‘Ghostly’ by Audrey Niffenegger (ed) or be careful if your torch backlights it’s pages

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Read at your peril: torchlight reveals it’s haunting properties in ways fragile imaginations cannot take

 

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Behold: A book ghost!

 

 

Now Audrey Niffenegger clearly knows a thing or two about the dark, macabre and the gothic. Hanging out in Highgate Cemetary can only result in a more fervent eye toward such matters- something that any reader of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ or ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ would eagerly concur with. If you want a brooding story with an unsettling tone and haunting sense of yearning then she is your author! Imagine my delight, then, last Halloween when it became abundantly apparent that she had curated and illustrated an anthology of haunting stories. If you are beginning to know anything about me, then it will come as no surprise that I was straight into my nearest bookshop to snatch up a copy of ‘Ghostly’ as fast as my greedy and expectant mitts could cooperate (basically immediately)!

It will also come as no surprise to you that this rapid determination, could not follow through when it came to said reading. Not because this collection somehow diminished in appeal (as if) but purely because I always have an astronomical to be read pile, that just keeps increasing like some sick, but albeit pleasurable joke. While I did tuck in with gusto, somehow I got waylaid- something it took several months to rekindle. This is not because the selection was somehow lacking. Indeed, Niffenegger has weaved together the selected stories with real sensitivity. They ebb and flow with a respectful reverence toward their accordant subject matter, in a way that both heightens and draws contrasts in meaning as one story ends and the next begins. It really must be noted that this is a mark of her skill. Great ghostly stories are often placed in such anthologies: rarely do they weave together in such a manner. Rarely do we then consider them as a whole- for ghost stories, in their usual short- form are written to be enjoyed alone in more ways than one. No, instead my pause was garnered by the particular effect the centrepiece of this collection rendered on my poor senses: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ rendered me mute and unable to continue.

As anyone who has encountered a particularly powerful story will testify, sometimes you must cease and allow your subconscious the space to process and recover from such an unexpected effect. While I am not entirely sure why it held such magnetic sway, well apart from the psychological malaise it infused via its central protagonist and the brooding, oppressive atmosphere that seeped through its pages and into my psyche as it’s dank, maudlin environs overpowered those that resided in its pages, what I do know is that it felt better to wrap myself in less affecting prose and allow myself to detangle from its grasp. Yet, like all compulsions it was only a matter of time before I once more immersed myself in this tome and surrendered myself to whatever awful fate may befall me.

Perhaps such an extended pause was really about allowing myself time to process the explicit mastery encountered in this particular tale. The best of any ghostly fiction must surely recognise that success comes from creating the requisite atmosphere to compound our uncertainties and fears- which it must do in such a way that does not reveal to us how it drawn us in or suspended our disbelief. Confusion and uncertainty are then key ingredients. That Niffenegger would include this story in exactly the position that she has in this collections’ chronology only further highlights the mastery and knowledge of this genre AND of how fear works. This reveals her skill in all its glory. Such confidence then also allows the full range of writing that this genre can muster to sing together and educate us- showing us all the directions that great ghost stories can take. Who could not enjoy the humorous departure of a bachelor haunted by the fear of marriage in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ (light relief at just the right moment). Or the art of the twist in the masterfully short ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. Kelly Link’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ just makes me want to read her work voraciously (especially after scoring a promotional copy of ‘The Summer People’ from Canongate- which was bloody excellent): who says ghosts are in charge of the scares! Enough said.

While I could explore EVERY included story in miniatuae, it has to be A S Byatts’ haunting ‘The July Ghosts’ that had the most emotional impact. The beautiful prose adeptly explains the yearning that loss brings with it, so lightly that you cannot help by be moved. It truly is haunting. In many way, Niffeneggers’ own work draws much from this approach- it makes you wonder how influential she has been in informing her particular style of writing. In any case, it has certainly made me want to read more of Byatts’ work. In much the same way that Niffeneggers’ particular proclivity for weaving has made me eager to see how she will continue to weave her own writing. Let us not forget the beautiful artwork that also compliments and provokes us as readers: from the smoke -like wisps of the cover to the deceptive sway of the feline fatale.

Just be careful if you read by torchlight. Your eyes may deceive you if you turn the pages too quickly: behold any book ghosts that may reveal themselves…

‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ by Sarah Winman or you find magic in unexpected places

Ok, I admit it. I am a sucker for an attractive cover design. Here  orange fireflies contrast perfectly against inviting sea greens, hinting gently at the magic that the pages of this novel contain, mesmerising by association (because fireflies are always magical and more than a little mysterious). The title too is intriguing, and you could be forgiven for missing the fact that Marvellous Ways is actually the name of the central protagonist and not just a clever turn of phrase to sum up the main driver of the story. As publishers well know, covers need to entice book browsers, much like pretty flowers lure insects. Thankfully, this one drew me as it is not an author I had previously considered. If it hadn’t I would have missed out on a thoroughly delightful, cockle-warmer of a story. The kind that makes you feel fuzzy and renewed: determined to live your life that much brighter and more purposefully.

It’s all thanks to Marvellous Ways! She is a quirky, fiercely independent Octogenarian full of spirit and determined to end out her days living her life in the unique way she always has (which means living off the land in an all but deserted tidal creek in Cornwall). It is clear from the narrative, that she is a very wise lady whom we could all learn much from- especially the grace and kindness with which she ceaselessly conducts herself. Having had a quirky Granddad, who followed his own path and was comfortable in his own skin (even though most would have dismissed him for superficial reasons) these qualities are something that I cherish in such people, should I be lucky enough to encounter them. They usually see or understand something magical or significant, that passes the majority of us by. So rather than dismissing someone with dishevelled clothing or bottle-stop glasses fastened by elastic bands we should try to see beyond these trivialities and listen to and watch them- we will usually be surprised at all the things we learn. It goes without saying, that my Grandfather, with his dusty unkempt house and visiting goats to mow his front lawn (in an inner city area) and meditating at 3pm every day for world peace (things that some would scorn at) was the most evolved person that I have ever been lucky enough to be in the company of. Reading about Marvellous reminded me of him, and I knew she would bring joy to my soul and show me the beauty of this world, just in her existence.

Sarah Winman, did this lovely character absolute justice both in the magical, redemptive tale she weaves for her and in the beauty of her lyrical prose which both forwards the narrative and develops the characters so nimbly, that all of your senses become involved in the world that is being evoked. I really felt the healing powers of the water, which invigorated and restored me by proxy (along with the resolution of this intricate plot). There is much to be said for a writer who can encourage her readers to open their eyes wider than the story they are reading, to consider the magic that can be lurking all around you: such people could be right under our noses and we might not even know it. Apart from being thoroughly moved by Marvellous’ last adventure, it left me wanting to appreciate the beauty of life, nature and people all the more. To seek the unexpected. To be more open- which is not an easy feat in our cynical world.

Humbled.

I urge you all to read this book and I dare you not to be caught up in its magic. Smile at strangers. Take the time to help that old lady crossing the road- you can bet she has some wisdom to share and some interesting stories to tell. Stop rushing about. Sit next to a river or a tree. Breathe. Really look at what is around you. You may be surprised. This novel clearly is a gateway drug to enlightenment!

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Magic is all around you. You can see it if you start looking at the world the right way: Marvellous Way

 

‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’ by Robert Westall or stay away from rickety scaffolding..

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So what does any sensible Ghost Story afficionado choose to read on a bright, yet biting spring afternoon? For the first time this year the dank, morose and brooding atmosphere that this pervading weather system has been imposing, gave way and offered us a chink in its oppressive armour. Did I race outside to eradicate my vitamin k deficit? Did I choose a bright and breezy beach-fest? No. I settled down with Robert Westall. Having thoroughly enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’- with its emphasis on the power of stones- my subconscious must have drawn me towards this masonry -weighted tome like a fly into a web. While it is more cathedral than cairn, the end result was the same: top of the to read pile and unrelenting menace.

Normally, any bright sunshine speckling my favoured reading- spot would massively detract from the required brooding atmosphere that the reading of such books are best accustomed to, should you wish to maximise the expectant effect of terror and unease. A dark, shadowy corner in a rickety old pub, with rain battering its exterior, whilst wind whistles through any nook that it can find would be near perfect locale from which to evoke the mood required from such material. No matter for this tome! Despite the sunshine, I found myself completely lost in its isolated, decaying towers. The ordinariness of the narrator and his steeplejack companions neatly contrast the extraordinary experiences put forward: both validating and exposing the uneasy events that follow. Such a no-nonsense character could surely not be prone to flights of fancy- what he proposes no matter how improbable must hold weight…

While such juxtapositions are commonplace within the genre, combining this approach with the unsteady arena of the steeplejack, working away from our known zones of experiences up at cloud-level allows us to marvel at something unsettling without a desire to question its validity (perhaps because we have no experience here with which to measure it). By drawing on the phobia-laden arena of heights, whose dizzying effect only serves to enhance our apprehension: reminding us all too easily that the boundaries between the safe and comfortable exist all too near to our sanitised existences. The uncommon becomes accepted; a suspension of disbelief settles easily. Indeed many fears are ably exploited in our search for the source of unseen menace. Our fears as parents, of the masons, of loss- all exploiting that unseen, yet seemingly collective menace all the more. Feeling that there is a supernatural explanation for the strange magnetic pull the tower has on young boys, in tangent with unexplained deaths and accidents becomes the logical explanation-albeit a deeply unsettling one with a knarled, grotesque face.

Indeed while reading, vertiginous feelings prevailed alongside the even more disquieting sensation of being malevolently watched. If this is Westall’s particular prowess I will certainly have to seek out Valancourt’s other addition ‘Antique Dust’. Especially, when the accompanying story showcased within this collection  impressed itself upon me even further than one as powerful as ‘Stones’. ‘Brangwyn Gardens’ adopts a tongue in cheek approach that can only be deemed as verging on some rather black humour. Here Westall clearly delves into his undergraduate experiences, to conjure a disturbing story that borrows from the universal experiences of students: grotty digs and mysterious landladies-as seen through the eyes of a selfish, lazy and unreliable student. Furthermore said male students insatiable lust is lambasted and cured by the implementation of a genius, albeit grotesque, twist involving an impressionable imagination and a very disturbing extended exploitation of the senses. The cathartic release of laughter accompanying the resolution is a welcome release of all the heady tension that is built: perhaps an intentional symbolic summation of the moral fabric of the story! Be careful what you lust after.

In conclusion, you could not wish for two more different but equally as effective Ghostly stories. They hint at the validity of Valancourt’s selection in Westall, to be discovered anew by fresh generation of readers- instilling confidence in their publications, should you be looking for more interesting reads than the mainstream often has to offer. Seek them out, like I do, and you will not be disappointed. Valancourt and Orrin Grey know their stuff! Let’s hope Antique Dust is still in stock….

‘The Trees’ by Ali Shaw or if you look the right way, you will see the whole world is a forest

 

Now there is no getting away from the fact that ‘The Trees’ is graced with an amazing, eye-catching cover and it would be foolish not to recognise the vital part that it played in capturing my attention. David Mann’s evocatively imagined fox, in the style of a Wodewose or Green Man carving, employing leaves and burnt, autumnal shades to conjure the danger that the Forest contains, does so with verve. Somehow the eyes glare at you, with just the right level of menace- almost commanding you to read it. Yet this is not a book that has relies merely on tricks: it is a book, which follows through on the promise it puts forward, visually. It is a novel of great reward, which takes you on such a strange and unnerving journey- deep into the heart of the forest and all that it represents-literally and metaphorically.

It is testament to Ali Shaw’s writing, that I am still mulling the story over a week later. Not only am I haunted by trees everywhere I go, in that the idea of their strange animate forms infuses their ordinariness (I beg any of you to look at ‘The Stick Man’ by Julia Donaldson in the same way, when it comes to story time) but I am also more focused on the myriad ways that we disrespect or disregard the superior power of nature. It is all too easy in our sanitised, modern lives to forget that we are vulnerable to and reliant upon nature to survive. Perhaps this is the point.

Much like in the forest we encounter in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummers Nights Dream’, natural order is reversed here. Events are infused with a pervading air of confusion; magic weaves it’s spell over our perceptions. Disbelief is suspended and like Shakespeare, Shaw thus enables us to consider ideas too threatening to our complicit everyday acceptance of the ways we live our lives- blindly working against nature, so that we may feel safe. By using fable and metaphor we may more easily tap into these ideas and ask deeper questions and provoke thoughts about how we live our lives: a change is necessary.

While the big questions are an integral part of the novels’ message, it is also amongst the flawed characters that drive its plot that I found the most relief. Our cowboy-loving couch-potato becomes the unexpected hero of the piece: Adrien Thomas. He is braver than I would be, when it comes to taking responsibility of the sinking-ship. It made me feel hollow *shudders*. I related to his initial helplessness. I applaud his ability to follow, watch and learn from others . I applaud his ability to reflect and adapt. I warm to him rediscovering his skills and being of comfort, by helping the children find comfort in learning (a really valuable and under-appreciated skill- both in the novel and life: teaching). I am in awe of his ultimate sacrifice.

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A fable of terrible beauty and guaranteed sleep deprivation: you will not sleep again, consider yourself warned!

So, if you are looking for an engaging read that takes you to strange and ethereal places whilst it’s perameters allow you to question the structures of your life, then look no further. If you aren’t, I urge you to read this novel anyway. It is a thing of terrible beauty and has a story within it that deserves, no must, be heard. I urge you to face the fears it rises. Whatever you do, bloody keep your logs outside. Don’t live near any trees. And invest in sleeping tablets or some methylated spirits. The thought of being skewered in your bed by mutant marauding branches is like something out of Poltergeist: there will be no rest again!!

Thanks Ali Shaw, you have done for trees what Hitchcock/ Du Maurier did for birds.

‘Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children’ by Ransom Riggs or strange things happen when you step inside Mesolithic chambers…

‘Miss Peregrine’s’ has been on my radar for quite some time, but as anyone with an out of control to-read pile can testify, sometimes you just have to wait until the mood is right and the stars align. Said alignment seemed to come together for me as a result of two auspicious signs converging at once:

  1. Seeing the trailer for Burton and Goldman’s upcoming filming adaption (enough said).
  2. Another Quirk title, ‘My Best Friends Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix, spectacularly grabbing my full attention with its promise of 80/90s nostalgia cum Heathers cum horror-fest (recently been reminiscing about Christopher Pike and other cool YA retro memories).

You can see why, with this heady mix why I HAD to start reading (and pre-ordering Hendrix). Thanks Quirk Books, seems like you have your finger well and truly on the pulse.

Page one in to Peregrines, and I knew I was onto something special. Not only did it start with a real assured sense of confidence about the story it had to tell but it also littered its prose with the curious kind of bombs that you know are going to pepper your communications, in the form of phrases and words that even you a certified dictionary reader haven’t yet encountered! Even if some of the subject matter, must necessarily take a dark turn, it does not mean you cannot have fun with the words you chose to convey meaning or inject humour into the proceedings. The piss/ priest hole mix up being a prime example or even ‘a purgatory of beige waiting rooms’. It also held the sense of the unsual that ‘The Book Thief’ conjured as soon as you started reading- and that magic doesn’t happen often.

While the clue was already there to see, in the operative word of the title, and is one of the novels many great strengths, it was the loving relationship displayed between Jacob and his Grandfather that really suckered me in. If you have had an adoring Grandparent, that has devoted the most precious thing to you (Time), then you will be equally warmed to the novels central plot driver: how this relationship evolved and reaffirms itself in the host of changes that are flung their way. The novel celebrates this bond and it’s informative influences as Jacob turns from boy to man: even in the face of learning the truth about what his world looks like and the horrors it contains. There was something that deeply touched my soul, as the novel progressed and it became clear to Jacob that his Grandad was still always the man he thought he was and that he shared more than a familial bond, with Portman Snr.

While Portman and Portman carry most of the emotional load of this magical story, we must not ignore some of the many ways that it uses imagery to convey its meaning. Clearly, this is a visually driven and inspired book. It is fascinating to read as  it allows us to more closely examine the usually hidden relationship between author and inspiration, through its inclusion of a series of black and white images that support many of the more intriguing elements of the story. You can see exactly how Miss Peregrine became a shape-shifting bird of prey- when you look at the image of a rifle with said birds shadow hanging over it. It really is fascinating to explore how Rigg’s imagination took such isolated, quirky images, drew them together and created a cohesive narrative full of vibrancy and interest. He really does have some skill because he could easily have over complicated things- but as with his narrative, keeping ideas simple and in a solid framework, he truly does succeed in telling a novel story. This then allows inspiration to flow from objects and experiences- such as Cairns and bog men, why people wear sunglasses. I could go on. How would you use such seemingly mundane starting points to weave a story, that captures a similar level of interest?

So if you like allegorical, coming of age stories that use magic and mystery to teach you universal truths: go to Narnia or Hogwarts. If you like yours to do something truly unusual, in a creative and quirky way: grab ‘Miss Peregrine’ with both hands and do not let go. Let it intrigue you, amuse you, scare you and warm you. Relish in all of its peculiar elements and embrace your own and love your Grandad that little but more, if he was a loving and supportive influence, he is always with you.

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special skills need not always be obvious

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing’ by Mark Mulholland or is all fair in love and war?

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I came to this novel full of curiosity and a sense of longing, having read the blurb and seeing that it featured a young and bookish Irish man, full of passion yet hiding a dark other side in which he masquerades as an IRA sniper. While such contrasts of course are of great interest to me as a reader (I am fascinated by what motivates people and how they end up where they do) it was actually the tentative glimpse towards  my long dead grandfather, that certain aspects of this novel seemed to cover that really intrigued me. While I am not suggesting he was an IRA sniper, I do know that he was a very quiet, bookish man who passed away when my mother was a young girl- thus remaining mysterious and enigmatic as we try to piece together our understanding of a man that died over 50 years ago. Clearly he was An Irish emigre, and clearly he came from an era in which the troubles Ireland have faced must have influenced his decision to move to the UK? What did he experience? What were his opinions? While I know that a book cannot possibly speak for a person, I do know that they can offer snap shots and pointers: something I was interested to explore in this novel. This, then was the particular baggage that I brought to the reading of this text.

And what a text! It is complex and rich. It explores uncomfortable questions and leaves you to examine all of the viewpoints it puts forth; to reach your own conclusions about the decisions that Johnny Connolly makes and the representation they put forth regarding Irish troubles (and really the troubles that occupation and war bring in any nation). This novel is full of scars, that are ripped wide open so that you may explore their painful and horrifying realities: no matter how uncomfortable. Although the subject matter differs wildly, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it shares it’s clever approach to its dark subject matter in that it places judgement firmly within the readers hands. That and that it is a love story (Johnny and Cora, and towards Ireland). This is a brave and clever choice, something that allows us to move beyond black and white into the complexities of grey. If we are to understand and learn from Johnny’s experiences (or indeed from any young, angry person that wishes to avenge oppression, brutality or occupation) then we must pay close attention. Though the reasoning may differ, the motivations must have a universality to them.

Interestingly, Mulholland does have the foresight to locate Johnny’s personal struggles against historic ones- namely Nazi Germany. How could such horrors happen?  Ask the teachers, doctors, solicitors etc. Indeed, it is his old teacher that I remain most horrified with- responsible for recruiting and corrupting a vulnerable and impressionable 12 year old boy. Makes you really think about similar corruptions going on in other struggles and how the weak manipulate those who have not yet matured and lack true insight into carrying out their bidding, without true understanding of consequences.

There are many bleak moments in this novel, they come early and come fast- unlike ‘One Day’ by Nicholls our trauma at tragedy is just the beginning. Instead we get to truly see what happens next and how much further Johnny can spiral. It is an emotional, gut wrenching read. The love he feels for Cora and for his Ireland are palpable. You can feel them too, in all their glory. I feel that this novel helped me understand the beauty of this country, so linked to me yet not fully understood. I also got to understand the complexities of Johnny’s choices- alarmingly, I found that I really liked him and could perhaps negate some of the horrific violence he propagates. Johnny is kind to his family, so he can’t be a bad person. Yet he does bad things. Perhaps this was the writers point. This is how easily people turn a blind eye. It certainly made me sit up and think more deeply and realise that people are as complex as their reasoning is illogical, at times.

To me, though, the biggest gift of this novel was in both the beauty of its crafting and it’s ability to weave metaphors throughout the heart of this story (and heart is what it all boils down to). It is worth reading just for the mountain metaphor alone, in the great wisdom it imparts. We all begin at the bottom, and we must climb its arduous path overcoming obstacle, despite not knowing what we may reach. We must find ropes (or guiding lights) in the form of inspiring/ encouraging people or ideas. We must always do everything with heart. In this way we can see Johnny’s struggles as representing Ireland’s struggles and you hope that it has reached the top of the mountain (and that others struggling may do so too).

So while I sought some understanding of my grandfather, instead I gained some understanding of how and why people struggle with dark decisions. How they can justify violence, in the name of some warring cause. While it may not be my path, it is a path that keeps being trodden. It is a complex one that involves interplay between different sides. It is not black (like the portentous fox that foreshadows the first trouble) or white, but complex grey. So thank you, Mark Mulholland, for tackling such an important subject and giving me pause. I hope that others are given pause, too and instead consider how such a situation/ action is born before reducing it into unhelpful judgements. If they only realised, novels can hold the key to unlocking deeper understanding of such matters.

‘The Watchers’ or tin foil is no use in New Haven

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Genuinely eerie, tapping into childhood memories and fears to deliver chills

Well that was a whirlwind of a page turner! I have to say that it blew me away. Perhaps I wasn’t as excited as I should have been, with it’s enticing premise, due to my prior excitement being dashed on reading ‘The Ghost Hunters’ (whose premise ticked every box on paper, but just didn’t work for me). But what a read! From reading the first chapter, I could not put it down. I devoured it in under 24 hours, which is testament to its narrative power. Neil Spring is clearly one to watch, and reminds me that it always pays to give writers you think you should like another shot (David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ to ‘The Bone Clocks’ being a case in point- couldn’t get into ‘Cloud Atlas’ but ‘The Bone Clocks’ is up there with the greats).

I have to say that the thought of reading a spooky story about Aliens/Ufos really isn’t my bag. However, the enticing cover, with its monochrome lighthouse drew me in (proving that covers can help you judge a book). On realising that the novel drew on the very sightings in 70s Wales that had terrified me, as an impressionable infant, sneaking reads of my Gramphs’ Unexplained magazines, I was sold. Alongside the Enfield poltergeist and Gef the talking mongoose (fertile subject matter Neil could ably explore) events in the Havens totally shit me up, sleeping with the covers pulled over my eyes style. These days I am able to style my fear out much better, most likely due to desensitising myself to all things supernaturally scary by reading/watching/exploring anything with a spooky theme! Rarely do things scare me. While Neil succeeded with giving me chills, perhaps this novel worked so well because it didn’t attempt to neatly define itself as one genre. The suspense that pulsed through it carried the story, and while lingering on some of the alien interplay would have suited my own tastes, not focusing deeply on them did not detract from the story in any way.

That said, the menace of Stack Rocks really seeped through, as did Taid Llewelyn’s Religious fervour and the hostility of a remote and insular community. You could really feel the wind chimes rattling, warning of an unknown threat descending. Despite some outlandish concepts, such as animal mutilation and secret societies deep in Whitehall your belief is totally suspended and they are woven together so effortlessly that you don’t question the explanation offered by way of the developing plot. Roberts own doubts and psychological clouding, due to blocked childhood trauma, are a great device for delivering the story. His confusion and probing mirrors ours as the audience and allows us to assess the evidence as it is revealed in increments, allowing us to remain vested in a plot that could seem ridiculous if delivered in a more straightforward manner. This to me, highlights the crux of how Spring has developed as a writer- showing confidence and mastery when he delivers his story and delivering more than a great premise. While ‘The Ghost Hunters’ will clearly make great TV, this has the potential to be even better! I can’t wait to see what Mr Spring will deliver next…..

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson or don’t look North

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Macabre and chilling take on Witches and their historic persecution.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson was a chance find, in my local bookshop, when scouring for any potential spooky reads as Halloween approached. I have to say that I have probably exhausted the larger part of this canon, so I was intrigued when I spotted this one alongside Neil Spring’s excellent ‘The Watchers’. Two new reads in one foray! One with a spooky alien interplay, and the other veering towards Covens and Sabbats. Happy days.

So far, so different. Yet in some weird twist of fate, both books also share an uncanny ability to weave extant events of their times together, with unexpected links and connections drawn- making their stories their own re-workings (despite their vastly differing subject matter). Indeed, Winterson, has succeeded in bringing a little, gruesome piece of Hammer to the page that wears its power lightly. It is a short read, but this does not compromise on the horror. You get the feeling that she has expertly made every word count, in the delivery of this tragic tale. Short sentences abound, adding to the unease! Word choices are precise, cutting the atmosphere with a knife. A feeling of darkness descends as you immerse yourself into Jacobean Lancashire, and the Puritan terrors it enfolds.

Yet this sense of horror does not rely on our stereotypical expectations, in terms of characterisation. Witches naturally provide fertile ground for the exploitation of our primal fears. The atmosphere that is conjured, in the opening pages, lends itself closely to the dark and menacing premise that the three witches of Macbeth themselves embody. A dank, brooding air descends upon our senses reflecting the hopelessness that this novella expresses in its continuation. This subdued and oppressive atmosphere lends a melancholy sentiment to the enfolding misfortune that the unfortunates of this story endure. The real horror, unfortunately, lies in our realisation that certain strata of society, such as Catholics or independent women were annihilated in order to appease those with any grievance- real or imagined that may be afforded a sense of power from their accusations. Some of the actions exhibited by the power hungry males we encounter, make for uncomfortable reading and express a barbarity that we are less likely to understand in our modern lives, but that do still threaten us.

Ultimately, this tale succeeds in helping us pull our freedoms a little closer to us, appreciating them a little more than we did before, while being mindful that horrors could descend on any of us at anytime- reminding us that the darker aspect of humanity has never been entirely been eliminated. As they say, it’s not the dead you should fear….

‘The Supernatural Enhancements’by Edgar Cantero or strange things happen

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Such an unusual, quirky joy of a book. Merging of unusual elements that really works.

I inherited a strange book.
This is not a chance encounter.
Perhaps I will need a guardian? Someone to watch me while I read it…..
Tuesday 30th December

Been to the local GP about my bloodshot eyes.
She suggests that I shouldn’t read so late or watch quite so many X-Files boxsets. They are now playing on my nerves…

Weds 31st December

I have arranged to meet with other readers/enthusiasts of the ‘Order of the Supernatural Enhancements’.

Perhaps they can decode its meaning? It’s a bloody mystery to me!

Thurs 1st January

Woken up in a hospital bed. It got messy last night.
My thoughts are a labyrinth.
All my best crystal got smashed. Might explain the blood loss…

I think I definitely need someone to watch over me! Who knew a book could cause this much carnage.

EDGAR CANTERO: making a comic-strip read like a novel, with verve!

I’m neving as I think about it.

‘Benighted’ by J.B. Priestley or stick to well-lighted places

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Valancourt Books: republishing lost gems. Seek em out!

Imagine my delight, when perusing the net, in discovering a specialist publisher- a la Valancourt Books- that seeks out and republishes long-forgotten titles from the ghostly and macabre canon. Clearly a major spending splurge will commence. I have already added ‘The Elementals’ by McDowell to the pile and am seriously coveting ‘The Moorstone Sickness’ by Taylor and ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’ by Westall, after only a mere customary glance.

Having loved Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, it was a given that I would select ‘Benighted’ first, if only out of curiosity. Exploring how his writing would transfer from a play script to the novel format, holds a certain fascination for me. That said, it’s premise was equally as intriguing: that of an old haunted house in which a band of strangers must take unwitting shelter, from uncontrollable forces. While such a plot is now in danger of being perceived as mere trope, by today’s standards, I knew that Priestley would bring enough skill to his writing to move beyond this premise (we must also acknowledge that this novel was written long before our tired expectations). If I was to be wrong, and find this novel tiresome it would still appeal to the more Hammer-horror esque aspect of my imagination.

While Brad and Janet would of course be proud of the setting and exposition offered up in this novel, it cannot be denied that Priestley expertly conjures an oppressive and brooding backdrop to his tale. Surprisingly, his theatrical bent lends itself very well to the story itself. Instead of overloading itself on the expression of fear through language (which in other novels can become tedious, in that the narrative description becomes exaggerated and renders itself detrimental to the tone intended). To say his language is simple, would be unfair, as he obviously wears his vocabulary lightly. However, he is confident enough to allow the story to speak for itself and rely on the careful foreshadowing of what will come in the littering of a few carefully placed words amongst the ordinary flow of the narrative, to build tension. Indeed words such as ‘devilish’, ‘hunted beast’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘savage, ‘trembling’ and ‘threatening’, while being used to explain their situation and the torrential weather they are at the mercy of also expertly ratchet up the ominous unease that creeps up on you as you read.

Perhaps the setting and exposure to natures power, touch on our primal fears (much like painted clown faces and ghost trains do for me- tied to the hidden and unknown aspects of experience, that which you cannot see and control). Indeed, this novel circles carefully around metaphors of light and dark and how they juxtapose each other in our experience. The titular choice, ‘Benighted’, sums up nicely both Priestley’s command and control of language and also reflects the main themes of the novel- both moral and physical. Benighted can mean:

A) overtaken by night or darkness

or

B) lacking enlightenment or knowledge
which we understand clearly, once we have completed the novel and daylight has returned. Things always seem better in the light. While I was genuinely scared, while reading this novel, waiting to see what horror the writing would reveal and what fate would befall the protagonists, it was in the cold light of day and the dawning that we must all face our fears in the light, to examine them with clear sight that stayed with me the most. This is where the novel succeeds most and this is where Valancourt have done credit to the genre, by reminding us that great writing can be found amongst genre fodder. Thanks very much for the chills and the elucidation.