Filler content with ghostly goings on

Here’s a couple of reviews that appeared in Black Static #35:-

GHOSTS: THE NOVELS

Every so often one of the great and the good decides to take a sip from the poison chalice of genre fiction and risk the derision of his peers, or at least that was how it was in the once upon a time. Nowadays it seems the literati and doyens of the mainstream are falling over themselves to play in our sandpit and you can’t step into the Horror section of any self-respecting bookshop without stumbling across the latest offering from some post-modernist intent on reinventing the Ouija board or teaching grandpa how to juggle chainsaws.

Even Jeanette Winterson is doing it.

Step forward latest lamb to the slaughter house, Irish writer John Boyne who has eight novels to his credit and is probably best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Set in 1867, THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED (Doubleday hb, 299pp, £14.99) is the story of Eliza Caine. Following the sudden death of her father, our heroine leaves her teaching job to take up the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk, but it is apparent that not all is well from the very moment of her arrival. There is no evidence of parents in residence at Gaudlin, while the other members of staff are tight lipped when they can’t avoid Eliza completely, and her two charges, Isabella and Eustace, seem strong willed and precocious in many ways, but curiously backward in others, at times speaking to somebody who remains hidden from the eyes of their governess. In fact Eliza is just the most recent in a chain of governesses, her predecessors having met untimely ends, and it seems from numerous small incidents that her own life is in peril. Despite the reticence of the locals Eliza manages to piece together the story of the Westerley family, ‘a chilling tale of obsession, maternal love and dark secrets’ according to the publisher’s blurb, and that’s accurate enough for the purposes of this review. But will the knowledge be enough to save her from a terrible fate?

At bottom this is a modern day ghost story in the M. R. James tradition, the kind of thing Jonathan Aycliffe does so well, but here filtered through a Hollywood sensibility. Boyne is undoubtedly good at what he does, with prose where not a single word is wasted or out of place, making his storytelling seem effortless, the true sign of a skilled writer, and causing the reader to turn the pages as fast as physical restrictions allow in a rush to discover what happens next.  He creates verisimilitude with a wealth of incidental detail, as with Eliza riding on a ‘dandy-horse’, a prototypal bicycle, and he places his story firmly in Victorian times with descriptions of the Norfolk of yesteryear (as a lifelong resident of the county I can readily confirm the veracity of much that’s depicted here, such as endless train journeys and tiresomely flat landscape, and how little much of it has changed since 1867) and with passing reference to prominent figures of the day, such as Charles Dickens. One could make a case for a Dickensian relish being brought to the dramatis personae of the novel, with a larger than life cast of lawyers and doctors, vicars and matronly caregivers, none of whom would be out of place in the pages of Nicholas Nickleby or Hard Times. There’s even a solicitor’s clerk called Cratchett, his name a private joke between the literate Eliza and the reader. The novel’s greatest strength lies in the brooding atmosphere of doom laid out on the page and the vivid feeling of expectation fostered by the many clues as to what is actually happening that are seeded in the text.

And, contrarily enough, this is also where This House Is Haunted fails to deliver. There’s a great mystery to be unravelled, but it’s an artificial mystery, created in part by Eliza’s ignorance but more problematically through the reticence of everybody else. This latter simply doesn’t ring true. Gossip is the life blood of any small community, and the fact that nobody is willing to clue Eliza in as to what has happened with the Westerley family, that all her perfectly natural questions are met with silence and shocked expressions (somebody even drops a cup on hearing that Eliza is the new governess), all seem like an artificial attempt to promote an air of mystery where there should be none. Nobody has a credible reason not to tell her the truth about the Westerleys, be it the vicar or the lawyer who manages the estate, the gardener or the hired nurse. Their behaviour is the most puzzling thing on offer here. The Hollywood sensibility surfaces in the finale, with the air of menace replaced with an effects heavy showdown between rival spirits, something to challenge the ingenuity of the sfx department, but which seems totally over the top and out of tune with all that has gone before, brute force and ignorance replacing subtlety. It feels like sitting down to watch The Innocents and then halfway through, the film jumps and suddenly Michael J. Fox is on the screen going head to head with The Frighteners. Nor can Boyne resist the closing ‘jump moment’ beloved of genre film makers, with a scene that is the literary equivalent of Michael getting up and walking away, Carrie’s hand thrusting up out of the grave etc.

So did I enjoy this book and do I recommend it? Yes to both those questions, with reservations. Certainly I had a good time while I was reading it, and it’s a decent enough story when taken at face value, but with hindsight the cracks show and I wish that Boyne had more convincingly grounded his mystery in its rural setting and retained the enviable restraint of the opening passages through to his journey’s end. Good, but could have been better.

Which brings us to THE WHITE DEVIL (Phoenix pb, 383pp, £7.99), a second novel I believe by Justin Evans, an American writer who has parlayed a year’s stay as a student at Harrow into a substantial work of fiction featuring the public school’s most notorious alumnus.

After a scandal and expulsion from his prestigious American college, Andrew Taylor is sent by his father to England and fabled public school Harrow, where it is noted that he bears an uncanny resemblance to former famous pupil and all round bad boy Lord Byron, something that brings him to the attention of the precocious Persephone Vine, the daughter of a master and one of the few girls allowed at the institution. In cohorts with tutor/poet on the skids Piers Fawkes, Persephone is involved in a play about Byron, and coerces Andrew into trying out for the lead role. But with Andrew’s arrival at the school the fabled Lot Ghost becomes a more substantive presence and the school’s pupils start to die in mysterious circumstances. Andrew experiences several ‘fugue’ states in which he steps back into the past and has encounters with the ghost’s corporeal form, but those who get close to him in the present day, such as Persephone, are made to suffer as a result. It takes the erudition and determination of several Byron scholars to uncover what is actually happening, the facts behind the legend of Harrow’s famous son.

Subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’, The White Devil is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, combining the best elements of the ghost story and the tale of historical/literary detection, and revealing its mysteries through a carefully stage managed and thoroughly credible series of revelations and set pieces. The Harrow setting and historical background are immaculately realised on the page, Evans applying his research and personal experience to the exigencies of the narrative with a gentle touch, an expertise that is all the more credible for being worn so lightly. The scenes set in the past are filled with colour and drama, and conjure up an almost hallucinatory state in the mind of the reader, while the supernatural interventions in the present day all come with a feel of something toxic, something that shouldn’t exist and yet seems so palpable, be it the ghost leaning over a boy and breathing its foul breath in their face or a leprous white hand reaching out to Persephone’s body in the dark. Only when we confront the possibility of an outbreak of tuberculosis at the school and the authorities get involved is credibility stretched, with the plot threatening to go widescreen and escape from the author’s control, but Evans has the sense to rein things back and follow his instincts to deliver a very personal drama rather than a plague outbreak.

Ultimately what drives the plot is the characterisation. Andrew, laden down with secrets and guilt, a stranger in a strange land wondering if he might possibly be gay given how he responds to the ghost, is the ideal of the flawed, fallible protagonist needed to make a story like this work, a knowing, sexually aware descendant of Jackson’s Eleanor Vance. The rest of the cast provide more than adequate backing. The outspoken and forthright Persephone is just the kind of girl you probably wanted to meet when you were Andrew’s age, while in failed poet Piers we have a mentor with feet of clay, a man who has to fight his first instinct to promote his own career at Andrew’s expense and do the right thing. The eminently competent and confident librarian Dr. Kahn is the book’s moral compass, somebody who knows what’s what and can keep her head when all about are losing theirs, a woman who instinctively does the right thing, whatever the situation. Add to that a cast of public schoolboys and masters, each with their own distinct personalities and agendas, and as far as this member of the great unwashed is concerned confirming all my prejudices regarding public schoolboys while at the same rendering those same prejudices null and void, because to my surprise I quite liked most of them, toffee nosed gits one and all.

At the end not everyone walks away – characters we have come to know and care about are killed or broken beyond repair. And to his credit, unlike Boyne, Evans is wise enough to let things go once the ghost has been dealt with, instead of tossing out a feeler for The White Devil 2 and/or some clichéd shock moment to give the reader a parting frisson of fear. Rich in atmosphere, characterisation and sense of place, with a gripping literary detective story underlying the surface thrills and chills, this is an absorbing book that I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend wholeheartedly.

 

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