Academic Denis MacEoin has written thrillers under the pen name Daniel Easterman and ghost stories as Jonathan Aycliffe. The less said about the former the better – I read Night of the Seventh Darkness back in the day and was sufficiently unimpressed to never again touch one of his thrillers with the literary equivalent of the proverbial bargepole, whatever that would happen to be – but the ghost stories are another matter entirely. The last book I read by Jonathan Aycliffe was The Talisman back in 2001, but up to that point I’d eagerly consumed everything he produced and, with varying degrees of pleasure, enjoyed them all (I particularly recommend Naomi’s Room and The Matrix). Since that time he’s added two more titles to his oeuvre, of which 2013’s The Silence of Ghosts is the latest, and it is a textbook example of how to construct a ghost story.
In 2012 Charles Lancaster inherits from his grandfather a London house and wine export/import business. He also acquires Hallinhag House, a property on Ullswater in the Lake District, whose existence was unknown to him until that moment. From his grandfather’s journal he learns the terrible truth about both the house and the foundations of his own family’s fortune. Injured in the Battle of Narvik, when the Blitz begins Dominic Lancaster is sent with his ten year old sister Octavia to sit out the storm at Hallinhag. The house has an unpleasant reputation with the locals and certain things are undoubtedly off, with Dominic sensing a malevolent presence upstairs and Octavia afraid to sleep on her own because she keeps hearing voices, though she does makes friends with some local children, regarding whom Dominic has certain suspicions. Aided by district nurse Rose, with whom he is falling in love, Dominic uncovers the history of Hallinhag House and the grim secret of his family’s fortune, but will it be in time to save Octavia from the evil presence that dogs her?
This is Aycliffe at the top of his game, doing what he does better than almost anyone else. The story builds beautifully, with each revelation following on so effortlessly from what came before. Aycliffe is masterly at capturing the atmosphere of Hallinhag House, the way in which it sits like a blight on this beautiful landscape, the contrast with the idyllic setting adding to the unease that the house creates, and he doesn’t over egg the pudding, with the horrors of the house drawn with subtlety and gathering momentum as the story progresses. The back story, with first hints and then revelations of something terrible that took place within the walls of the house, while hard to credit in the abstract feels entirely plausible within the context of the story. The occult practices depicted within the book’s pages were unknown to me before I read Silence and I’m still unsure if Aycliffe utilises esoteric occult lore or weaves the strands of his plot together from whole cloth, but either way it doesn’t really matter, as it gives him a fascinating and unusual lynch pin on which to hang the narrative. As ever, the horrors of the supernatural world are only sad reflections of the evil that lives in the human heart, and you can if you wish find a subtext to the effect that all ‘old money’ is owing to past atrocity.
Characterisation is also built on a solid foundation, with an especial triumph that of Dominic, who has issues with the rest of his family and loves his young sister beyond anything else. His relationship with Rose is finely depicted, with their delight in each other’s company caught on the page and the author inviting us to share in their happiness, but at the same time with dark clouds gathering – the ongoing situation with the House and the snobbish resistance of Dominic’s family to the match. As assuredly drawn is the picture of Octavia, a precocious child, afraid but willing to confront the horror that threatens her young life, and the deadly peril in which she is placed adds a genuine frisson to the narrative, as Dominic, Rose, and their supporting cast desperately battle to save this innocent from a terrible fate.
Then at the end, just when you think Aycliffe has flung everything he can at the reader, he tosses out another spiritual hand grenade, a return to the present day and Charles’ reaction to what he has learned about Hallinhag House, with temptation from an unlikely source and the revelation that the House is far from finished with the Lancaster family, nor they with it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and consider Jonathan Aycliffe part of a select company that includes Reggie Oliver, Laura Purcell, Susan Hill, and Michelle Paver, the heirs of the ghost story tradition begun with M. R. James, though with the exception of Hill, Aycliffe’s oeuvre predates the work of those others mentioned. He is a writer of stories that are as subtle and finely wrought as they are unsettling for the glimpses they give us of another reality, one in which things that are not meant to be take on all too concrete form.