‘… I have often said that when you have eliminated the natural, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the supernatural.’ – Dr Samuel Johnson
The Fall of the House of Thomas Weir by Andrew Neil MacLeod begins with Alexander Boyle, the rational nightwatchman of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the place with the reputation of the most haunted graveyard in the world, doing his nightly rounds. This night in mid-1773 does not end well for Boyle ‘…even as the scream found its way to his throat, the part of Alexander Boyle that scorned the existence of ghosts— and laughed in the face of bogles, kelpies, selkies, banshees and hobgoblins— was gone forever’.
Meanwhile, Doctor Samuel Johnson, man of letters and lexicographer, has arrived in Edinburgh to visit his friend James Boswell, diarist and lawyer, and undertake a tour with him through the highlands of Scotland. Beyond his literary skills Dr Johnson is also knowledgeable and experienced in occult and supernatural phenomena – something the history books failed to tell us! With his arrival, there are hopes that he will be able to solve the mystery of the Ghoul of Greyfriars ‘a faceless cadaver in a coarsely woven monk’s habit’ who, beyond leaving the nightwatchman a gibbering mess, has been seen abroad in Edinburgh and is implicated in several robberies. Boswell’s immediate response to the nightwatchman’s experience is to consider it more likely the result of drink. But when Dr Johnson and James Boswell set out to picnic on Arthur’s Seat, the most striking of the hills overlooking Edinburgh, a mist descends. Separated, Dr Johnson is attacked by a flock of murderous crows and Boswell is brought to a cliff edge after chasing through the mist after what seems to be his daughter. It is immediately apparent to Dr Johnson that they have been subject to an intense psychic attack. As Dr Johnson says ‘Something doesn’t want us poking our noses around its city.’
What follows is a riveting tale of horror, secret societies, and conspiracy that threaten not only Edinburgh and those who live there but could have far-reaching consequences for the future of the whole of civilization. And at the centre of these threats are the underground streets and tunnels beneath Edinburgh’s Old Town and the abandoned house passers-by will cross the street to avoid, that of Thomas Weir a man who lived over 100 years earlier – ‘a vile hypocrite, polluted by crimes of the most despicable nature, and blasphemies too terrible to repeat’.
This is nail-biting historical fantasy/horror that increases in intensity as the story progresses. Edinburgh and its surroundings, from the cobbles and the wynds of the Old Town to the majesty of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat, are vividly described. The reader gets a strong sense of the time with its hierarchical society and its extremes of poverty and wealth. The characters are well drawn, Boswell and Johnson both personable in their own ways. The more minor characters are distinct and brought to life within a few sentences. Andrew Neil MacLeod’s prose has the flavour of 18th century English without being stilted. Many of the chapters begin with excerpt from letters, reports and Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s casebooks of supernatural cases. The casebook extracts, in particular, are beautifully written in prose similar to the historical James Boswell’s own writings.
There are historical elements in the novel that have been changed to fit the needs of the storyline but I don’t see how any reader can complain about this when they are reading about ghouls and ghosts and other barely-speakable creatures of the dark.
The Fall of the House of Thomas Weir is a memorable and satisfying read, though I would recommend not reading too late at night. It is the first volume in Andrew Neil MacLeod’s series The Casebook of Johnson and Boswell.