THE BLOG
12/18/2013 11:32 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Bone-chilling Books to Curl Up With: Lynn Shepherd's A Fatal Likeness

I love winter.

The snow is falling, and ice forms on the window -- a crystal pattern reminding you that it's much too cold to leave the comfort of home. On dark evenings like these, I want nothing more than a good book, but you won't catch me reading about Rudolph. In the classic Christmas tradition of bonny old England, I consider this a season for hauntings.

I am not alone. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol remains one of the most popular of seasonal stories, ghosts and all. But this year, I have opted for a different kind of thriller: Lynn Shepherd's A Fatal Likeness [Treacherous Likeness in the UK edition]. A labyrinthine mystery, the tale explores the grim and secret lives of two literary giants: poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

I am a historian of medicine and have been a professor of literature. I have taught Frankenstein in both contexts, and despite the years of repetition, I still find it a chilling tale (as do my students). But I find the mysterious lives of the author and her husband just as strange and frequently as bitter. Death and disaster seem to have haunted them, dogging their steps as nearly as any monster. Speculation about the mental stability of Percy -- or indeed of Mary -- abounds (for more, see Lynn Shepherd's guest post "The Obscure Part of my Own Nature"). What can we make of their bizarre relationship? What can we piece together from the texts (fiction, poetry, journal, letter) left behind?

These questions are at the heart of A Fatal Likeness. We follow Charles Maddox -- fresh from his exploits in Shepherd's The Solitary House -- employed by the surviving son of Percy and Mary for unclear and dubious purposes. What begins as a bitter dispute over the poet's legacy becomes a retrospective murder investigation for Charles, who wonders what really happened to Percy's first wife Harriet. But in this strange tale of doubles and double-bluffs, one secret only leads to more. Who are the real victims? What is the true crime? And could Charles' own uncle Maddox somehow be bound up in the web of 30-year-old lies?

In many ways, A Fatal Likeness is a Chinese Box -- the term often given to the structure of literary classics like Turn of the Screw or Wuthering Heights. There are stories within stories, nested like serpents, one inside the other, until the reader (like the protagonist) doesn't know who or what to trust. There is no 'ah-ha' moment, no comfortable denouement. With each clue gained, we are plunged precipitously into the next inexplicable mire, breathless and hurried until the very last page. Only then do we pause for breath, but it is not the contented satisfaction of truth discovered; it is the cold knowledge of a truth discovered too late. As Maddox the elder admits from the haze of illness: It was the not telling that caused me pain.

For me, that is the genius of this tale. You will participate. You cannot help but be part of it. Each of us has questioned, at least once, his or her own senses. Many of us has wondered if -- in some distant part of our soul -- we are divided against ourselves. This is a story of just such a treacherous likeness, one that will keep you guessing to the very end about exactly who has haunted whom.

So curl up. Steep the tea. Let the snow fall in drifts. You have reading to do.