Out-of-print Book Corner: “The Dark Fantastic” by Margaret Echard

Here’s the first, and for all I know the
Dust jacket of an Australian edition - not the one I read (which was jacketless) but a great image!
Dust jacket of an Australian edition – not the one I read (which was jacketless) but a great image!
only, entry in my series of reviews of old out-of-print books I’ve enjoyed. Blending charming period atmosphere, evocative writing, sharp pacing, ever-mounting mystery and tension, and characters you either root for or revile, I’d call “The Dark Fantastic” something of a lost treasure! I discovered this book in an original 1947 edition while visiting my Mom this past Christmas. I don’t recall ever noticing it before, so either it sat there ignored during my entire childhood since the mid-60’s, or perhaps it entered her collection later on. Either way, I”m so glad I finally cracked it open. The story starts off shortly after the American Civil War, with Judith, a sharp-witted young schoolteacher throwing off her small-town shackles to head for the big city and see a Shakespeare play. A meet-cute with a handsome stranger at the big-city theatre (in Terre Haute, Indiana) follows. Then there’s a pleasantly humorous scene at the after-hours gathering of the potential suitor and his friends – interrupted by the appearance of our heroine, who is already using her smarts to inveigle herself into the world of their friend, the dashing gentleman farmer Richard Tomlinson. At this point, I was on board for a charming historical romance. But things took an unexpected turn. Tomlinson has an ailing wife, Abigail; a doting mother and many nearby siblings around… and a girl named Thorne who also resides in the household. Who young Thorne exactly is and why she’s there are eventually made clear. What’s mysterious is the reason for Abigail’s acute dislike of the girl. What follows is a page-turner that moves steadily into quite a different realm than mere romance, as Judith’s motives and methods grow less sympathetic in her dogged pursuit of eventual matrimony with the appealing but manipulable Richard. It becomes both a psychological and supernatural thriller. Young Thorne attracts our sympathy like a magnet, even as Judith’s machinations reveal her true character. And then there are the mysterious bricks… I was turning the final pages with great speed as events rushed forward, so keen was I to reach the resolution. “The Dark Fantastic” was a wonderful discovery and will linger in my mind long after its final page is turned.

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