‘Lamplighters’ is a true tale of love and horror
Inspired by a haunting true story, Emma Stonex’s superb debut atmospheric novel, The Lamplighters, is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote tower mile from the Cornish coast 50 years ago - and about the wives who were left behind.
The ghost story is set in Cornwall in 1972. Three keepers vanish from the remote Maiden Rock Lighthouse, fifteen miles from the shore. The men are named Principal Keeper Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper William ‘Bill’ Walker and Supernumerary Assistant Vincent Bourne. The nine-storied lighthouse is owned by Trident House.
In their wake, the seamen leave behind a series of clues: an entrance door locked from the inside, two clocks stopped at the same time, and a table laid for a meal uneaten. The Principal Keeper’s weather log described a storm circling the tower - but the skies, inexplicably, had been clear all week.
A search and rescue team is sent to the tower to search for the missing seamen. There is no indication of a gateway, no sign of flight, nothing to suggest the keepers have gone anywhere at all. The mysterious disappearance of the seamen results in a number of conspiracies.
The women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead, it drives them apart.
Truth about disappearance
Twenty years later in 1992, the widows are visited by the adventure novelist called Dan Sharp determined to find the truth about the men’s disappearance. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story for his next book. Moving between the women’s stories and the men’s last weeks together in the lighthouse, long-held secrets surface and truths twist into lies as we piece together what happened, why, and who to believe.
According to Helen, Arthur's drowning is the only realistic explanation there is for her husband’s death. She does not agree with all sorts of fanciful roads such as ghostly things and theories and all the nonsense people believe in.
Helen laments that what happened to the wives should have made them come together. But instead, it has been the opposite. They do not go near each other. The wives are at different wavelengths.
Like Jenny Walker, Bill’s wife, Helen has never disclosed information to outsiders about what happened.
Jenny says Trident House tried telling her once that Bill did it on purpose. That he jumped on a French ship and floated off to start his life anew. But she is confident that Bill would never have left her on her own.
Jenny says she will not accept her husband’s death until Trident House shows her what is left of Bill.
Helen, who acted as Sharp’s fixer, says Michelle is married now with two daughters. Helen does not think Michelle wants to revisit that period in her life.
Michelle says that Sharp should go sniffing around somebody else’s door. According to Michelle, the author had no idea what he was getting himself into, dredging up memories from people who would rather stay out of it. She added that he should stick with his thrillers.
Helen says Trident House held the service once they had decided her husband was dead. They did not consult her or ask for her blessing or understanding or anything like that. Trident House has never engaged with any aspect of the aftermath: no interviews, no release of records, no transparency whatsoever. She believes the company is covering up the death of their husbands.
The annual bereavement allowance was better read as hush money from Trident House to keep the widows quiet.
Helen and Arthur had a son called Tommy, who died at the age of five. Arthur lost Tommy at sea where father and son had gone to take a bath. Tommy drowned in the notorious currents and his body washed to the shores. Tommy’s death cry haunted the father. Tommy’s ghost kept around Arthur.
The mysterious disappearance of the seamen resulted in a number of conspiracies. One had it that Bill murdered Arthur and selfishly declined to save Vince, who drowned in the sea. The ghosts of Arthur and Tommy haunted Bill. Bill was knocked off balance by a thing he could not name, and dragged over the rail. Arthur’s body fused to his and together they smashed into the cold, liquid dark.
Through the mist of Bill’s drowning there came a boat, its captain leaning over, his hand outstretched. The hand that came to them was small. Arthur’s touch left Bill and the cold bit him like an apple. The boat took Arthur in, a warm, home; Bill clawed for it, but it had not come for him.
Sharp has completed the book but with no exact clue as to what happened on the tower. He concludes that there are a hundred endings, and maybe there are more. To which Helen says, “Some mysteries just aren’t meant to be known.”
Some sources implicated Vince as a possible agent in the vent based on his criminal records. Vince was 22 years old at the time of his disappearance. It emerged that before enrolling with Trident House Vince was detained on several criminal charges.
The Lamplighters is an intoxicating, heart-stopping, riveting, and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.
The central themes in the 368-page novel that was published by Picador in 2021 are isolation and grief.
Stonex says The Lamplighters has inspired the true story of three lighthouse keepers that disappeared from a remote rock light on the island of Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides in December 1900.
“Transported me effortlessly…Haunting, harrowing and heartbreaking, this is a novel (“The Lamplighters”) that will stay with you,” says Ashley Audrain, New York Times bestselling author of “The Push.”
On its part, The Guardian newspaper (London) described “The Lamplighters” as: “A ghost story and fantastically gripping psychological investigation rolled into one. It is also a pitch-perfect piece of writing. …As with Shirley Jackson’s work or Sarah Waters’s masterpiece “Affinity,” in Stonex’s hands the unspoken, unexamined, unseen world we can call the supernatural, a world fed by repression and lies, becomes terrifyingly tangible.”
The Lamplighters was shortlisted for the Fiction category of the Indie Book Awards 2022. It was published in paperback in March 2022 and hit No.4 on The Times bestseller list for two consecutive weeks.
Stonex was born in 1983 and grew up in Northamptonshire. She is a novelist who has written several books under a pseudonym. The Lamplighters is her debut under her own name and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Before becoming a writer, she worked as an editor at a major publishing house. She lives in the Southwest of England with her family.