The Lingering by SJI Holliday

  The Lingering by SJI Holliday

The Lingering is a chilling psychological thriller that had me compulsively reading until all hours of the night. I have been a fan of the gothic genre ever since I stumbled across Victoria Holt in my tweens.

Ms. Holliday serves up a dark, unsettling, modern version of the genre that is chock full of the classic gothic elements that fans of these novels have come to expect: ghosts, secrets, secret rooms, mysterious characters, mysterious deaths, clue filled diaries, rambling old houses with disturbing pasts, remote barren locations—chills and thrills galore.

It has all the right pieces:

The Lingering takes place in Rosalind House, an old asylum, set on the outskirts of a small English village deep in fen country— presently it is serving as home to a small reclusive commune filled with mysterious residents.

Rosalind House, once a psychiatric hospital, was already considered haunted even before the hospital was disbanded in the late 1950’s due to its barbaric treatment practices, scandal, and the suspicious drowning of a small child.

The asylum was built on property with an already dark past as the previous landowners were accused of witchcraft, their estate burnt to the ground, and several people died including children.

These historical abuses mirror contemporary horrors in Ms. Holliday’s novel—a tale constructed out of multiple story lines and told from different perspectives.

It has all the right characters:

Ali and Jack:

They are the most recent couple to take up residence at the commune—a couple looking to escape Jack’s troubled past and to find a fresh start. Ali finds herself almost instantly besieged by “paranormal” events but curiously Jack quickly begins to thrive in these new surroundings. One immediately gets the sense that perhaps Ali is more of a troubled soul than Jack. 


She is a young woman who has worked hard to get accepted into the commune—but not to escape the “real world”—instead she is obsessed with the paranormal and it is her life’s desire to prove that ghosts exist. She has set up shop in Rosalind House with video/audio surveillance equipment in place. Often without the permission and awareness of the other residents. Angela has also connections with the villagers and the local shopkeeper is her close friend.

Smeaton Dunsmore:

The creator and leader of Rosalind House Community Project.  He grew up in the communal life and has his own ideas about how a commune should be organized and work. To this end Smeaton has devised a cultish rule book called “The Book Of Light” as a guideline for the residents to follow. It is meant to keep the “real world” at bay as much as he can.

Dr. Henry Baldock:

The young doctor who was sent to Rosalind House in 1955 to monitor and evaluate the staff at the psychiatric hospital. Ms. Holliday introduces the Doctor and the “doings” of the asylum through entries in a journal that Henry kept during his tenure at Rosalind House.

Ms. Holliday utilizes these main characters plus an abundance of minor ones to build parallel storylines that not only fill the reader with a foreboding sense of dread as the action unfolds in “real time” but she also utilizes her plethora of characters to mirror historical storylines that mesmerizingly depict a haunting sense of the evil that continues to linger on in Rosalind House long after the historical incidents occurred.

It has all the right storylines:


Most of this gothic tale is told through alternating “real time” chapters that flip between the viewpoints of Ali and Angela, the stories of the two very different women who serve as The Lingering’s main characters.

Through the utilization of surveillance equipment left in Ali and Jacks’s room, Angela quickly notices that Ali seems to be experiencing paranormal phenomenon— which makes her both jealous and overly curious.

Angela’s increasing curiosity makes an already paranoid and frightened Ali edgy and defensive as she is desperate to keep her secrets—secret. Tensions quickly rise between the two—eventually spurring Ali into offensive action.

As the contemporary portion of this gothic tale reaches its climax Ms. Holliday extends our point of view to include a few “real time” chapters voiced by Smeaton Dunsmore, as more and more puzzle pieces fall into place.

The Past—both Historical and Recent:

Running parallel to these contemporary storylines are chapters that allow the readers to dip into the past.

We read selected entries from Dr. Henry Baldock’s journal—which provide a sparse history for Rosalind House in the 1950’s— providing partial details about the barbaric treatment of the psychiatric patients and the mysterious drowning death of a young boy.

We dip into conversations between Angela and various villagers that give an even shallower glimpse into the storylines surrounding the older legends that still linger around Rosalind House—ghosts, witchcraft, murders and court trials. 

We are given fascinating but skimpy chapters that delve into the back stories surrounding various main characters including— Ali, Jack, Angela and Smeaton.

Ms. Holliday also includes excerpts from the commune rule book— “The Book of Light”. 

And finally we are given various hauntings and ghost stories—both past and present.

If you are thinking “that’s a lot for one book” —join the club so was I.

But wait there’s more!

Ms. Holliday had A LOT of great ideas and an ambitious plan when she began plotting this novel. If I have a quibble and it is hard to quibble with a book that kept me up late compulsively turning pages— so let’s call my quibble a frustration.

In my own opinion—even though this novel has all the right pieces, all the right characters and all the right storylines— the decision to use ALL of them has meant—oddly enough—a case where too much turned out to be the recipe for too little.

Before I continue on with this review I just want to make it crystal clear that I really enjoyed this book. I loved the slow pace, the parallel storylines, Ms. Holliday certainly knew how to keep me turning pages and the cover is to die for.

I also flatter myself with the belief that I understand what Ms. Holliday was attempting to achieve with all these various storylines and points of view—and achieve it she most certainly did, even it came at a cost—but more on that later.

Too Much Great Stuff:

The story of Ali and Jack is more shocking than one can even imagine and this alone would have made for a hell of a read. If I could demand a prequel—believe me I would.

Plus, we have the journal outlining the barbaric treatment practices, the scandals, and the mysterious drowning that took place at the Rosalind House Psychiatric Hospital in the 1950’s.

Plus, we have the story of ghost hunting Angela snooping for ghosts in this scandal ridden haunted old asylum that is currently serving as the commune—this results into several ghost themed storylines, as well.

Plus the author gives the already creepy old asylum an even deeper disturbing past by adding in a connection to the infamous English witch trials of the 17th century.

Plus, we have the further addition of old murders, new murders, ghostly presences, evil spirits,  tortured asylum patients—and a lot of superstitious, suspicious villagers—past and present.

Plus, we have the story of  Smeaton Dunsmore, the Rosalind House Community Project and its residents.  A group of random people who seemingly live in the commune with no special interest or curiosity about the past history of the building— both in terms of it being a psychiatric hospital or its deeper past association with witchcraft. Except for Angela no one seems interested at all.

Of course we don’t really know this for sure as none of the characters other than Ali and Angela get more than a surface skim. The same hold true for plot lines—other than the “real time” alternating storyline between Ali and Angela few storylines get developed as much as I would have liked.

Inevitably and unfortunately this results in some storylines that don’t quite feel real and relegates most characters to paper thin caricatures—often only fleshed out as overly convenient contrivances to further the plot.

 In the end, it is just too much for a novel of this length—in my own opinion— Ms. Holliday should have gone deep—instead she remained in the shallows and thus the tale overflows—of course, it overflows with great ideas and excellent writing—lucky for us readers.

Myself— I would have liked to have seen the book twice as long.

This would have allowed for more insight and background into all of the residents, more about the asylum, more about the witches— I really regretted this lack (especially since one of the commune residents made a special herbal tea with secret ingredients) and I stand by my belief that the story of Ali and Jack deserves a prequel.

I feel writing more will come at the expense of intriguing plot lines and that is not fair to other readers or the author but I do want to write more about some of the deeper themes that Ms. Holliday explored. I particularly love reading a book that makes me think and impels me to take a deeper look. (Which accounts for the length of this book review cum thesis project!)

It has all the right themes:

Theme One: Can evil linger long after an initial incident occurs? 

Ms. Holliday utilized mirroring as a stylized writing technique to great effect in portraying this theme. Her writing vividly captured a sense of inevitable dread—that the past was fated to repeat itself over and over again until said evil was finally exorcised. 

The historical incidents that happened at Rosalind House during the witch trials of the late 17th century when its mistress was accused and persecuted as a witch are precisely mirrored by the entries in Dr. Henry Baldock’s journal which document the persecution of a female patient accused of insanity.

The present day Rosalind Community Project serves as yet another reflection of these past evils- the present day storyline of Ali/Angela precisely mirror the actions and events that took place at the asylum in the 1950’s.

Ms. Holliday constructs her novel utilizing the multiple reflections of a lingering remnant of evil like a fun house mirror where these same evil actions are repeated over and over again.

Theme Two: Can good people be coerced into doing bad things? Can innocent people be coerced into confession?

There are storylines that allude to the power of manipulation, coercion, and control that run in parallel threads throughout this whole book and again, Ms. Holliday holds up her mirror.

This time it casts a reflection on these elemental evils as they float through the story of Rosalind House and she uses her mirror to reflect the treatment of witches on to the treatment of women psychiatric patients on to the treatment of commune/cult members, and finally on to the shocking tale of Ali and Jack.

The Persecution and Torture of Women Accused of Witchcraft.

Full disclosure, I am a Birth Doula and a childbirth educator, so I could easily write a full length dissertation on this theme. I will do my best to keep it short.

History is written by the victorious —by those who knew how to read and write— the poor illiterate “witch” did not record her story—and more specifically not the peasant women who served their communities as lay healers and midwives. We know their stories only as filtered through the revisionist history of men.

In fact, up until the rise of the male dominated medical profession—it was women who played a central role in healing and childbirth. This was accomplished by primarily as a word of mouth tradition, one that was handed down from woman to woman.

The rise of witch hunting in Europe “coincidentally” arose during the rise of the male medical professional and indeed the most virulent of witch hunts are often associated with historical periods of great social upheaval.

The rise of the male dominated medical profession continued to produce doctors— so more realms of “practice” became necessary to fuel the careers of these self-proclaimed elite men of science. The fledgling wing of obstetrics saw its “birth” as a male medical profession during this period. 

This was accomplished by the conscious deliberate attempts of men to exclude all women from the professional practice of medicine. The rise of the -elite male medical profession- was built on the manipulation, coercion, and suppression of women healers and accomplished with the full support of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) and the European ruling classes.

The propaganda was quickly spread that the male dominated medical profession alone could bring the benefits of science to medicine and thus the public had to be protected from the ignorance of traditional healers—who were often portrayed as slovenly, superstitious, quacks—and if that didn’t work, persecuted as witches and burnt at the stake.

Science and religion normally make for strange bedfellows nowadays so it is easy to forget the closely intertwined relationship of early physicians and the Church. The church made for a perfect partner as religion is no stranger to using coercive, manipulative strategies— convert them or kill them—inquisitions and crusades—confession gained through torture.

While it is certain that witches lived and died long before the development of medical technology and the rise of physicians—it is also certain that the great majority of “witches” were in fact lay healers serving the masses. The suppression of these healers marks a potent salvo in the history of man’s suppression of women. As many as 85% of all “witches” persecuted, tortured, and burnt at the stake were female-women, young girls, and children.

For centuries, common folk believed in the existence of witches and magic, indeed most humans did—rich and poor— and it is easy to shrug off this bit of history as the superstition laden mass delusions of hysterical pitchfork wielding peasants—it is simply not the truth.

The reasoning behind this surge of witchcraft trials is very complex indeed and once you remove the convenient scapegoating of the peasantry then it becomes clear that it was more economy driven— a quest by various male driven factions to gain market share. One such faction was the elite man of science who wished to practice medicine.

As any medical doctor could tell you when it comes to winning people to your side there is no better method than stoking people’s fears and then assuring them that you alone offer the best protection from evil and harm.

Witchcraft accusations made for an expedient way to remove inconvenient women who stood in the way of what men desired for themselves— the previously untapped market share of the “handy woman” who practiced lay healing and midwifery.

These fledgling physicians used these existent fears to flame some already present cultural prejudices and so stoked the belief that women are inherently weaker than men and are more susceptible to evil. What are women other than flighty emotional creatures who are ruled by superstitions, they are certainly not stalwart doctors—men ruled by science.

What indeed was a man to do?

The Persecution and Torture of Women Accused of Insanity (Hysteria)

Alas, at the end of the 18th century burning inconvenient women at the stake fell out of fashion—no longer politically correct or socially acceptable—unfortunately for men, in the 19th century, women still persisted in being difficult.

Once again social upheaval was afoot-both in the 1800’s and again in the 1950’s, women were actively protesting against traditional gender roles—these were periods of female unrest and women’s suffrage.

So the elite male needed a new way to control women—a new brand of witch hunt, if you will, after all one the modern day definitions of “witch hunt” is false persecution.

The new “witches” were women who rebelled against domesticity, who pushed back against their social situations, who questioned the authority of men and believe me—men had very definite ideas of how women should behave.

A women’s place was in the home dedicated to the domestic pleasures of keeping house and raising children. Women continued to be viewed by men as delicate and fragile creatures who were susceptible to nervous breakdown.

And once again, medical men of science came to the rescue-this time period saw the fledgling wing of psychiatry taking flight and the Victorian era psychiatric hospital was born. While no doubt there are genuine mental illnesses and indeed psychiatry has made great strides in the successful treatment of mental illness—-there is also no doubt that the following is equally true.

These asylums became catch all facilities for difficult women— women who pushed back against their social situations and in return were often the very ones given a diagnosis of insanity and institutionalized.

Difficult women were often diagnosed with a condition known as Hysteria which was a unique “female only” malady that consisted of a wide range of strange behaviors and “nerve” symptoms—a condition that should and indeed could only be cured by a man. A convenient way for an “elite male” society to continue to control women, whose problems were all emotional and in their heads—anyway.

Victorian era psychiatric hospitals specifically used medicine to police the behavior of  women and the cornerstone of Victorian psychiatry was built on the belief that male dominance was both therapeutic and the vital ingredient necessary to keep women in their rightful place, for her own good, men know best after all.

Early psychiatric treatments as practiced on these women, at their most basic level, were never about mental acuity or medical treatment instead it was about exerting control over women’s lives and their bodies. Women were literally punished with psychiatry for breaking social norms and were deemed social deviants and moral misfits.

The traditional treatments for daring to disagree were quite harsh, isolation and restraint were implemented to bring an enforced segregation from home, family, and society. These treatments included but were not limited to beatings, restraints, cold water shock therapy (immersion or being hosed down), purged, bled, vomited, induction of high fevers, drugs, convulsive shock therapy, and electro shock therapy.

Asylums like the fictionalized Rosalind House fell out of favor as such barbaric treatments were no longer deemed politically correct or socially acceptable and were mostly disbanded by the end of the 1950’s.

Alas, what was a man to do?

Like a sore thumb— the inconvenience of “hysterical” dissatisfied women persisted so new tools once again became necessary. Tools such as minor tranquilizers, like Valium, were used to “quiet down” the women who still gave voice to their discontent.

Childbirth (a natural female bodily function) became a medical condition at the rise of Obstetrics.  Womanly dissatisfaction is not synonymous with insanity but still so it became a medical condition at the rise of Psychiatry. Both uniquely female conditions that could only be cured by the elite men of science.

These are favorites subjects of mine and I could write forever about them but I am stopping now.

I hope I have provided enough background to give voice to a source of evil that lurks in humanity and in a society that allows this type of barbarous treatment to linger, which is why I believe that Ms. Holliday used both of these times as mirrors to this same sense of evil.

If you are thinking that these psychiatric treatments seem more like torture techniques—join the club so was I—-and scarily enough so was the American CIA.

The author took her book along a different trajectory but I want to stay on the same course for  just one moment more and put up a mirror that continues to emphasize her theme— that this real life evil remains and still lingers on in humanity.

Ms. Holliday mostly kept her focus on the “elite male’s” suppression of women through history but the practices of manipulation, coercion, and control are in fact quite “equal opportunity” as this modern version of a witch hunt reveals.

The immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks— the post 9/11 conduct of the CIA.

Disturbingly what has sprung from that infamous act of terrorism is an American response that ignited two wars: The conflict in the Middle East that continues to this day and the War on Terror that also continues to this day.

The resultant scramble dissolved into a “witch hunt” to find the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the “mythical” Weapons of Mass Destruction with the American government sanctioning the CIA to use whatever means they saw fit to find justice for the American people.

The CIA saw fit to implement the practice of rendition, in other words— sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners.

How low did the CIA stoop to get answers about terrorism and those mythical “weapons of mass destruction” and how far were they willing to go to keep these tactics a secret?

The plot for The Lingering is action packed, edge of your seat, violent, deranged, outrageous and disturbing. It, horrifically, is a pale shadow compared to the truth, a reality that is still as relevant today in 2020 as it was back during the Witch Trials and Victorian Era Asylums that preceded it.

Even a brief look on Wikipedia reveals that the CIA paid two unqualified psychologists more than $80M to develop an enhanced interrogation technique that allowed for both physical and mental torture that was to be conducted in black sites on foreign soil, taking as their playbook all the psychiatric techniques outlined in the above section and more. When this classified program started to gain public notice the CIA responded by covering up evidence and destroying documents.

Yet another reflection of lingering evil —a fun house mirror where these types of evil actions are repeated over and over again. Are we doomed or can in fact they be exorcised?

Cults and Communes

Ms. Holliday selects the location of a commune as the setting for The Lingering.  Cults and communes are infamous in their use of coercion, manipulation, and control to get “members” to drink their flavor of Kool-Aid. They are also quite infamous for their suppression of women—particularly the religious ones.

The Rosalind House Community Project seems quite mild in comparison but does in fact come complete with confining and controlling rules as laid forth in “The Book of Light”.

The Final Fun House Twist to the Mirror

All that is now missing is the voice of the doctor, the interrogator, the judge, the psychiatrist, the torturer…the voice that manipulates, subdues, coerces and ultimately tortures:

I am subduing…restraining you for your own protection. It pains me to treat you in this manner, I am not this person- but you leave me no choice. I am only trying to appeal to your logical reasoning—I am just trying to help you, but please believe that I will do anything to get the truth I need. Your continued noncooperation hurts me hurts your family. It is your choice not to cooperate just realize that this is as easy as it is going to get. It is your actions that have resulted in you being treated this manner.

I beg you to tell me the truth I want to hear, alter your behavior, stop being disagreeable stop being inconvenient and accept the role that society has mandated for women… Tell me what I want to hear so that I can end your suffering, send you home, get justice for my people…get the results that prove me right.

Ms. Holliday gives us this voice with a fun house mirror that completely turns the tables— the shocking back story of Ali and Jack— fair warning beware the dedication of an elite female clinical researcher looking to prove her scientific theorem and more importantly— herself right.

For the majority of The Lingering we read about historical instances involving the ‘elite male professional’ and their mistreatment of women—but that only reflects one side of the whole—as women are just as capable of mastering the arts of manipulation, suppression, coercion, and indeed torture.

There were plenty of instances where women accused fellow women of witchcraft, insane asylums saw their fare share of oppressive, dehumanizing Nurse Ratcheds, and while not as prevalent as the male variety— women are also sociopaths, psychopaths, and homicidal maniacs.

It turns out that Ali was first attracted to The Rosalind Community Project because of her fascination with psychology and psychiatry and is a huge fan of the work of Dr. Henry Baldock — an interest that she shares with Smeaton.

How far is Ali willing to go to coerce her subject into proving her scientific thesis—is chemically suppressing her subject justified when it ends in the desired results—how far Ali wonders should she manipulate tests to prove her point?

Ali is fascinated by the human mind and what it can do, and with what provokes group behavior, the herd mentality—the role of coercion and what impact comes from controlling the behavior of others.

Ali tells Smeaton: I think we are all capable of being bad. We all have a shadow side. What interests me is what makes that side reveal itself. What prompts people to do the things they do, when they do the most awful things?

Ali’s thesis: Can an amoral monster be conceived and nurtured—can one transform an inherently good person into an evil person? What techniques are necessary to achieve the desired outcome? Will the subject remain evil after the treatment or will the subject revert to form?

This is one of the most fascinating parts of The Lingering and like I keep saying it deserves to be its own book and while I am tempted to “linger on” exploring the depths of Ms. Holliday’s themes — but it is past time to move on.

I enjoyed my time spent on the darker side of humanity, I highly recommend The Lingering—it was reading time well spent. I greatly look forward to reading more of Ms. Holliday’s work.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.