Claire Ryan has been evicted by her landlord, but chances to find an affordable alternative: a flat in a building that was once a Victorian asylum called Belle Vue. Her boyfriend Alex, a history student, is more than happy with this development as he can base his latest research project around the building’s heritage. In the process, he comes across all manner of intrigue: a missing nurse, a human heart found in a patient’s belongings, and rumours of Satanic worship.
While staying at the repurposed Belle Vue, Claire falls victim to what appears to be a venereal disease. She and Alex suspect each other of being unfaithful and their relationship is torn apart, but that the true cause of Claire’s illness is something other than mere infidelity: the dark history of Belle Vue is bubbling into the present, with the young couple caught right in the middle of a supernatural nightmare…
As the novel’s “about the author” section makes clear, C. S. Alleyne has long been fascinated by history that is hidden in plain sight. After learning that a local block of flats was built on the site of a Victorian asylum – an inmate of which had been murdered, allegedly by their sister – she found the narrative captivating enough to form the loose basis of her debut novel, Belle Vue.
The book is split between two periods in time, sharing alternate chapters: one strand focuses on Claire, Alex and their social circle in the present day, while the other is set in the Victorian era when Belle Vue was still an insane asylum. The main players in the latter narrative are fifteen-year-old Ellen Grady and her half-sister Mary, whose close relationship is strained by the death of Ellen’s mother – a woman viewed by Mary with contempt, so much so that she turns up at the funeral wearing garish make-up and crimson clothes. The orphaned Ellen is forced to stay at Belle Vue Asylum until her circumstances improve, but finds that her life will only get worse.
The asylum’s head attendant Bill Callahan is brutally abusive towards those around him. He has a particular fondness for sexually molesting female inmates; indeed, the novel’s prologue contains a graphic rape scene. As this was a time in which people were routinely locked up for trivial reasons (Alex lists several in a modern-day chapter, including “sudden loss of several cows” and “intemperance of wife”) Callahan has no shortage of victims at his disposal:
Well, well. Ellen Grady and the epileptic. In mid-fit by the look of it. He watched as the girl’s face contorted. Her body jerked like a marionette being played by a madman. Mary’s half-sister on her knees trying to help, her hands covered with red as the bubbles sprayed from the girl’s mouth. His excitement grew at the sight.
The nineteenth-century chapters themselves hop back and forth in time. One of these recursions describes how Mary, while working as a scullion in the London home of a French aristocrat, witnesses a gathering of devil-worshippers:
The men stepped and set the litter down on the marble floor. The figure rose and swaggered toward the platform. With slow deliberation, the towering form climbed the steps. All eyes upon him, the tension stretched ever tighter.
He turned, and Mary felt his eyes rake hers. Trembling, she mentally made a sign of the cross as she gazed at this man dressed as Satan. Tight red leather covered his head from which two curled horns rose at the top and two large pointed ears jutted out on either side. The top of his beard was sharp, and like his moustache and eyebrows, jet black as though painted for effect. He wore a red costume from which a huge erect leather penis waved obscenely each time he moved.
The night’s revelries culminate in a human sacrifice, an incident that provides much of the later motivation for Mary’s character.
There is a thick vein of class satire running through the novel’s portrayal of the devil-worshippers. We learn that the Duc de Montalt – the aristocrat who plays host to the debauched activities of the Mephisto Club – narrowly escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution, and since then has prolonged his life through occult means. Naturally, membership of the club overlaps with the staff at Belle Vue, providing a complete food chain from the death-cheating aristocrat right down to the latest poor soul to be chained to an asylum bed.
True to Gothic tradition, the horrors of the past have a habit of encroaching into the present. The ghostly phenomena becomes apparent at Claire’s housewarming party, with such incidents as an unexplained figure glimpsed in the flat’s spare room and Claire being inexplicably gabbed by the neck when the lights are out. The happenings grow in intensity, with Claire hallucinating past atrocities; Alex, too, falls victim to weird visions, as when he sees Claire transform during sex:
He suddenly frowned as the smell hit him. Alex’s body stiffened. As he opened his eyes the pulsating hardness between his legs shriveled to nothing: her hair was filthy, the long greasy stands alive with movement. He leaped away from her, cringing.
“You’re crawling with fleas!” he shrieked, frantically slapping at his body. Claire groaned, then rolled onto her back. But it wasn’t Claire who stared up at him. A yellow-tinged, black-lipped face fixed him with lifeless eyes.
It has to be admitted that the ghost-story element of Belle Vue is often familiar – we even get another outing for that old favourite, the food-turned-into-wriggling-bugs scene. The main appeal of these sections is not so much the supernatural phenomena itself as the puzzle aspect, as we assemble the pieces to work out exactly which tragedies from the past have become the ghosts of the present. The central figure in the mystery is Claire’s best friend Marianne, an oddly ambiguous character – sometimes fearful and other times confident, knowing more than she lets on – who clearly has some connection to the Victorian girl, Mary. Even if the reader has deduced the general picture, there is still enjoyment to be had in seeing the narrative slot itself together.
While the eerie hauntings provide atmosphere, the novel’s real capacity to shock lies in its stark brutality, ably demonstrated when – a little under two-thirds of the way through – it kills a major member of its cast. Just as startling as the death itself is the callous response from the surviving characters, something that can only partly be attributed to supernatural mind-alteration. Sacrificing reader sympathy in this manner is risky, but in the case of Belle Vue it pays off, the plot carrying on under built-up momentum as the overall mood descends still further into darkness.
With Belle Vue, C. S. Alleyne has written a densely-packed horror story with as many levels as the block of flats in which Claire suffers her ordeal. It has haunted-house spookiness, graphically convincing depictions of abuse and predatory behaviour, devilish goings-on at the Mephisto Club, and gripping psychological turmoil as the characters’ relationships are sundered. Through all of this, the novel succeeds in maintaining a brisk pace: the reader is taken on a frantic dash from corridor to stairway – each room somehow managing to introduce one more terror to the narrative.