When Halloween is approaching I usually recommend a collection of ghost stories but this year I’ve picked a `haunted house’ novel instead. `An English Ghost Story’ is by film critic and Horror/Crime author, Kim Newman. It came out in 2014 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. `An English Ghost Story’ is set in the 1990s but draws on centuries of West Country legends. There are more spirits involved in this haunting than you normally find in an entire anthology of ghost stories. Prepare to be charmed, shocked, and kept guessing about just how dark this particular ghost story will turn out to be.
Things haven’t been going well for the Naremore family – parents Steven and Kirsty, teenage daughter, Jordan, and ten year-old Tim. Steven has decided that the family should move to the countryside to get away from London and from Kirsty’s toxic friend, Vron. The others disagree until they are shown an old house in Somerset called the Hollow. The previous owner of this property was a famous children’s writer: Louise Magellan Teazle. She has recently died and most of her furniture and belongings are still in the house. All four of the Naremores are enchanted by the Hollow and its beautiful garden and orchard. The house and its contents are soon bought and the family moves in.
The Naremores enjoy their first few weeks in their new home and get on better with each other than they have done for years. Jordan and Kirsty read some of Louise’s stories, including Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, and they learn more about her from the eccentric president of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society. Kirsty is thrilled to discover that a chest of drawers in the house has the same magical properties as it does in the Weezie stories. The others also notice curious things, such as a circle of standing stones which can only be seen from a certain spot in the gardens, a chair that rocks by itself in Jordan’s bedroom and the small presents left inside a hollow tree that war-game obsessed Tim has chosen for his `Green Base’. None of this seems sinister, even after Vron sends Kirsty a book of West Country ghost stories which describes the Hollow as `the most haunted spot in England’.
Gradually though the Naremores relapse into their old ways. Steven becomes domineering again and Kirsty more resentful about putting her family first. Tim struggles to stay neutral in the conflict between his parents and when Jordan’s boyfriend fails to turn up for a promised visit, she reverts to her angry, self-harming persona. Then the Hollow seems to turn against the Naremores and horrific versions of Louise’s characters walk the house and grounds. There will be terror, violence and a shocking death. At the Hollow `what you give is what you get’. Can the Naremore family give each other the strength to survive?
Kim Newman is an expert on Gothic Literature and the Science Fiction and Horror genres. He seems to have watched every Horror film ever made and read a vast quantity of novels and stories, relishing the bad stuff almost as much as the good. `Ghastly Beyond Belief’ – the book on pulp Science Fiction which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman – gleefully plumbs the depths of the genre. In his own fiction Newman often takes famous characters, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, and devises outrageous new story-lines for them. His books are gruesomely inventive and scabrously funny but often read more like extended parodies than original novels.
`An English Ghost Story’ has all of Newman’s usual qualities and a few more besides. His talent for pastiche is certainly in evidence. The book includes extracts from the `Journal of a Victorian Gentlewoman’, who is determined to defend the orchard at the Hollow even at the price of murder; a chapter from `Ghost Stories of the West Country’ detailing some of the mysterious deaths and supernatural phenomena associated with the Hollow, and a short story by Louise Magellan Teazle recounting how a clever little girl befriends a gloomy ghost. I’ve already noted in my post on `Diving Belles’ (January 2015) how rich the folklore of England’s West Country is. Newman makes good use of some of its more sinister elements: such as the beliefs that fruit trees have spirits which must be appeased and that ancient standing stones can leave their places to dance by moonlight. He also has fun creating a body of work for his invented children’s author. Louise Magellan Teazle’s books offer a supernatural twist on the traditional girls’ boarding school story and seem to have borrowed elements from writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett (`The Secret Garden’) and Lucy Boston (the Green Knowe series).
When I recommended Boston’s charming `The Children of Green Knowe’ last October, I noted that many of its elements could have been used to create a scary ghost story rather than a benign one. Newman obviously had the same idea. The Hollow has a lot in common with Green Knowe – an ancient house haunted by generations of its previous inhabitants. This helps to create an atmosphere of seductive enchantment in the early chapters of `An English Ghost Story’. The Naremores ought to be spooked when their removal men mention seeing a little girl inside a fireplace but they are not and that is chilling in itself. Newman lets the suspense build up slowly and indulges his sense of humour during the first hundred pages. There is plenty of satire on the foibles of middle class Londoners and the fanatical members of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society are wonderful comic characters.
Can a humorous ghost story also be genuinely scary? In this case, yes, because Newman deploys two special skills. Firstly, like M.R.James (see my post of October 2013) he has the ability to make objects frightening. A child’s catapult becomes a potentially lethal weapon and a window-pane that looks as if it is smiling suddenly shows fangs. The best example is an ordinary looking chest with a top drawer that is always empty, a bottom drawer which gives a different present every time it’s opened and a middle drawer that contains `a jumble of surprises’. While the chest produces small presents, like a rose or a single glove, its magic seems benevolent but as Kirsty gives in to the most selfish part of her nature she begins to experiment with its darker possibilities. When Kirsty puts living beings in the chest to jumble up or disappear them, it is one of the most horrific scenes I have ever read. This is partly due to Newman’s second skill – matching the haunting to the individual. The faults and weaknesses of the Naremore family generate specific temptations and apparitions, so anorexic Jordan is haunted by an ever smaller series of dresses hanging in a wardrobe that only she can open. This technique works because the novel allows the reader time to get to know the central characters really well.
If `An English Ghost Story’ was turned into a standard Horror film, the audience would probably be encouraged to jeer at the Naremores’ hopes for a new life and cheer when they start to suffer. Newman’s novel is more subtle and more compassionate. The Naremores are deeply flawed people and we get to see each of them at their worst but that doesn’t make them evil or deserving of a horrible fate. Which mother hasn’t occasionally day-dreamed about how free her life would be if she didn’t have children to look after? Newman made me care about this dysfunctional family and empathise with a little boy trying to take on adult responsibilities and a fierce young woman battling her inner demons. So be warned, this is a ghost story which may make you feel more than just fear. Until next time….