The Distant Hours: Ancient secrets trapped in a stone castle

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

From the first pages, readers are captured by the dark tale of the Mud Man, the book within the story. It has all the haunting charm of a Gothic novel, a house wherein lie the: “stones of Milderhurst Castle, beneath whose skin the distant hours were whispering, watching.”(452) It parallels the lives of several women, all closely connected by the castle, Raymond Blythe, the author of The True History of the Mud Man, and the tragedies and inner demons that haunt all who live or love those who lived at Milderhurst. Edith Burchill is asked by the owner of her small editing company to interview the twin sisters (who also will later narrate their stories) Saffy and Percy Blythe, who live with their baby sister, the town lunatic, Juniper. The three are now elderly woman who once housed Edith’s own mother during the London raids of WWI, and each sister bears her own secret burden that she still conceals from the others. This story is told from the various perspectives of each of the women and the two men who connect them all, in order to create a perfectly overlapping history of what has happened within the last century at Milderhurst. The Distant Hours is a leap into the past and deep revelation of human nature that will only create an addiction as the reader seeks to discover the true ending.

Recommendations:

For a story of a house with a dark, twisted history and even more twisted characters, try Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

For a story of a writer haunted by her past, who is more connected to it than she realizes and to the haunted grounds on which she is seeking to write, try The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman.

For a book of short stories with astonishing twists and gloomy characters, try The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier.

You can also try any of the other recommendations within this book, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Pearl Poet. There are even more books mentioned in the story as well. Just make a mental note to look for them as you read.

The Recipe:

Pecan Pear Custard Cake

Pecan Pear Custard Cake

makes one 9″ x 13″ cake

Ingredients: 1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk 1/2 cup buttermilk 1 cup yogurt (I prefer Greek yogurt because of it’s thickness) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 1/2 cups flour (unbleached or a mixture of 2 cups unbleached and 1/2 cup whole wheat) 1/4 cup wheat bran (optional — or just use more whole wheat flour) 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar 1 stick unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1 inch cubes 1 cup pear puree 1/2 cup chopped pecans, plus a handful of nice halves for the top of the cake 1 pear sliced thinly, for top of cake

Directions: Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 9″ x 13″ pan. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolk, buttermilk, yogurt, pear puree and vanilla extract. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together into a large bowl. Whisk the sugars into the flour mixture. Cut the butter into the flour/sugar mixture until the butter is the size of small peas. Mix the liquid into the dry ingredients, without over mixing. Add the pecans at the end, with as few strokes as possible. Pour into the prepared 9″ x 13″ pan. Place the thinly sliced pear and pecan pieces on top of the cake, in whatever decorative pattern you want. Bake for 40 – 45 minutes. The batter may still be moist: this cake will be more dense and moist than a regular ‘cake’. Cool on a rack before slicing and serving, warm or at room temperature, or even cold from the fridge. Store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week. Reheat in the oven or toaster oven.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Eron Sandler

Discussion Questions:

1. How do you feel about the story within the story, “The True History of the Mud Man?” Was it interesting, did you want there to be more to it? Be honest: Did you look it up, hoping it was a real book you could read?

2. Do you believe the memories of a house can haunt or influence people who live in or visit it? Have you or anyone you know ever experienced anything like that?

3. Were you afraid of Juniper, or do you pity her?

4. What about the girl’s father, Raymond, is he a victim or a tormentor? Or is he merely a product of the generations and his upbringing? Does his mental health play a role at all, and does that mean Juniper’s mental issues are entirely genetic, or were they created, indulged, or enhanced by his treatment of her?

5. What did you think of the contrast of the scene where Tom Cavill meets Juniper Blythe, and of the way the author showed it from both perspectives? Was that helpful in gaining a more rounded view, or did you find it monotonous?

6. Does the dynamic between Edie’s mother and her aunt Rita at all resemble the contrast of Percy and Saffy? What specific instances make you think so?

7. Was it wrong of Edith to read her mother’s letters? Or was it justified since her mother was always so closed off, and she was merely seeking a way to get closer to her, and to understand the sisters better that she would be writing about?

8. What are some of the differences between Percy and Saffy? Which one of them stronger and what makes them so?

9. Would you say the Mud Man was purely a fictional character to Raymond Blythe? Was it his muse? Or do you feel it was an embodiment of all his mental torments his whole life? Or was it a real ghost that caused all the tragedies within the castle?

10. How do you feel about the conclusion of the story of the sisters Blythe? Had you guessed it correctly, or were you shocked? Did it seem an appropriate way for them to go?

Bonus questions relating to other books:

1. The other books that were mentioned as favorites of Edie’s— Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre—have you read any of them? Do you see any similarities between any of their themes and this story, or their characters and these?

2. Do the sisters Blythe-Seraphina, Persephone, and Juniper-bear any similarities that you notice to the real life Bronte sisters? What about in their different writing styles, subjects, or methods? How about in their personalities?

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