“Blind Terror”: Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight


The foot of this buttress was lipped by the fog, which held the lower ground still invisible under its pale tide. The glen itself, the loch, the long Atlantic bay, all lay hidden, drowned under the mist which stretched like a still white lake from  Blaven to Sgurr na Stri, from Garsven to Marsco. And out of it, on every hand, the mountains rose, blue and purple and golden-green in the sunlight, swimming above the vaporous sea like fabulous islands. Below, blind terror might grope still in the choking grey here above, where I stood, was a new and golden world. I might have been alone in the dawn of time, watching the first mountains rear themselves out of the clouds of chaos. . . .

But I was not alone.

Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight is exactly what I expected from both the author and the genre: atmospheric, suspenseful, fast-paced, and predictable–not in the details of the murder plot but in the overall arc, which takes us from innocence through fear and suspicion to a pat romantic happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Stewart performs all of the necessary maneuvers for romantic suspense so well and also so briskly (it’s just over 200 mass market paperback-sized pages) that it never feels overblown or self-important the way I sometimes feel more recent thrillers become. She isn’t trying to “transcend the genre”: she’s entirely at home in it and as a result, so was I.

Stewart is also a fine stylist–not as elegant or original as Daphne du Maurier, but in the same vein. Here, for instance, is one of many vivid evocations of the Isle of Skye, where the action takes place:

Above us towered the enormous cliffs of the south ridge, gleaming-black with rain, rearing steeply out of the precipitous scree like a roach-backed monster from the waves. The scree itself was terrifying enough. It fell away from the foot of the upper cliffs, hundreds of feet of fallen stone, slippery and overgrown and treacherous with hidden holes and loose rocks, which looked as if a false step  might bring half the mountain-side down in one murderous avalanche. . . .

I stopped and looked up. Streams of wind-torn mist raced and broke round the buttresses of the dreadful rock; against its sheer precipices the driven clouds wrecked themselves in swirls of smoke; and, black and terrible, above the movement of the storm, behind the racing riot of grey cloud, loomed and vanished and loomed again the great devil’s pinnacles that broke the sky and split the winds into streaming rack. Blaven flew its storms like a banner.


The mountains are not just the setting for the malevolence that unfolds but (in a rather absurd but still chilling way) the motive for them–a nice touch, I thought. And they also set us up for a thrilling denouement played out against their crags and crevices:

I went up the end of that buttress like a cat, like a lizard, finding holds where no holds were, gripping the rough rock with stockinged feet and fingers which seemed endowed with miraculous, prehensile strength. . . .

The enormous wing of rock soared up in front of me up to the high crags. Its top was, perhaps, eight feet wide, and strode upwards at a dizzy angle, in giant steps and serrations, like an enormous ruined staircase. I had landed, somehow, on the lowest tread, and I flung myself frantically at the face of the next step, just as the ring of boots on rock told me that he had started after me.

The particular terrors of rock-climbing, hardly a safe or relaxing sport under ordinary circumstances (at least to a risk-averse person like me), give the necessary cliche of a chase scene some fresh excitement.

I picked this old copy off my shelf somewhat randomly and am glad I did: it was a perfect afternoon’s diversion, better, perhaps, than This Rough Magic, which I read a couple of years ago with my book group. I have a couple other vintage Stewart paperbacks on the same shelf and I also picked up some ebooks of hers when they were on sale a while ago: this is a good reminder to me to actually read them! I was also reminded on Twitter of her Arthurian novels, which I am fairly sure I read years ago and would like to revisit.

The Enchanted Island: Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic

stewartIt was very interesting reading This Rough Magic so soon after Jamaica Inn. My book club likes to follow a thread from one book to the next; we picked Stewart as another good example of vintage romantic suspense, and settled on This Rough Magic because it’s one of her most popular titles. We did better than we knew: This Rough Magic turns out to have more than genre in common with Jamaica Inn, for it too turns on secrets pursued in the dark of night, and on the threat and power of the sea. Both novels highlight close relationships in an isolated and, to our outsiders’ eyes, exotic community, and both writers spend a lot of time on the landscape that provides the setting for their characters’ adventures.

The juxtaposition was not really to Stewart’s advantage, though. Her novel seemed thin by comparison: her landscapes are picturesque but unlike du Maurier’s they do not evoke unfolding layers of character and plot; her story is simplistically suspenseful — it induces curiosity about how things will turn out — but not ingenious, twisty, or, again, layered; her people are deceptive on the surface but offer no surprises once they are known as good guys or bad guys. I enjoyed reading This Rough Magic, but it didn’t provoke me to much thought: unless I really missed something, it doesn’t have much “aboutness.”

This is not to say that there’s nothing notable about This Rough Magic. Most obvious is its saturation with allusions to The Tempest: there’s the title, of course, but also the epigraphs to every chapter are from the play, and a number of characters are named for it too. The novel is set on Corfu, and much is made of the possibility that the Greek island is the play’s “real” setting. It has been a long time since I knew much about The Tempest, so I could be wrong about this, but it didn’t seem to me that this material was being used more than decoratively — to create an atmosphere of otherworldly enchantment. It’s a highly theatrical novel, quite literally, as the heroine, Lucy Waring, is an aspiring actress and the nearby “Castello” has been rented out to Sir Julian Gale, a legendary actor whose mysterious ailment folds into the rest of the novel’s mysteries. They both have occasion to use their acting skills in service of the plot, but I didn’t see this as a thematically telling development except to the extent that in any mystery, a lot of people are “acting” parts that aren’t entirely their own.

Another notable feature of the novel is its attention to its literal setting. Stewart is clearly fascinated by a certain vision of Greece — and of Greeks, Greek men in particular. There’s actually a character named “Adonis,” for instance:

In a country where beauty among the young is a common-place, he was still striking. He had the fine Byzantine features, with the clear skin and huge, long-lashed eyes that one sees staring down from the walls of every church in Greece; the type which El Greco himself immortalised, and which still, recognisably, walks the streets. Not that this young man conformed in anything but the brilliant eyes and the hauntingly perfect structure of the face  . . .


Stewart knows she and Lucy are trading in clichés and saves the moment by having Adonis himself wink at it: “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” he says. But he and the rest of the Greek characters really do seem little more than types, and like the allusions to The Tempest, the details of local culture fill in the setting but add no particular meaning. They also feel somewhat touristy — that is, this is Greece for visitors that we’re seeing, with its quaint parades and stoic villagers and handsome young men and blue, blue water. I recognize it, because I was there once (that’s me on Corfu many years ago) and saw it much the same way. It’s a very beautiful place to look at (or let one’s imagination linger in), but This Rough Magic is not a novel about Greece in any meaningful way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But I wonder if I could convince my book club to read Zorba the Greek next.

The other really memorable thing about This Rough Magic is the dolphin. I think maybe the dolphin is the reason the novel needs The Tempest — and Corfu, for that matter. Corfu makes the dolphin plausible, but  The Tempest allows the dolphin to be magical.