Tuesday 18 October 2022

CBR14 Book 28: "Svarte-Mathilda" (Black Mathilda) by Tor Arve Røssland

Page count: 154 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Twenty years after a teenage girl was brutally murdered in a small town near Bergen, Elizabeth moves into the long-empty flat with her mother. Elizabeth's parents are going through a divorce, and in a tragic accident a while back, Elizabeth's older brother died in a fire. She hates that they had to move away from her old home and her friends in Bergen, that her mother doesn't seem to want to talk to her at all, and she certainly doesn't like their new home. The flat never seems to get warm, even if they keep a fire on in the fireplace and turn the heating up to high. In addition, Elizabeth's phone doesn't seem to be holding its charge and has very spotty reception, so she can't call or message her friends.

In the first few days there, Elizabeth also experiences some really scary things. She's convinced the sees blood all over the bathroom floor at one point and gets locked in there while she feels long clawed fingers reaching for her. She also hears voices whispering and is getting very freaked out. Meanwhile, her mother hasn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, except the unusually cold temperature in the flat, and she thinks Elizabeth may have a delayed grief reaction and considers getting the girl a therapist.

When Elizabeth starts her new school, the teacher seems shocked when she announces where she lives, and one of the boys, Philip, claims that her flat is known as the "murder place". He recounts how twenty years earlier, Marie van Vleet was found locked in the bathroom, stabbed multiple times, with her face all scratched up. Philip's dad is a policeman and this was his first murder case, so it made an impression on him. Elizabeth is a bit skeptical, but at the same time, her new home being the location of an unsolved murder might explain some of the strange paranormal stuff she's been experiencing. When she gets home, after spending several hours at the local burger joint listening to Philip recounting grisly murder details, her mother is upset that she's late, but also happy she seems to be making a friend. Later, Elizabeth once again finds herself locked into a room, this time, it's her own bedroom and a voice seems to be whispering warnings to her. She feels something shoved into her hand and discovers that it's the library card of Marie van Vleet. 

Elizabeth convinces Philip to accompany her to the local library the next day, where they make up a story about Philip's bedridden aunt who really wants to find a book she borrowed over twenty years ago. The junior librarian, Viggo, helps them but is reprimanded once the senior librarian discovers what he has done, and whose book records he's shown the two nosy teenagers. She explains that Marie van Vleet is long dead, and the teenagers should stop lying and leave the library. Viggo, however, is quite intrigued and offers to help the kids do research. Marie was clearly doing some research of her own, having read a lot about local history and a lot about folklore and the supernatural. They find a picture of a dark-haired and dark-eyed young girl called Mathilda from the 1880s and Viggo remembers an urban legend of a "Bloody Mary" style ghost called Black Mathilda. Supposedly, if you go into a dark room with a mirror, holding a lit candle or a flashlight, and call her name seven times, she will appear. He claims it's all coincidence and superstition, but Elizabeth is not so sure. Viggo has also found what seems to be Marie's diary among the library archives, and gives it to Elizabeth, as it's not really library property.

When reading the diary, Elizabeth discovers that the ornate and creepy mirror in their bathroom, which seems very old and not at all in the style of the other bathroom fittings, was in fact put there by Marie, who found it in the attic along with some old paintings. She, like Elizabeth, was living with her mother after her parents split and seemed determined to do as much as possible to aggravate her Mum. Putting in an ancient mirror seems to have done the trick. Further reading of the diary seems to suggest that there might be a link between the 19th Century Mathilda and the mirror, and the urban legend might not be so fictional after all. When Philip suggests they test the theory by locking themselves in the bathroom with a flashlight and calling for Mathilda, Elizabeth reluctantly agrees, and unsurprisingly, some really creepy and very much supernatural stuff goes down.

Parallel with the story of Elizabeth, Philip, and their investigation of Marie's murder, the readers get the story of a young happy couple in the 1880s settling on a large, prosperous farm in the west of Norway, a few hours away from the town where Elizabeth now lives. The wife has a baby, whom they name Mathilda, but she dies while Mathilda is very young, and a persuasive and slightly scary governess is hired, who brings her own daughter with her to the farm. Mathilda befriends the girl, who is disabled and seems to be feared by the other local children. As the years go by, the governess comes to wield a lot of power in the household and keeps persuading the father, who is also the local magistrate, to spend more time away from the farm. Then one by one, the local children start disappearing and are found dead and mutilated in the woods. How does this sinister tale intersect with that of Elizabeth and Marie?

Svarte-Mathilda is the first book in a trilogy about Elizabeth and her scary experiences with Black Mathilda. In the first book, Elizabeth's friend Philip disappears without a trace after they foolishly perform the ritual. Elizabeth is left stabbed in the stomach with her mother convinced Philip attacked her and ran away. Elizabeth needs to figure out the connection between the scary mirror in her flat, her friend's disappearance, and the historical events she has read about, or the curse of Black Mathilda will end up with her dead. 

This is a really rather creepy ghost story, with the suspense gradually building and some really nice touches throughout. All three books in the series have apparently been bestsellers and very popular among teens, and nominated for "Uprisen", a national book award voted for by teenage readers throughout Norway. My colleagues and I who teach Norwegian are currently all reading a little bit of the book out loud to our Norwegian class each lesson, and I obviously had to read the book myself before teaching it in class. Since our second theme of the year (very suitably for autumn) is going to be Scary things, reading a horror mystery seemed fitting. Some of the kids have already read the book, but are very good about not spoiling things for the rest of the class. 

I can see why this book has remained popular among teens since it was released in 2010. At under 200 pages long, it's a quick read and it mixes historical fiction with a contemporary murder mystery and a ghost story really well. Some of the contemporary mystery stuff could easily have been the plot of a 'monster of the week' episode of Supernatural. 

While my TBR list for the coming months is pretty packed, I'm absolutely going to find the time to read the two sequels as well. I need to find out more about how Mathilda became a vengeful ghost and whether Elizabeth is successful in locating and saving her friend Philip.

Judging a book by its cover: While maybe a bit simple, the cover strikes a nice tone for a mystery, with the font being very old-fashioned, in keeping with the historical side of the story. The fancy frame of the mirror, complete with a creepy child and blood-red background seems like a very obvious choice. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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