Hungary 1609, and Maria, a young peasant girl, is an accomplished seamstress who dreams of a more prosperous life, away from the constant threat of war, famine and disease. Then an old woman arrives at the cottage and informs Maria that she has been chosen by Countess Elizabeth Bathory to sew a series of elaborate gowns.
Entranced by the nobility, Maria dreams of receiving lavish attention and being invited into Countess Bathory's inner circle. But upon arriving at the castle she suspects she is in terrible danger. Servants are beaten and then disappear, the Countess herself is prone to fits of rage, and there are screams in the middle of the night. As Maria explores the castle and unravels its inner secrets, she finds herself a prisoner, as well as an unwilling pawn in Countess Bathory's murderous plot to retain both her power and beauty.
Michael Howarth’s A Still and Awful Red is the best book I have read all year. I adored it. I could not put it down. It is also a novel I can easily imagine as either a popular movie or as a bingeworthy Netflix series. I stayed awake all night reading it. It combined in the most dizzying way all of my favorite fairy tales like “Snow White,” “Aladdin,” “Rapunzel” and even darker stories like “Bluebeard” with my favorite Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Carmilla and Dracula. But what fascinated me and addicted me so much about Howarth’s novel was how original it was. I could hear countless echoes to what constitutes both the fairy tale and the Gothic tradition but I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. Moments that would play out one way in the fairy tales and Gothic novels I knew so well became fresh, unexpected, inspiring and shocking. It was like Howarth has rewritten both the fairy tale and the Gothic tradition and has moved these genres into a future landscape that never could have been dreamed about before. This is even more remarkable given that A Still and Awful Red is a historical novel. I cannot praise A Still and Awful Red enough. I can’t stop thinking about it. Even if you don’t like horror novels (which I normally don’t), I feel like you will still have my same excited reaction to A Still and Awful Red. It is a life-changing, genre-changing book.
Let me start with, "not a horror fan", so this was a big step in reading. My hope rested in the author being a college professor, and not prone to gratuitous violence. A couple of chapters in, I did some research on the Countess of Bathory. Okay, wow! She really didn't need exaggeration. In blood play she was, all that and a bag of chips. Howarth uses a seamstress, intended victim, and general factotum to the Countess, to tell his well crafted story. Think Julia Roberts in the Jeckel/Hyde movie.
From what I've read about the Countess, the author took a story that could have been turned into a continuous blood bath, (pun intended) and used a skilled touch. He makes the reader provide his own picture, thus scaring you worse than a factual slap in the face. Even as Maria is actually scrubbing the Countess with the blood, we feel more for her revulsion, and fear, than our own reaction. I went back and fourth, arguing Maria's culpability, or innocence, to the very last paragraph.
The book reads fast and you are hooked from the very start. The Grimm Brothers have nothing on this author. Read in one setting, I can't recommend this book enough. Just read it in the daylight.
If you love horror, read this. Fuck, if you don't *love* horror, you should read this. Although if you can't do gruesome, maybe don't. I don't know how there isn't more reviews for this one; there really should be!! I'm going to try to get a few copies of this in my bookstore so I can hand sell this shit. I've always been morbidly interested in Elizabeth Bathory and this satisfied (? I don't really know if that's the right phrasing) my curiosity. Loved Maria and her daring ambition to expose this utter and grim darkness occurring within the walls of the Countess's castle. But like, yeeeesss. This was hard to put down and enthralling from start to finish.
Simply phenomenal! This book is dark and ominous. The reader is constantly left in the edge of their seat, wondering what’s around the next corner. I literally couldn’t put it down. Strongly recommend it to anyone who likes horror or gothic or suspenseful books. It’s just so so good.