(2013) Jonathan Aycliffe, Corsair, £7.99, pbk, 224pp, ISBN 978-1-472-10512-7
It is the early days of the Second World War, and Dominic Lancaster has been badly injured in the Battle of Narvik, losing part of his leg. Regarded as a burden, and practically useless by his parents, particularly his obnoxious father who is a rich, snobby wine merchant, Dominic and his ten-year-old sister, Octavia, are sent to the Lake District to a remote family house – Hallinhag House near Ullswater, that almost seems to have been forgotten, perhaps deliberately so. Despite being profoundly deaf, Octavia can hear noises in the house, especially at night, then she tells her brother that she is hearing voices as well, and the voices belong to dead children who are telling them to leave the house.
And then Dominic starts to have dreams which are confusing at first, but become clearer, but remain always horrible…
This, then is the scenario for the latest ghost story from the great Jonathan Aycliffe, author of the classic Naomi’s Room and seven other chillers, as well as several other thrillers under his other pen-name, Daniel Easterman. I was lucky enough to meet the great man at the World Fantasy Convention last November in Brighton and haul down with me as many of his books as I could find for signing, even including a talking book version of Naomi’s Room on cassette, narrated by Tony Britton, Fern Britton’s father, no less.
The Silence of Ghosts contains many of the standard tropes of the ghost story – we have a wounded hero, wracked with self-doubt, and unable to get about much because of his injury. We have an isolated, remote location which is bad news to the locals, but seems idyllic to the unsuspecting newcomers. We have sibling who cannot hear and seems almost otherworldly. And probably, more importantly, all of this is set in a different time, albeit only seventy years earlier, which means there are no mobile phones, or the internet or social media. Another classic trope is that apart from the scene-setting introduction by Charles Lancaster, the tale is told through the diary extracts of his grandfather, Dominic, which last some 200 pages, before we reach the afterword, and despite being the self-proclaimed 'world’s most reluctant reader' while 200 pages of text without chapter breaks seemed daunting they turned effortlessly due to Aycliffe’s easy style.
To be honest, The Silence of Ghosts isn’t up there with Naomi’s Room, or The Talisman or some of Aycliffe’s other work, but it has a nice feeling of impending dread that builds and builds, and nice little touches around the paraphernalia of the ghosts – their clothes, their speech, what happens when their picture gets taken. The characters and the remote setting (everyone gets snowed in at one point, and of course there is no electricity so expect those candles to get blown out along the way) work well, and there is room for romance with the local nurse, and various sub-plots around that societal mis-match involving Dominic’s horrible parents, and there are creepy scenes involving the local priest trying to tackle the evil within Hallinhag House, and also when Dominic makes the ill-fated decision to take some evacuated children on a sailing trip, and of course, there is the revelation about who these children are, and why they are haunting the house.
The framing device using Dominic’s grandson ever-so-slightly kills the overall tension and the actual ending is a bit of a disappointment because it comes out of left field and struck me as being untrue and not something that would happen. Still, it is great to see Aycliffe back on the ghost story saddle, and here’s to future chillers coming our way.
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