Kim Newman, the man who brought us Jago and the star-studded Anno Dracula series (if you haven’t read them, do), after a considerable break from full-length novels, returns with An English Ghost Story. A skilful work from a writer steeped in the lore of his genre, it is a novel that bathes, like an eager hipster, in a wash of pop-culture and horror-fanboy references. A truly traditional ghost story that plays unwilling home to a dysfunctional modern family, greeting them as they escape from their city-bound relationship problems and begin life in the classic country idyll.
Readers join the Naremores as they set out with trepidation in a Mercedes A-Class “Hunchback” to begin a search for their “new” home. As is the way with these things, to begin with, none will do. The family progress through the countryside like a kind of nuclear Goldilocks “each storing up blame for the other to shoulder” leaving a trail of rejected and ill-fitting houses in their wake. Until, as if by magic, a man named Brian Bowker introduces them to the Hollow. Cue thunderstorms.
The house stood on raised stone foundations… and was an obvious patchwork of styles and periods. Matched follies, the towers seen from the road, rose to either side, above a greenish thatched roof, topped by hat-like red tile cones with Rapunzel windows. Aside from the towers, it was a farmhouse built at twice life-size. The ordinary scale front door looked tiny. Ivy had been encouraged to grow, perhaps to cover the jigsaw-sections of red brick, white plaster and grey stone. Over the centuries, parts of the house had been replaced when they collapsed or people got tired of them. It had grown independent of any architect’s designs or council planning permission, evolving to suit its inhabitants.
Upon this viewing, the Naremores find themselves in a state of unusual harmony and consequently rush the sale through and find themselves settling quickly; their hurts and bruised spirits stymied by the Hollow’s unconventional allure.
The Hollow, an apple orchard in Somerset, we learn from the pages of a history book cited in the novel, is “the most haunted spot in England.” Once the home of Louise Magellan Teazle, a Blyton-esque author of children’s ghost stories which, in the words Mrs Naremore, were “old-fashioned even then [when she was at school], but we all read them”, occupies an exalted place of mystery amongst its twee country surroundings. Like a (hopefully benign) poltergeist Newman teases out traditional themes of hauntings and establishes the Hollow as a ubiquitous place of haunting as opposed to creating an arbitrary haunted house. The former works much better for An English Ghost Story and I found myself reminded frequently of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood Series, specifically Mythago Wood in which a damaged man returns to England from the Second World War to find a ghostly forest risen from the long-dead myths of a nation.
The haunting experienced by the Naremores is (for the most part) one-step removed; they are as much the subject of the haunting as the object and readers will be aware of the degree to which they are a part of the happenings. Nevertheless, reading An English Ghost Story it’s hard not to get caught up in the spirit of the thing. It’s clear that Newman must have had a good deal of fun throughout the writing process. Larger than life characters with the most fabulous and quintessentially “English” names (Louise Magellan Teazle, Veronica Gorse and Bernard Wing-Godfrey) fall between cult film references and comfortable cliché as they and the Naremores attempt to understand (and eventually appease) the Hollow.
The opening and the finale are both well realised, but I felt that Newman handled poorly the shift between the two. At around the midway point (as the Hollow ceases to be a welcoming place for the Naremores) the novel takes an odd turn and characters begin making decisions that appear inconsistent with their past behaviour and obstruct the otherwise steady flow of the plot. Though, it must be said, Newman soon pulls this round for a satisfyingly dramatic denouement.
This is a novel that is filled with the kind of nostalgic warmth that gathers its arms around the reader and welcomes them around an imaginary mind-fire with a measure of vintage ghost-whiskey. A story that is as much about the act of reading oneself into the fabric of a landscape as it is a collection of penny dreadful scares. An English Ghost Story is ideal for the long dark nights.
To us, to the Naremore Family, and to our new home. We would like to thank the Hollow for having us, and we hope that it will keep us always.
Phillip Clement studied English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Since he left there he has lived in a library, written short stories and reviewed books. Currently he is preparing to begin a PhD exploring themes of identity and self in fiction.