You probably know multi-award-winning author Kim Newman for his bestselling Anno Dracula series. An English Ghost Story is his new stand-alone novel and I was intrigued by it from the moment I saw it in an industry newsletter. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, it seemed that listening to and reading ghost stories was an ongoing rite of passage. An English Ghost Story is such a different kind of novel from the Anno Dracula series that I didn’t even realize Mr. Newman was the same author until I began to write this review – doh. Beyond the mesmerizing ghostly theme, this is a story about family and the ways they support and harm each other. It’s also a story about place, how it affects us, and how we affect it for better or for worse. Many thanks to the publisher for giving us a copy for our giveaway!
This is the story of the Naremore family of London: a Mum named Kirsty, a Dad named Steven, fourteen-year-old Jordan, and her much younger brother Tim. They’ve had a particularly bad year and hope that a move away from their hectic life in London to the more bucolic countryside will do them all a world of good – at least that’s what the grownups hope. Jordan is not on board because it will mean leaving Rick, who she’s madly in love with, and Tim’s not keen on a change that takes him away from the only home he’s ever known.
There’s always something not quite right about the various houses they’re shown, until they come to one special place, the Hollow. It was last owned by a children’s author, Louise Magellan Teazle. Mum is excited by that because she loved the Weezie books as a little girl. The whole family can tell there’s something almost magical about this home when they first cast eyes upon it. It’s like a welcoming and warm feeling envelopes each and every one of them. This is it – they’ve found the perfect home. Even Jordan is smitten by it and knows Rick will love it when he comes to visit.
“Jordan saw it all at once, from the road, and was certain. This was the place. It was like her first kiss, Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera,’ the taste of strawberries, her car accident. Instant and all-encompassing, wondrous and terrifying, a revelation and a seduction.
The strangest thing was she knew her parents felt the same. Mum actually turned and smiled at Dad, who let his hand stray to her wrist for the tiniest of intimate squeezes. Tim looked up from his game, the Elvis lip-curl he’d shown the loser places replaced by open rapture.
‘Kew-ell,’ said Tim.
Jordan was caught up in the spell.
Just this once, nothing else mattered. Her mind was settled in. The shock passed and she got comfortable with the feeling. It was like coming home.”
That feeling of belonging just seems to grow as they move in and get settled. Sure the house has some oddities but it is clear that the house wants them there and supports them – almost loves them. They each feel warmed and nurtured by it. As for the oddities? Well, those make the house even more special. The orchard literally gives them delicious apples. The house gives Tim a catapult (slingshot) so he can use the skills he learned while gaming to protect the house and the family. It even provides the perfect bunker in a downed tree so he can keep watch for hostiles who might invade. Jordan is given vintage clothes in keeping with her fascination for all things vintage. Mum is at peace for the first time in a long time, and she and Dad seem to have rekindled their relationship in a way none of them thought would happen again. And then there are the ghosts, wonderful spirits who welcome, guide, and help them.
“After several LRPs, Tim had determined the IP were friendlies. Each time he trailed back to Green Base, fresh tribute was laid out, a token of gratitude for his vigilance in protecting this little patch. Five apples piled like a pyramid of cannonballs, a circle of wildflowers threaded stem to bud like a necklace, a chipped stone arrowhead. This morning it was a bird’s nest with three pale blue pebbles he took at first for eggs.
He whistled with admiration.
The IP were good, better than he could hope to be. Part of the scenery, they never showed themselves outright. They could stand against a tree or the side of the garage, or even lie flat on the green grass, and seem to be entirely natural…He was winning their hearts and minds but wasn’t sure they’d ever step into the open. They had long memories. Not everyone who had occupied this position had been as careful as Tim, as well-disposed toward the locals. Battles had been fought…”
It soon becomes clear that the Weezie stories are actually based on real events that took place in the house instead of just from the author’s overactive imagination. There is the dresser in Mum and Dad’s bedroom with a bottom drawer that never has the same thing in it twice, a middle drawer that always turns what’s put into it into a jumble, and a top drawer from which anything put into it literally disappears the moment it’s placed there. There are the standing stones in the marsh which can only be seen through the y-shaped crook in one particular tree. The more the family explores the Hollow, the more they feel like they’re living inside of the Weezie books. Sure there are also stories about prior owners who were not happy there at all and claimed evil spirits lived there, but those are just stories, right? How could anyone not love the Hollow? Bottom line? The Naremores are happier than they’ve ever been in their lives and their family is more harmonious than it’s ever been. It’s heavenly!
And then things slowly but surely begin to change – just tiny little things at first. Random but easily discounted doubts, suspicions, and little niggling worries begin to creep into their various minds. Then several larger things intrude into their idyllic home. When Rick doesn’t show up for his planned visit, a visit Jordan has been counting on and preparing for, it’s like something tips over and the family’s reactions to that event are extreme.
“He [Steven] sat in his study, looking away from the screen, adjustable chair leaned back. He considered the ceiling, the room above.
He knew he must not let it happen again.
The things with Jordan. They so easily led to the things with Kirsty, the things with Tim. He saw the first signs already, the backward steps. His stomach burned when he remembered the worst of it.
Steven was not going to let his family come apart again. It had happened on his watch before, too many times. At the Hollow, he was stronger, swifter, smarter. He saw the invisible ties that kept them together, not just the fault-lines that cracked when they were on the outs.”
A boyfriend not visiting may seem like a relatively small thing (unless you’re a teenager in love) but it is just what some not-so-benign spirit in the house has been waiting for. The house’s dark side has been awakened with a vengeance. Suddenly the Hollow is not at all the place they believed it to be, and they are not the warm, cozy family they have been since they moved there. WTH is going on? Can they survive each other and the Hollow or will they literally become casualties of it like many of its prior owners?
An English Ghost Story is told from the perspective of each member of the family, so we get a lot of insight into who they are and how they approach the world around them – as well as how they see each other. The family as a unit is a character, as are the Hollow, Louise M. Teazle, her Weezie books, and the various ghosts, some of whom date back to ancient times. Louise spent her whole life in the house so she and her books are the authority on the house. Each member of the Naremore family contributes to the family’s dysfunction when things aren’t working and its cohesion when they are. Issues that raise their ugly little heads include anorexia and bulimia, possible unfaithfulness, possible mental illness, possible neglect, and breaches of trust. I found all of the characters in this novel fascinating on several levels but won’t go into why to avoid spoilers.
As you may have surmised, An English Ghost Story lures you into an idyllic, magical world and then, just when you get all comfy cozy, it slams the lid shut on the trap. But it isn’t just a ghost story or a haunted house story, it’s also a morality tale and that’s what raises it above the level of most such tales. It is highly complex and that makes it very rewarding. The moral of this tale? Well that would be telling, now wouldn’t it? You’ll have to discover it for yourself and it is well worth the ride. As the reader, we are the fly on the wall watching it all unfold and helpless to do anything about it. Yet, at the end we come away with good lessons learned about – oops, almost spilled the beans. I could not stop reading An English Ghost Story – loved every minute of it! If it sounds like your cup of tea, then be sure to enter our giveaway!
Can’t wait to read it?
An English Ghost Story was published in the U.S. on October 7, 2014 and in the UK on October 10, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click the button/link to go there and get it to read now!
I’d love to get your comments on An English Ghost Story, Kim Newman or his other work, and/or this review.
To read our review of Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard, click here.
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One lucky reader will win a finished trade paperback copy of An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman!
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