’s work magical. And years ago I came up here to visit Mermaid Glen and found it haunting but really beautiful. I’m hoping to photograph it now and try to capture its menacing quality.’ It had been years, too, since Elizabeth had seen inside the manor itself. Just before Lois sold it she had reluctantly agreed to bring Elizabeth along when she came up here to collect a few things. The day had ended badly with Lois becoming morose and bitter about her childhood, but Elizabeth always remembered how wonderfully whimsical the house was, and she was both excited and anxious about seeing it again.
The two women shared a strange reverie as the bumpy unsealed road gave way to Woodswallow Lane. A few minutes later, they came to a long driveway flanked by bloodwood and tea trees. A worn white signpost read Currawong Manor. Beneath it in red paint was the freshly painted graffiti: The Ruins.
‘I even found it referred to as the Ruins in the Mountains Tourist guide,’ Fleur commented as she paused the car and gazed at the picturesque entrance.
‘The locals have always called it the Ruins, apparently,’ Elizabeth replied. ‘Not just because it’s fallen into ruins, but because it ruins lives. You already know about the tragedy around Shalimar’s death – my grandmother hit by the train the night her daughter died, my grandfather disappearing. But there’s more to it. After Rupert’s parents – my great-grandparents – lost their favourite son to the war, Rupert’s father, Reg, either killed himself or disappeared, and his mother, Ivy, shut herself away in one of the rooms and barely ventured out.’
As Fleur turned the car into the driveway, Elizabeth fell silent, reflecting that Kitty’s death could perhaps also be attributed to the Ruins’ curse. And it had left its indelible mark on Lois, too; after the tragic happenings to her family in the 1940s, Elizabeth’s mother, barely a month old, had been taken into foster care, enduring a series of different homes until she’d been old enough to make her own way in the world. Little wonder she seemed incapable of compassion or tenderness.
Shaking off the familiar bitterness, Elizabeth continued, ‘It’s all so penny-dreadful. The manor was originally the home of an eccentric Englishman, Reverend Greenman. It’s all going to be in the book. The Shaws are determined to include as much Gothic drama as they can.’ In preparation for the book, Holly had been flat out interviewing locals, trying to unearth scandal, ghosts and mayhem – not only related to the Ruins but also Mount Bellwood in general.
‘Holly must have some money to have taken on Currawong Manor,’ Fleur said. ‘But people love creepy old homes with secrets festering within them. I don’t think she’s a fool, Elizabeth. Just be careful she doesn’t use your family history to make her own fortune!’
‘I wish we’d been able to keep the manor in the family, but Mum wasn’t interested and it needs too much renovation,’ Elizabeth said ruefully. ‘Holly and Bob must have more money than sense, but Holly seems determined to turn both the Ruins and Mount Bellwood into a thriving artistic community. At least she does care about the art side of things. The previous owners couldn’t have given a rat’s about Rupert and his work. Holly sold her gallery in London as well as their flat to buy the manor. That’s how obsessed she became with Rupert.’
After proceeding slowly along the driveway, shadowed by the overhanging trees, they now reached a crumbling drystone wall and rusted iron-lace gates guarded by two large, chipped, moss-covered stone lions. One had lost its head.
‘Well, there it is,’ Elizabeth said, her voice quivering. ‘Currawong Manor.’
At the end of the carriage drive was a large two-storey bluestone home, flanked by wattles and gum trees. The house resembled an English vicarage, the afternoon sun highlighting the romantic splendour of the stones. Dark-green ivy smothered most of the facade, though it had been carefully clipped away from a vivid blue front door. Up the left side of the house ran an old rusted iron staircase, which Elizabeth knew didn’t go anywhere. A verandah with iron railings ran around the manor’s entire circumference, its deep shade dotted at intervals by chairs and wooden barrel tubs of wildflowers. The roof was red slate with parapet lines, and on one side only, a couple of odd-looking turrets. Several saffron-yellow brick chimneys and large Gothic-style windows added to the otherworldliness of the place, while wooden tubs of lavender and cascading trellis roses mingling with the dark ivy lent a more traditional charm.
‘It’s beautiful!’ Fleur exclaimed. ‘It’d make a perfect location for weddings or a film. I can see why Holly loves it so much. It’s like something from a fairytale. Shame Lois didn’t want to hang on to it – though I suppose you can’t blame her.’
They parked behind Bob’s red Commodore and a Landrover and climbed out of the car. ‘It’s magical, isn’t it?’ Elizabeth said. ‘Even the air smells enchanted!’ She inhaled deeply, looking at the house with a yearning expression. ‘Everything is so much what it shouldn’t be, but it all works together in a strange, mysterious way. Mum hated it, said it gave her nightmares.’ She glanced up to examine the towers.
‘What are you looking at?’ Fleur opened the boot to remove Elizabeth’s bags.
‘The currawongs,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Be careful with that red bag,’ she warned, taking the bag from Fleur. ‘It’s got my lenses in it. You know the old story about when the currawongs gather in numbers on the towers of the Ruins? It’s meant to indicate a death or birth of one of the manor’s inhabitants. That’s another reason Mum avoids the place. She believes all the old superstitions about it.’
‘And you don’t?’ Fleur asked.
Elizabeth screwed up her face as she continued to examine the towers. ‘When I did my Northern Territory book, The Magic Dirt, I spoke with Aboriginal people who claimed there are places we shouldn’t enter as they can lead you into other worlds – or just really bad things happened there because of old curses or the soil being tainted by bad magic. Hanging Rock in Victoria is meant to be one such spot. But currawongs foretelling death? I’d have to see it to believe it.’
She was interrupted by Holly opening the front door. ‘I knew I heard your car! I just told Bob to pop the kettle on. Come in. Welcome to Currawong Manor!’
© Copyright PanMacmillan Australia, 2014. Published with permission.
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