Your first question when reading Mothlight may well be, ‘how much of this is true?’ It’s a question prompted by the photographs embedded in the text – which are unmistakably real, documents of somebody’s life – but the narrative surrounding them, concerning the narrators (Thomas’s) relationship with a moth researcher, is fiction. It’s an uneasy synthesis that keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty, adding to the book’s powerful aura of disorientation.
Adam Scovell is known as a writer on folk horror, and there are echoes of that throughout his novel. The narrator’s memories of Phyllis Ewans, the backbone of the story, are really a kind of secular haunting – it is she who features most prominently in the narrative, even after her death, to the point that Thomas himself is all but erased (much like in Du Maurier’s Rebecca). Within the novel’s first few pages we’re told, “I felt that I made little impression at the time, as was common when I met people.” What we do get, though, is to see the world through the narrator’s studious, precise eyes: the awe that he feels upon seeing the Laothoepopuli moth, its strange, talismanic hold upon him.
There’s also a sense of decay shot throughout the whole thing: Phyllis Ewans’s house is “a mausoleum of scales”, for example; at one point she spends “several hours rummaging through bureaus filled with Lepidoptera journals, half-finished mounts – the contents of which had since heavily disintegrated – and various scraps of essays of articles and essays.” The squalor is all curiously unacknowledged, as though the narrator simply accepts this as the way the world is, and this makes his narration all the more disquieting: we sense that there is something not quite right here, even as we can’t pin down what it is.
Arguably, Mothlight will test some people’s patience. It is a novel that resides in the gaps, that demands its reader do the work. What are we supposed to infer from the fact that “of the photographs Phyllis Ewans kept, Billie is marked almost wholly by her absence: landscapes, houses, moths, pictures of rooms in her Cheshire house, but next to none of her sister”? Scovell doesn’t like to spell it out, instead preferring to let it linger, and to let us guess – all of which makes for a book that needs to be read slowly, chewed over, but that’s all the more powerful for it.
What to are we to make of Phyllis Ewans’ apparent deceptions, or at the very least her confusions? What of the echoes of his own life that Thomas finds in Phyllis Ewans’ photographs, or the moment in which Thomas begins to blur with Phyllis herself in his memory: “it must have been my own voice,” he says, “crying out when seeing the butterfly in the woods. But in my memory it is also Miss Ewans calling out after that flash of delphinium darting amongst the trees”. It is, at times, frustrating that Scovell doesn’t wholly answer this (deliberately, I think), but it also highlights Mothlight’s great strength: its atmosphere, the evocation of the strangeness we experience in the everyday. It’s a novel steeped in ghosts, rooted in an English landscape, and I’ve little doubt that many people will find its sensations very recognisable.
For my part I found certain stylistic tics a little affected – Thomas’s insistence on referring to Phyllis Ewans by her full names at certain points, and by Miss Ewans at others, bothered me – and as much as Scovell wants to make the image of Thomas surrounded by “a cacophony of moth wings” seem chilling, I didn’t feel its full power. But I rather think that the point of Mothlight is to haunt its reader, to tell a story about how our memories of people or books or places are their own kinds of possession, and it’s certainly lingered with me long after reading. A success, then.
Mothlight is published by Influx Press and was released in February 2019. You can find it online at Amazon here, or better yet, buy it directly from Influx Press here – because although it looks like it’s only a pound more expensive on their site, their takings will much bigger with a direct sale.
You should really also be following Influx Press on Twitter, as their upcoming releases are always exciting and they have exciting plans for 2019. They’re a publisher that’s going places.
Thanks to Influx Press for providing a free copy of Mothlight for review.