Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy is suffused with deliciously disturbing images and scenes.

A thin, dark ribbon of sky. Bared teeth with clumps of hair. A dead bird that dangles from a girl’s first like a flower needing water. A snake skin shed in a doorway.

A secret passage. A stabbed countess. A “damp, shadowy gorge”. Blackened lips. A wormy truffle. Scars and burns. Arcane enthusiasms.

And, all that before page 50. Sumptuous. And, yet, it is not simply a series of evocative images; the plot is engaging, the characters intriguing, and the setting one of inherent tension.

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo has received a commission from Cosimo III, based on his experience as an artist, with sculptures of wax, particularly the works which showcase his knowledge of anatomy, including the pieces inspired by the plague.

Secrecy Thomson

Granta Books, 2013

The atmosphere in 1691 Florence is oppressive and tense, as dark and haunting as the artist’s work.

“The conversation lurched, veered sideways, and he began to discuss anatomy. He described a dissection which he had performed in front of an audience that included Francesco Redi – it was how they had met – and which he had conceived of an a homage to the anatomy lesson given by Dr Pieter Pauw in Leiden in 1615. Had I seen de Gheyn’s engraving of the event, with skulls circling the base of the operating table, and a couple of dogs waiting patiently for scraps?”

The artist faces troubling accusations, however, so Florence offers him an escape of sorts, respite, if not actual acceptance and understanding.

“I hadn’t done what they said I’d done, but there’s a kind of truth in a well-told lie, and that truth can cling to you like a taste of raw garlic or the smell of smoke.”

Zumbo is immediately thrust into a complex web of political relationships, and he struggles to determine who is trustworthy.

Though the atmosphere is rife with deceit and misrepresentation, Zumbo is intelligent, observant, and dogged.

“Though everything was forbidden in Florence, anything was possible.”

As time passes, he recognizes that, just as a confining situation can also offer a degree of security, keeping a low profile has its benefits.

“Secrecy could be imposed from without, like a punishment or an affliction, but it could also be cultivated, or even willed. It could comfort. Provide a refuge.”

And, there is another factor which adds to the sense of his new life as a refuge, a young woman in an apothecary shop.

“In company, I took care to underplay the change in my fortunes. In private, though, I felt valued as never before.”

Finding that balance, however, is challenging. And once Zummo’s interests extend beyond his commission and his own personal safety, the situation becomes untenable, and tension escalates.

“That was the deeply paradoxical nature of a confidence: it might draw you in close, but it also contained the seeds of banishment, exile, and even, possibly, annihilation.”

Little is known of the Italian sculptor (1656-1701), which creates the perfect opportunity to fill the gaps with fiction, and Zumbo also appears in the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette.

Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy combines the fast-paced intensity of a thriller with the wholly satisfying attention to detail that results in a literary page-turner.

Mulligan The Dark

Doubleday – Random House, 2013

Claire Mulligan’s The Dark also finds its roots in history, in the story of the Fox Family and the early days of spiritualism.

The novel opens with Mrs. Mellon’s remembrances of having visited a 9th Street tenement in New York City in February 1893, to sit with a dying woman and administer to her final needs and wishes.

The setting diligently immerses readers in the past in communities like Rochester and Syracuse, and smaller centres like Auburn and Lockport, but the dominant landscape is more intimate territory.

As the story begins, Mrs. Mellon sits with Mrs. Kane, but even that day, Mrs. Kane is recognized as Margaret Fox, and the women come to share more of their stories as the days pass.

“She no longer called her Mrs. Mellon, but Alvah or Alvah June. And I no longer called her Mrs. Kane, but Maggie. And I supposed she now understood that I did not attend her out of pity, nor charity, but out of an understanding that comes from stumbling about in the selfsame shoes.”

It is not only the circumstances of Maggie’s death which draw them together, but a shared familiarity with another world; each woman has a personal understanding of loss and absence that underscores their connection.

The connections between worlds? The idea of channels, of unexpected relationships and encounters? These are vitally important in The Dark.

“Yes. For is not the struggle for the dead to reach the living alike the struggle of those enslaved to reach freedom.” Perhaps only now the dead are discovering the appropriate, yes, yes, conductors! Those who are pure of heart. Whose minds are free of the traps of intellect. The fetters of bookish knowledge. Yes, you girls are conductresses on a railroad, one that is no more wrought of wood and iron than the so-named railroad that takes slaves to freedom, but yet is of similar mettle, of similar God-given purpose.”

In the 1830s, abolitionists began to organize in the north-east and by the mid-1850s newspapers in Syracuse openly advertised their support of the Underground Railroad, just as the Fox Sisters’ reputation swelled, for their ability to channel the dead’s efforts to reach the living.

And, in turn, just as the sisters are conductors for dead, ready to receive their offerings, Alvah is a conductor for Maggie’s remembrances. With every visit, Alvah learns more of Maggie’s story and the stories surrounding her sisters and other key family members.

There is substantial controversy because the sisters face a number of challenges about their activities, sometimes outright attack and pressure to relocate. Many disbelieve and, indeed, readers are uncertain as well. Even before Chauncey enters the scene.

“Yes, Chauncey admires the Fox sisters three. He truly does, even as he is determined to expose their chicanery. Their reputations might suffer, but they will rally, find some other means of survival, just as he always has, for they are of the same ilk. This he has never doubted.”

The historical setting is rich, and although this is a novel of houses famed for hauntings, “will-o’-wisps, poltergeists, revenants, fetches and giengangers, the distinctions and subcategories”, Claire Mulligan’s work is deliberate and detailed, not your average ghost story.

“You have to wait to know. Wait. Wait. As I did. And where is my medicine? Mrs. Mellon?”

Both Claire Mulligan’s The Dark and Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy immerse readers in other times and places, evoke disturbing and unsettling occurrences, and use fiction to fill the gaps in the histories of fascinating individuals who fingered the veil between the world of the everyday and the world of the extraordinary.

Have you read either of these novels? Or, would you like to?