I am always in the market for a good ghost story. Followers of Bookbound may well remember that Susan Hill’s classic ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’ made it, rather strangely perhaps , into my Top Ten Comfort Reads. I like nothing better than raising my heckles and disappearing off to dark, forbidding places, bring on the spooks I say!
But the trouble is, in recent years I have found good ghost stories rather hard to find. By the way I am quite happy to be proven wrong in this assertion, so feel free to send me your best supernatural offerings. But be warned I am quite picky. I am not talking horror here, not overtly gruesome or grizzly. I am talking about an old fashioned ghost story, filled with lots of psychologically head messing and gloomy attics. Ideally it will contain a storm and definitely an isolated house with untold secrets. Throw in a few freaked out locals for good measure and I am in clover .
The last great ghost story I remember reading was Sarah Waters delicious The Little Stranger. Dark, powerful and reread at least twice, it scratched my ghost story itch. I was starting to think that no one was writing great ghost stories anyone more.
Then along came. Haverscroft
In the past few weeks my Twitter feed has been increasing filled with talk of a new, exciting supernatural tale. Written by Sally Harris and published by Salt, this was a modern ghost story; bang up to date in setting and style but with all the ingredients for a perfect ghost story and more.
When my beautiful little bookish bundle arrived from Salt, right in the middle of half term, I suspected I was in for a treat.
So here begins the tale of Kate and Mark; we join them on the day they move to Haverscroft, a rundown house in the countryside. Escaping from their London and trying to repair the cracks in their marriage, the couple arrive at Haverscroft with their young twins. Mark is sure that this the place for them, he is confident and firmly grounded in reality. By contrast Kate is unsure; buying the house feels like a concession to her past mistakes. She is recovering from a breakdown, has left the city and her old life in a determination to make the marriage work. Driven by guilt and uncertainty it is a shaky ground for a new beginning.
Add in the locked attic, sealed by the previous owner, the strange Mrs Havers, doors that refuse to stay shut and an expensive but crumbling classic car in the garage and the we are heading towards ghost story perfection.
Yet Haverscroft is so much more than a standard ghost story. Sally Harris has built this story in a modern and beguiling way. Kate, our guide through this old house and all that comes with it. Her vulnerability makes her immediately relatable, her determination to make this work for her family makes her admirable. And yet her struggles with her mental help don’t make her appear entirely reliable. Harris has created this unreliable narrator to increase the readers interest and make us question what appears to be happening. Can we trust Kate ? Are the things she is experiencing and feeling supernatural happenings or are they due to her fragile mental health?
Slowly and skilfully Harris paints the picture; Kate is not a one dimensional static character. She grows in strength and confidence as the novel progresses. Her feelings about the house and it’s happenings are supported and reflected in the reactions and experiences of the twins, Shirley, the house keeper and other locals. As the house begins to reveal it’s secrets and difficult questions are asked then it moves from being vaguely unsettling to toe -curlingly terrifying.
And if Kate is an unreliable narrator, she is not the only one. In a tale spun of secrets, the feeling that few characters are telling the whole truth adds to the mystery and uncertainty. Mrs Havers, with her selective memory, Mark with his strange behaviour, disappearances and unsettlingly communications; just two of several further examples of an unreliable narrator. Haverscroft is a tangled web of half truth and secrets untold.
Another reoccurring theme is that of mental health. At first Kate seems isolated and alone in her struggles, yet as the novel progresses other characters are revealed as having their own mental health issues. Richard Denning, long time gardener and friend of Mrs Havers has been in an asylum, his past spreading suspicion and doubt on his present and future. The secrets of the house are tied up in the Post Traumatic Stress of Edward Havers war years and his subsequent behaviour. And how far can we trust Mrs Havers? Is she trapped in the beginnings of dementia as Lyle, the local solicitor would have everyone believe.
Herein lies the strength of Harris’ exploration of mental health. It is others reactions to another’s mental health that provides catalyst for the drama, both in the past and the present. There are parallels between Mark’s behaviour and his reaction, some may say exploitation of Kate’s illness, and reactions to both Mrs Havers and her sister by Edward Havers. Here is a story that focuses on power, power within relationships and how love and guilt are used to control, even years later.
Harris has creative a breathtaking portrayal of the damage caused by secrets and what happens when secrets and grievances refuse to die. Using the classic ghost story motifs surrounding lost children and troubled marriages Harris has written a bang up to masterpiece. It’s domestic setting and attention to detail makes it entirely relatable and it is all the more bone chilling for it.
Thank Sally Harris for giving me another great ghost story to ‘enjoy’ and proving to me that the art telling a ghost story is not forgotten.
Haverscroft is published by Salt Publishing and can be bought right here!