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The Late Review: Mothlight

24th May, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Adam Scovell's first book was the non-fiction study Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, published by Auteur in 2017. Mothlight, his first novel, appeared from Influx Press in 2019. It's a work that straddles the boundary between mainstream and genre, with an emphasis on landscape and the natural world that you'd expect from someone with the author's pedigree.

As a boy Thomas is fascinated by Phyllis Ewans, a prominent researcher in lepidoptera and a keen walker but, after the death of her elder sister Billie, Thomas' family break off relations with the woman. Phyllis moves to London and it isn't until many years later, when he is himself working as a lepidopterist, that Thomas comes across her again and eases himself into Phyllis' life. From her he has gained both an interest in moths and an enjoyment of walking in the country, particularly the Welsh hills. Eventually Thomas becomes her carer and when Phyllis dies he inherits her house and all its contents. Such is his obsession that he is haunted by Phyllis, at times even feels himself to be her. Stumbling across old photographs and hidden documents, he attempts to put together the woman's history and uncover the great mystery that he feels lies behind the figure of Phyllis Ewans as a way to get closure and set himself free.

This is an unusual and fascinating book, with the story told in part by means of black and white photographs and other documents reproduced in the text, each of them clues in the investigation Thomas is mounting. We watch as he puts each piece of the puzzle in place, and we feel for his keen sense of loss, the grief that is so strongly felt it imperils his mental health. And along the way, though it is only suggested, we come to see that this is also a ghost story, but whether Thomas haunts Miss Ewans or she haunts him is open to conjecture. It is obsession taken to the point where the obsessed identifies totally with the object of his obsession, where the two become one and the same. In parodying Miss Ewans' career and lifestyle, Thomas abdicates his own psychological autonomy. He is, in a sense, a moth himself, drawn to her light and, eventually, wanting this reliance to end, but at the same time she is a specimen that he wants to pin down for examination. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. The end result of all this effort is a careful and controlled exposure of how people can become lost in their own lives, a chilling study of abnegation. Mothlight is a clever book, one that delivers its horrors in the most amiable of tones, giving us a variation on the ghost story that is as refreshing as it is individual. I liked it very much.





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