A Lesson in Vengeance
A dark, twisty thriller about a centuries-old, ivy-covered boarding school haunted by its history of witchcraft and two girls dangerously close to digging up the past. The dangerous romance and atmospheric setting makes it a perfect read for fans of dark academia.
Felicity Morrow is back at the Dalloway School. Perched in the Catskill Mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she's returned to finish high school. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.
Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway's past. The school doesn't talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She's determined to leave that behind now, but it's hard when Dalloway's occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won't let her forget.
It's Ellis Haley's first year at Dalloway, and she has already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called method writer. She's eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can't shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity to help her research the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can't say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource.
And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway—and herself.
An Excerpt fromA Lesson in Vengeance
Dalloway School rises from the Catskill foothills like a crown upon an auburn head. Accessible only by gravel road and flanked by a mirror-glass lake to the east, its brick-faced buildings stand with their backs turned to the gate and their windows shuttered. My mother is silent in the front seat; we haven’t spoken since New Paltz, when she remarked on how flat the land could be so close to the mountains.
That was an hour ago. I should be glad, I suppose, that she came at all. But, to be honest, I prefer the mutual indifference that endured between me and the hired driver who met me at the airport every year before this one. The driver had her own problems, ones that didn’t involve me.
The same cannot be said for my mother.
We park in front of Sybil Hall and hand the keys to a valet, who will take care of the luggage. This is the downside to arriving at school four days early: we have to meet the dean of students in her office and then tramp across campus together, my mother and the dean chatting six steps ahead and me trailing behind. The lake glitters like a silver coin, visible in the gap between hills. I keep my gaze fixed on the dean’s wrist, on the bronze key that dangles from a string around that wrist: the key to Godwin House.
Godwin House is isolated from the rest of campus by a copse of balsam firs, up a sharply pitched road and perched atop a small ridge—unevenly, as the house was built three hundred years ago on the remains of an ancient avalanche. And as the ground settled, the house did too: crookedly. Inside, the floors slope noticeably along an east-west axis, cracks gaping beneath doors and the kitchen table wobbling under weight. Since I arrived at Dalloway five years ago, there have been two attempts to have the building condemned, or at the very least renovated down to the bones, but we, the inhabitants, protested vociferously enough that the school abandoned its plans both times. And why shouldn’t we protest? Godwin House belongs to us, to the literary effete of Dalloway, self-presumed natural heirs to Emily Dickinson—who had stayed here once while visiting a friend in Woodstock—and we like our house as is. Including its gnarled skeleton.
“You can take your meals at the faculty dining hall for now,” Dean Marriott informs me once she has deposited me in my room. It’s the same room I always stayed in, before. The same water stain on the ceiling, the same yellowing curtains drifting in the breeze from the open window.
I wonder if they kept it empty for me, or if my mother browbeat the school into kicking some other girl out when I rematriculated.
“Miss MacDonald should be back by now,” the dean goes on. “She’s the housemistress for Godwin again this year. You can go by her office sometime this afternoon, let her know you’ve arrived.”
The dean gives me her personal number, too. A liability thing, most likely: After all, what if I have a breakdown on campus? What if, beneath the tailored skirt and tennis sweater, I’m one lonely night away from stripping off my clothes and hurtling naked through the woods like some delirious maenad?
Better to play it safe.
I take the number and slip it into my skirt pocket. I clench it in my fist until the paper’s an inky nugget against my palm.
Once the dean is gone, my mother turns to look at the room properly, her cool gaze taking in the shabby rug and the mahogany dresser with its chipped corners. I imagine she wonders what becomes of the sixty thousand she pays in tuition each year.
“Perhaps,” she says after a long moment, “I should stay the night in town, let you settle in. . . .”
It’s not a real offer, and when I shake my head she looks relieved. She can fly back to Aspen this afternoon and be drinking cabernet in her study by nightfall.
“All right, then. All right. Well.” She considers me, her shell-pink fingernails pressing in against opposite arms. “You have the dean’s number.”
“Right. Yes. Hopefully you won’t need it.”
She embraces me, my face buried against the crook of her neck, where everything smells like Acqua di Parma and airplane sweat.
I watch her retreat down the path until she vanishes around the curve, past the balsams—just to make sure she’s really gone. Then I drag my suitcases up onto the bed and start unpacking.
I hang my dresses in the closet, arranged by color and fabric— gauzy white cotton, cool-water cream silk—and pretend not to remember the spot where I’d pried the baseboard loose from the wall last year and concealed my version of contraband: tarot cards, long taper candles, herbs hidden in empty mint tins. I used to arrange them atop my dresser in a neat row the way another girl might arrange her makeup.
This time I stack my dresser with jewelry instead. When I look up I catch my own gaze in the mirror: blond hair tied back with a ribbon, politely neutral lipstick smudging my lips.
I scrub it off against my wrist. After all, there’s no one around to impress.
Even with nothing to distract me from the task, unpacking still takes the better part of three hours. And when I’ve kicked the empty suitcases under my bed and turned to survey the final product, I realize I hadn’t thought past this point. It’s still early afternoon, the distant lake now glittering golden outside my window, and I don’t know what to do next.
By the middle of my first attempt at a senior year, I’d accrued such a collection of books in my room here that they were spilling off my shelves, the overflow stacked up on my floor and the corner of my dresser, littering the foot of my bed to get shoved out of the way in my sleep. They all had to be moved out when I didn’t come back for spring semester last year. The few books I was able to fit in my suitcases this year are a poor replacement: a single shelf not even completely filled, the last two books tipped forlornly against the wood siding.
I decide to go down to the common room. It’s a better reading atmosphere anyway; me and Alex used to sprawl out on the Persian carpet amid a fortress of books—teacups at our elbows and jazz playing off Alex’s Bluetooth speaker.
The memory lances through me like a thrown dart. It’s unexpected enough to steal my breath away, and for a moment I’m standing there dizzy in my own doorway as the house tilts and spins.
I’d known it would be worse, coming back here. Dr. Ortega had explained it to me before I left, her voice placid and reassuring: how grief would tie itself to the small things, that I’d be living my life as normal and then a bit of music or the cut of a girl’s smile would remind me of her and it would all flood back in.
I understand the concept of sense memory. But understanding isn’t preparation.
All at once I want nothing more than to dart out of Godwin House and run down the hill, onto the quad, where the white sunshine will blot out any ghosts.
Except that’s weakness, and I refuse to be weak.
This is why I’m here, I tell myself. I came early so I’d have time to adjust. Well, then. Let’s adjust.
I suck in a lungful of air and make myself go into the hall, down two flights of stairs to the ground floor. I find some tea in the house kitchen cabinet—probably left over from last year—boil some water, and carry the mug with me into the common room while it brews.
The common room is the largest space in the house. It claims the entire western wall, its massive windows gazing out toward the woods, and is therefore dark even at midafternoon. Shadows hang like drapes from the ceiling, until I flick on a few of the lamps and amber light brightens the deep corners.
No ghosts here.
Godwin House was built in the early eighteenth century, the first construction of Dalloway School. Within ten years of its founding, it saw five violent deaths. Sometimes I still smell blood on the air, as if Godwin’s macabre history is buried in its uneven foundations alongside Margery Lemont’s bones.
I take the armchair by the window: my favorite, soft and burgundy with a seat cushion that sinks when I sit, as if the chair wants to devour its occupant. I settle in with a Harriet Vane mystery and lock myself in Oxford of the 1930s, in a tangled mess of murderous notes and scholarly dinners and threats exchanged over cakes and cigarettes.
The house feels so different like this. A year ago, midsemester, the halls were raucous with girls’ shouting voices and the clatter of shoes on hardwood, empty teacups scattered across flat surfaces and long hairs clinging to velvet upholstery. All that has been swallowed up by the passage of time. My friends graduated last year. When classes start, Godwin will be home to a brand-new crop of students: third- and fourth-years with bright eyes and souls they sold to literature. Girls who might prefer Oates to Shelley, Alcott to Allende. Girls who know nothing of blood and smoke, of the darker kinds of magic.
And I will slide into their group, the last relic of a bygone era, old machinery everyone is anxiously waiting to replace.
My mother wanted me to transfer to Exeter for my final year. Exeter—as if I could survive that any better than being back here. Not that I expected her to understand. But all your friends are gone, she’d said.
I didn’t know how to explain to her that being friendless at Dalloway was better than being friendless anywhere else. At least here the walls know me, the floors, the soil. I am rooted at Dalloway. Dalloway is mine.
The sound startles me enough that I drop my book, gaze flicking toward the ceiling. I taste iron in my mouth.
It’s nothing. It’s an old house, settling deeper into unsteady land.
I retrieve my book and flip through the pages to find my lost place. I’ve never been afraid of being alone, and I’m not about to start now.
This time I’m half expecting it, tension having drawn my spine straight and my free hand into a fist. I put the book aside and slip out of my chair with an unsteady drum beating in my chest. Surely Dean Marriott wouldn’t have let anyone else in the house, right? Unless . . . It’s probably maintenance. They must have someone coming by to clean out the mothballs and change the air filters.