Book Review: Silma Hill by Iain Maloney

Posted by Neil Syme on January 04, 2016 in Blog, Reviews tagged with
Silma Hill by Iain Maloney (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2015)
Review by Neil Syme

Silma Hill Cover

While it may initially seem designed to fulfil certain Scottish Gothic criteria, Iain Maloney’s highly readable Silma Hill (2015) follows a more original path that might be expected. The rural late-18th century Scottish setting is familiar but well drawn; geographically isolated from progressive Edinburgh and replete with mysterious stone circle, the parochial and increasingly paranoid villagers struggle (at least at first) with the clash between Calvinism and superstition. As in such classics of Scottish Gothic as RL Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’ and JM Barrie’s ‘Farewell Miss Julie Logan’, Maloney’s central protagonist is the rural minister. His E. S. Burnett is a fire and brimstone preacher whose most surprising characteristic is, perhaps, just how unwavering he remains in his convictions and sense of self-preservation. Staunchly straddling theological certainty and scientific rationality (his office holds a bust of Calvin and a library of enlightenment treatise), the widowed Burnett is an authoritarian monster with his sights on the ‘enlightened’ social circles of the city. However, Maloney’s free indirect discourse skips fluidly between several characters, including Burnett’s sixteen-year old daughter Fiona, treated as a servant by the minister but with dreams of escape, who emerges as the most intriguing creation here.

An idol of unknown origin is unearthed by Old Sangster in a local peat bog (surely an under-explored site of Gothic preservation), fascinating the minister and casting a pall over the village which is exacerbated by Sangster’s death soon after. Its discovery seems to trigger a number of inexplicable phenomenon – a young teenage girl is discovered dancing naked at dawn in a trance-like state; unexplained fires occur; figures are heard running through the darkness; and villagers begin to see visions of the statue’s shining golden eyes. This latter motif in particular may be familiar to readers of Scottish fictional hauntings; the apparition of staring eyes recalling the likes of James Hogg’s Confessions, George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters, and James Kelman’s How late it was how late.

It’s worth stressing, however, that Maloney delivers much more than a reprisal of familiar tropes. As events spiral out of control and the village is gripped by an all-too literal witch-hunt, the text resists clarifying whether we are witnessing a collective hysteria or something more. Once Fiona Burnett and her friend Eilidh Sangster are accused of witchcraft, the text erupts into unexpected brutality, made all the starker not only by the narrative’s refusal to rationalise or explain, but also for its refusal to encourage a supernatural interpretation. Fiona is seen slaughtering a chicken and praying not to God but to her deceased mother, but if this transgressive spirituality relates to a form of witchcraft the text refuses to confirm. Certainly, female characters are trapped in religious and legal power structures here as per traditional Gothic, but the re-emergence of the witch-hunt of old is less common, and Maloney depicts it to unsettling effect. What is perhaps surprising is that, amongst this re-emergence of barbaric practices from earlier times and the increasing estrangement of the village and its inhabitants, Silma Hill never engages an uncanny mode; events are related in a matter of fact manner which resists the type of unheimlich atmospherics that might be expected.

In part, this may be due to the style of the narrative itself. Chapters are short and numerous; the pacing is swift; events are related quickly, though not perfunctorily. This is not to suggest that Maloney is a kind of James Paterson of modern Scottish Gothic; for all that the novel employs the structural tactics of a thriller it never feels like a superficial presentation of empty action. However, while the reader may infer a sense of something going on beneath the surface, whether related to the idol itself or the transgressive acts of lunar-worship and female deification, Silma Hill might frustrate those looking forward to some spectral revelations; readers may question the nature of events in the village of Abdale, but that speculation is never engaged with by the narrative and taken any further. Maloney seems content to let us worry about the wellbeing of the characters rather to encourage uncanny speculation or provide explicit supernatural spectacle. That’s not to say the text isn’t compelling, however; indeed, the way in which the narrative avoids such elaboration might be the whole point. Mass hysteria seems the most likely explanation of events throughout, and the narrative imposes an 18th century rationality on the text and the reader’s interpretation – a neat and thematic narratological trick. At the same time, it’s a compelling tale with many intriguing moments and memorable characters, and an increasingly oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere. Maloney makes a memorable contemporary addition to rural Scottish Gothic, and the pacing of the text makes it suitable for a young adult as well as an adult readership – an ideal gateway novel, perhaps, to seminal earlier works like Hogg’s Confessions. For all that it utilises the structure of a thriller, the swift-moving plot belies more unsettling ideas, and the way in which the text bluntly refuses to expand on them leaves the reader to examine their own speculative imagination. In a sense this may leave the reader productively frustrated but no less engaged; a risky tactic, but one that Maloney pulls off with confidence.

Dr Neil Syme

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