Published by Peepal Tree
“In this instant my trance of introspection vanished. I knew it was actually happening. I stood and listened. There could be no doubt. It had nothing of the imaginary about it. It was a flute, clear, leisurely, distant. A tuneless, wandering trickle of treble notes coming from out of the trees that stood so still in the night.”
This book by Guyanese writer Edgar Mittelholzer is set in Guyana in 1933.
Ralph Nevinson, a successful businessman in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, comes across an old manuscript written by Jan Pieter Voorman, a Dutchman who died during the slave uprising of 1763. Voorman’s wife and daughter were killed by the rebels, but he managed to escape with his precious flute and hid in a cave. He committed suicide and was never given a proper burial: his bones and flute lie somewhere in the Guyanese jungle.
Voorman wrote the manuscript before he died and put a curse on it. He commanded the person who touched the manuscript to find his bones and flute and give them a Christian burial, or they would die. The person would be haunted by the sound of a flute, and after a few days of hearing it, would feel an uncontrollable urge to follow the sound to their death.
Ralph confides in Milton Woodsley, a younger man who is a friend of the family and the narrator of this book. Milton shares Ralph’s interest in Guianan history, and is intrigued. Together with Ralph’s wife Nell and daughter Jessie—who are both unaware of the manuscript—they set off on the Berbice River into the jungle. The ostensible reason for this trip is that Milton has been commissioned to paint some jungle scenes for Ralph’s office.
What follows is a slow ratcheting up of tension. Jessie and Milton have both also handled the manuscript—Jessie inadvertently and Milton on purpose—so three of the party can hear the flute that follows them everywhere.
In the meantime, Nell—who has finally been told the story—tries to burn the document, hoping to put an end to the haunting, but the match is snatched from her by an unseen hand and put out. After this incident, Nell starts to dream about walking through a forest, full of malevolent presences. She is convinced that she is heading towards Voorman’s bones.
Ralph and Milton realize they need help if they are to be stopped from being lured to their deaths by the flute. So they ask Rayburn, the man who works for the family, to move into the house. Rayburn turns out to be the most useful member of the party.
The party is haunted by more than Voorman’s ghost: there are clearly other evil forces that do not want the bones to be found. Can the party finally put Voorman’s ghost to rest?
The book is narrated by Milton 20 years later, looking back at himself as a young man, pompous and self-assured. The haunting starts gently, with just the sound of a flute, but soon becomes more intense. Mittelholzer roots this supernatural tale in the real world. His descriptions of New Amsterdam and especially of the forest are vivid. The sounds of frogs croaking, the bark of the baboon, the sound of wind through the trees: you feel that you are there. This makes the haunting even more credible.
This novel is not just a ghost story but also a social commentary on Guianan society at the time, with its racial hierarchies. Ralph and Milton are of mixed race, pale enough to almost pass for white. Rayburn is black, and when the men suggest having him in the house, Nell won’t hear of it. But she realizes that they need him, and once she gets used to his presence, she treats him like the others in the house.
This book has layers that bear unwrapping. There is an informative introduction by Kenneth Ramchand, Professor Emeritus of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies. It is definitely worth reading, but I would save it until after you have read the book. It will make more sense, and you won’t mind the spoilers.
Buy from Bookshop.org UK
I will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. Will be back on 7 January 2023. Happy holidays!