The Minotaur, By Barbara Vine, Shaye Areheart, 341 pp., $25
Something is not as it should be at Lydstep Old Hall outside the little village of Windrose in Essex. It's the late 1960s, and Kerstin Kvist, a levelheaded young Swedish woman recently certified as a nurse, has just taken a live-in position caring for John Cosway, a supposed-psychotic 39-year-old man who lives with his mother and sisters in their vine-shrouded pile. Soon Kerstin discovers that there are no nursing duties attached to her job, and there is scarcely a job at all. She has been hired at John's demand. He, it turns out, can have what he likes, for he has been left everything -- house, grounds, and money -- by his deceased father, while his mother and three of his sisters scrape by chiefly on the meager funds allotted by the estate's trustees. One of the sisters makes something from teaching, another is about to enter a marriage of convenience with a drab clergyman, a third is the house drudge. The fourth sister, an occasional, imperious presence, is the widow of a rich man and the source of arbitrary handouts. The pressure of genteel poverty, lack of prospects, and resentment grips the place.
It becomes clear that John's mother is keeping her son in an incapacitating stupor with anti-psychotic drugs prescribed by an old friend, a doctor, whom we do not trust one bit. John, it emerges, is not schizophrenic at all but suffers from Asperger's syndrome. His mother and at least some of his sisters would like to see him declared insane and locked up, in which case the control of the house and money would be turned over to them. Mrs. Cosway is the worst of the lot, a nasty piece of work who resents the presence of Kerstin, rebuffing and ridiculing her attempts at openness and subjecting her to draconian domestic rules. The young woman finds her self-confidence buckling under the house's oppressive clamp and her sense of reality eroded by its undercurrent of dark secrets. It is fitting that she passes her time reading Wilkie Collins and his ilk, books she takes from the monstrous, labyrinthine library that lies at the house's hard heart.
Added to isolation, madness, and suspicion is sisterly discord, stirred up by a new arrival to the village, a lothario who has modeled himself on the Byronic hero, a man of studied insouciance who lounges about ''as if exhausted from enterprises such as dueling, making love, climbing mountains in a storm, and swimming the Bosporus."
All the ingredients, including incendiary sexual passion, combine to create a walloping Gothic hair-raiser. An air of imminent calamity builds as the Virginia creeper enveloping the house turns scarlet with the autumn and intensifies further when winter winds leave it in the grip of its bare vines ''like the web of a giant spider." And indeed, inside Lydstep Old Hall, anger, jealousy, and desperation reach a crescendo in murder and devastation.
In ''The Minotaur," Barbara Vine pulls off the improbable feat of creating an atmosphere of isolation, tyranny, and menace that is nonetheless pervaded by nostalgia for a simpler time. Lydstep Old Hall's one telephone is in the dining room -- as easily monitored as one of Collins's country-house letter boxes. There are no cellphones, no Internet, and a cruel paucity of bathrooms, heat, and hot water. Cold and remote though it is, the Hall and its grounds are surrounded by meadows, cart tracks, and winding lanes. The nearby village has thatched cottages, a 700-year-old church (with actual parishioners, though dwindling in number), three shops, an abundance of gossip, no traffic or parking problems, no social anomie, and only the rare intrusion of urban dwellers seeking a country lifestyle.
The proximity of this world to the 19th century, Gothic or bucolic, is far greater than it is to our own. It's sad -- and excellently shocking.