I discovered Syd Moore by accident – she’s not a name that’s widely known in horror circles, and more’s the pity. While browsing the shelves in Waterstones in search of something Christmas themed and in the horror/crime line, I stumbled across her collection The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas, which I cracked open last December, only to find that I wasn’t really that taken with the first story and so abandoned the book. I gave it a second try in January this year and found the first story wasn’t that bad and the rest were much, much better. Though Moore is mostly seen as a crime writer and has been shortlisted a couple of times for a CWA Dagger, her first two novels were ghost stories. My partner has a liking for ghost stories and so we got the books out of the library and after she’d read and approved them, I dived in myself, which brings us to the present moment in time.
The Drowning Pool was first published in 2011. After the death of husband Josh, Sarah Grey and four year old son Alfie move to the seaside town of Leigh, where she finds a job at a private school and a bunch of gal pals – Sharon, Corinne, Martha – who have turned social drinking into a professional pursuit. Sarah shares her name with a nineteenth century local celebrity, the so called sea witch about whom many legends exist. After a drinking party at a ruined castle that turns into a séance of sorts, Sarah starts to have nightmares and Alfie sees visions of a burning girl, and all of it is focused on the original Sarah Grey, who appears to want something from her. Resistant at first, not to say slightly incredulous, Sarah starts to investigate the life of her namesake, but the deeper she digs the more it becomes apparent that something is very wrong with the accepted accounts of what happened to the original Sarah Grey.
While it doesn’t reinvent the ghost story as a cover blurb claims, this is a lively and highly entertaining variation on the form. Moore gets so many things right. Her spectral effects are subtle and minimalist, which makes them all the more convincing. There’s a wealth of history to ground the story, both of the town of Leigh and the characters, with various documents adding to the general air of verisimilitude. What makes the book special though is the characterisation. Sarah and her gal pals are all beautifully drawn, people who know how to party and take the piss out of each other, but at bottom are true friends, those you can rely on in a pinch. Similarly her family, both blood relatives and in-laws, are done with panache, so that you can believe in them, understand their concerns and where they are coming from. Sarah herself is a beguiling protagonist, somebody who has known tragedy in her life and is coping, but with difficulty, and the help of her support group. In ways she identifies with the fate of her namesake, and this makes her both willing to believe and able to help, plus we have the added complication of a possible brain tumour that might be making her hallucinate. Her love affair with work colleague Andrew, a similarly damaged person, is done with skill, developing in a way that feels perfectly natural and unforced. They have trust issues and guilt to deal with, but are genuine in their willingness to reach out to each other and they come through when it matters. The modern day mystery played interesting counterpoint to the main story, a matter of history repeating itself, but at the same time I found it predictable, realising what was going on before the characters ever did – when a person disappears without leaving a forwarding address murder is always the optimum plot development, at least in fiction. Underlying it all and adding authority to the story is a subtext about the role of women in society. The original Sarah Grey was persecuted because of the suspicion that she was a witch, a trial borne by thousands of women who had the bad luck to be healers, wise women etc., in a patriarchal society. Similarly in the present day women are murdered simply for failing to fit in with men’s ideas of how they should behave, the book providing a perfect example of this (aha, the modern day mystery does have a purpose other than plot complication). Do I have any reservations? Well, Sarah and her friends do drink an awful lot, possibly more than her teacher’s wage (not to mention her liver) would support. And yet, without all the alcohol they wouldn’t be who they are, and I rather like them for who they are. Bottom line, The Drowning Pool is an entertaining and well written ghost story, a story with heart and a message that doesn’t eclipse the plot but enriches the book and deserves to be heard.