Fiction Reviews

An English Ghost Story

(2014) Kim Newman, Titan Books, 7.99, pbk, 313pp, ISBN 978-1-781-16558-4


Well, this is a treat, a new novel from Kim Newman, one of my favourite writers. I say a treat, because this is brand-new Newman, although Titan Books are not be faulted for republishing some of his older works the first three of the 'Anno Dracula' series, as well as the latest, Johnny Alucard, a mosaic novel bringing together a series of novellas and short stories; as well as some of Newman's other novels such as Jago and Bad Dreams, each with added material, but An English Ghost Story is new Newman and not to be sniffed at, but surely, isn't the title a bit of a giveaway? A ghost story? And an English one at that? Aren't all the best ones English? Or British? And isn't the best form for the ghost story, the short story? Think of M. R. James, Dickens, et al. But ghost stories in novel form? Okay, I'm forgetting about Susan Hill, and Jonathan Aycliffe, even Michelle Paver's brilliant Dark Matter, but much of this work is set in the past, and in remote, sometimes far off places cut off by distance, or the weather.

So what can Newman bring to the party? Well, An English Ghost Story is set in the very recent past, and while we have a rural setting, we aren't a million miles away from civilisation, but it is time for the Naremores to escape to the country. They have to get away, and make a fresh start, lead new lives, leave the old ones behind, leave their old selves behind, because if they do not they will probably end up killing each other, so the 'The Hollow' in rural Somerset seems like their salvation. Stop, inhale, hold, exhale. They can feel it all around them. This is the place. There is Dad, Steve, the small businessman, there is Kirsty, the Mum who was a bit of a punk and has tried, unsuccessfully, to run her own business under the influence of her Svengali-like friend that the rest of the family hates, there's the daughter, Jordan, who hates everybody, even herself, but she has a boyfriend she can cling to, like a life raft, and there is a son, Tim, a little soldier, lost in video games who thinks life is just one big battle, and he might be right. Life is war, war is hell, and families are the worst hell of all, but a war needs a battleground to fight it on, and the family have found the idyllic, Hollow, previously occupied by Louise Magellen Teazle, a prolific writer of children's books, and it soon becomes obvious that her stories were set in The Hollow, and it becomes even more apparent that the ghosts she wrote about really do exist.

Like an expert swordsman, who nicks and cuts until their opponent bleeds to death, Newman nicks away at our senses, right from the start when one of the removal men notices a little girl dressed oddly inside the house and warns Steve about her, but Steve dismisses his remarks. Another great creepy scene is when the house is invaded by the fanatical members of the Louise Magellen Teazle Society who force Steve to give them a guided tour and he seems to have more people in his party than he thought. Rocking chairs that rock, trees that offer gifts, a filing cabinet with drawers that have should only exist in the pages of a children's book, but don't: this is the backdrop for heaven to become hell.

Newman has always had a great narrative voice, and An English Ghost Story is told from the viewpoints of the four leading characters, punctuated by the text of Teazle's book Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, an extract from Ghost Stories of the West Country and another from The Journal of a Victorian Gentlewoman that reveal that the Hollow is perhaps not as benign as it seems and its history goes way, way back. My only quibbles are that things are inevitably, obviously, going to go downhill and they do in some of the most awful, cringe-making ways imaginable, but there were a couple of things that I thought might happen involving minor characters that did not quite materialise, and maybe the ending should have been darker, but An English Ghost Storywas one of the best novels of 2014, make sure you read it in 2015.

Ian Hunter

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