“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is pretending he doesn’t exist.” A quote from a movie the Reverend Jack Brooks can’t get out of her head as she uncovers the evil secrets of the church in Chapel Croft, a remote Sussex village to which Brooks has been exiled by her bishop. Yes, Jack is short for Jacqueline, a widow with a fifteen year old daughter, Flo, a ballsy woman priest who tends to get far too involved with her parishioners’ problems. Her banishment from her previous church in Nottingham is the result of adverse publicity after she tried to help an abused child, who subsequently died. So her penance is to replace the vicar of Chapel Croft, who has died himself in strange circumstances. Jack quickly discovers he actually hanged himself in the church, but nobody wants to talk about it. Because Chapel Croft is a village full of secrets, malevolent spirits and macabre traditions. Like the Burning Girls Flo finds in the churchyard, miniature effigies, tiny dolls made from twigs, made by villagers to commemorate the Sussex Martyrs, women burned at the stake 500 years ago during Queen Mary’s purge of the Protestants. Each year, on the anniversary, the villagers enjoy burning the dolls.
As you’ll have gathered from Judy’s introduction, Chapel Croft is a very strange place indeed, full of ancient secrets, horrifying mementos and apocalyptic discoveries in the church’s gruesome vaults. Who left the mediaeval exorcism kit, stained with blood, for Jack to find? Did the previous vicar really hang himself, or did someone kill him because he knew too much? Why does Jack’s rundown cottage smell of burning? And are Flo’s terrifying graveyard visions of two young girls in flames, a product of her adolescent imagination, or something much more sinister? Then there’s the question of the two teenage girls who mysteriously disappeared from the village 30 years ago. Are they missing or dead?
Jack has disturbing family secrets of her own; and so, weaving all these mysteries together, this splendidly gothic horror story leads us to its spectacularly haunting conclusion. C J Tudor is a mistress of the macabre. As Stephen King himself says, “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.” And we do. Very much.