Monday, 31 October 2016

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors. I love her style of writing, so deceptively simple, and the growing sense of unease that pervades her stories.

I saw film versions of The Haunting of Hill House several years ago. I don't remember much of the original 1963 film (released as The Haunting), apart from the scary spiral staircase scene(!), although it is apparently fairly faithful to the book. I do remember the 1999 version starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Douglas, which was entertaining (if cheesy), and didn't bear much resemblance to the book at all. As I read the story, I found myself wishing that someone like the BBC would remake it, keeping true to the source material, because it would make a deliciously creepy drama.

Dr John Montague has been looking for a haunted house to study. When he hears about the notorious Hill House, he decides to stay there and see what happens. Rather than go alone, he invites several others to go with him, without actually telling them the house is haunted. In the end only two others turn up: Eleanor, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child (when stones fell onto her house for three days), and Theodora (Theo), who has ESP. A third guest, Luke, is foisted onto Dr Montague by the owner of Hill House - Luke's aunt. Luke is a liar and a thief, and his aunt is hoping that by sending him to Hill House to keep an eye on her property she will keep him out of trouble.

Luke was my favourite character. Despite the lying and the thieving, he does have some principles and finds humour in most situations. He also gets the best one-liners! Eleanor is the heroine. In her early thirties, she has had a very lonely life caring for her mother and feels guilty that she couldn't be there when her mother died. She is thrilled to be invited to Hill House, delighted to make friends with Theo, and sees Luke as a possible romance waiting to happen. She loves the feeling that she finally 'belongs'. Of course that's exactly when everything starts to go horribly wrong.

The Haunting of Hill House is more psychological suspense than ghost story, so horror fans might find it a little slow. There are some very spooky moments; my favourite is when Eleanor comes across a family having picnic in the grounds of the house, only for it to disappear as she runs though it, but the first scare does not occur until at least halfway through the book.

So, recommended if you like deliciously creepy psychological suspense with the occasional shock. But maybe not if you want your ghost stories to terrify you from the very first page. Although the shocking twist at the end took me completely by surprise.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Review: Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

I did read all of Agatha Christie's novels when I was a teenager, including this one, and I watched the ITV dramatisation a few years back, but I still couldn't remember who the villain was, so I decided to read this one again as part of my Halloween Reads.

This is a Poirot story, one of the later ones - written and set in the late 1960s - a fact I hadn't appreciated until I reached the line: 'The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers and a kind of frilled shirting.' Helping Poirot solve the mystery is his friend Ariadne Oliver, a crime writer - and one of my favourite Christie characters - I wish she'd had a series of her own!

The story starts with Ariadne going to stay with a new friend, Judith Butler, whom she met on a Greek cruise. Judith is a widow with a young daughter, Miranda. Also living in the village is the incredibly bossy Rowena Drake, who is organising a Halloween party for all the children. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it turns out) Miranda is unable to attend because she is ill, but Ariadne still goes along to help. The descriptions of the various games brought back a few memories of the Halloween parties I went to as a child! I'd never liked apple bobbling - with good reason, as it turns out, because during this party thirteen-year-old Joyce is murdered by having her head shoved into the apple bobbing bucket. Why Joyce? Well, earlier she had been trying to impress Ariadne by telling her how she had once witnessed a murder, although 'I didn't know it was a murder when I saw it.' Of course, no one believes Joyce, because she is known for being a liar...

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Ariadne and Poirot. Once the murder has taken place, each chapter concentrates on a different suspect, very much like the game of Cluedo. You have to concentrate hard to remember what each person has said and pick out the clues from the red herrings - a style of crime fiction I've never much cared for, because it can feel a bit repetitive.

I worked out the villain without too much effort, although there were a few clever twists I didn't see coming! And I did enjoy the story - I'd forgotten how funny Christie could be - but I don't think I'll be rushing to re-read any more.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review: Melody Bittersweet and The Girls' Ghostbusting Agency by Kitty French

I absolutely loved this book! It took a while for me to get into it, as I'd just read several 'traditional' Victorian ghost stories back-to-back, and this is a very bouncy, fast-paced romantic comedy, so it was a bit of a shock to the system - but in a good way!

At the grand old age of 27, Melody 'I see dead people' Bittersweet decides to stop fighting the unique talent which is persistently getting her fired/losing her potential boyfriends, and sets up The Girls' Ghostbusting Agency. Along for the ride are best friend Marina, the terrifyingly efficient Glenda, and young Artie, who is soon completely out of his depth: 'I've never been locked in a cellar before. This is the best job I've ever had.' 

Unfortunately Melody is not the only psychic in the village. The deliciously gothic Leo Dark, complete with swirling cloak and a legion of fans known as 'Darklings', is the ex who trampled over her heart in his rush to get his own TV show. Now Melody and Leo are in direct competition trying to help the three Scarborough brothers move on to the other side. All they have to do is solve the mystery of who murdered cricket-loving Douglas way back in 1910, allowing the spooky old family mansion to be sold for development. Simple. Or maybe not.

Why did I enjoy this story so much? Well, it was a lot of fun and I loved the characters and the way they interacted with each other, particularly poor put-upon Artie. There is also a bit of a love interest with two 'heroes' for Melody to choose from, the aforementioned Leo, who might not be quite as ruthless as he appears, and Melody's Nemesis, journalist Fletcher Gunn, who is out to prove both Melody and Leo are a couple of con-artists. 

If you're the kind of person who loves Scooby Doo and Ghostbusters you will love this, and you'll also enjoy spotting all the references to classic British and American TV shows. If you want your romantic comedy to have a little bit more edge, you will adore the mystery and the spooky bits, but if you're expecting to die of fright, it's not going to happen. You might die of laughing though.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Review: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill

I've loved Susan Hill's ghost stories ever since I read The Woman in Black as a teenager. This little book contains four novella-length stories of about fifty pages each. The hardback version has a beautiful retro cover and would look lovely on any bookshelf. The stories themselves are set in different time periods, although these are not exactly specified. 

The Travelling Bag

One of those story-within-a-story tales. A paranormal detective sits in his club and recounts his most 'intriguing' case to a friend. This turns out to be the story of scientist Walter Craig, his rivalry with the more successful Sir Silas Webb, and of a mysterious travelling bag. 'It was at this exact point that there crept over me a sense of claustrophobia, and an increasing fear ... as I watched the man open the travelling bag.'

Boy Twenty-One

A sad little tale of a lonely schoolboy who finally makes a friend. Very poignant - although there is humour during the part where he and his schoolmates take a school trip to an ancient manor house - and appear to leave with one extra ...  'In the end, there was nothing for it but for everyone to say that Mrs Mills had had a long tiring day, perhaps wasn't feeling herself, and the bus left with the teacher seated at the front, with a queer, dazed expression.'

Alice Baker

A creepy story about a crumbling office block and the women who work there - including the very odd titular character. 'I could sense Alice Baker's presence but I could not see her. I smelled her though, a smell of mould and rottenness and decay, as if I had stumbled into an ancient cellar.'

The Front Room

One of those 'no good deed goes unpunished' tales, of a young family who kindly offer their spare room to an elderly relative - who then proceeds to make their life hell. 'The shadow stirred again, like a tree in the wind, but did not go. The silence was like the silence of deep snow.'

Out of the four stories my favourite was Alice Baker with Boy Twenty-One as a very close second. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves traditional, creepy ghost stories, but not to those who love their ghost stories to have non-stop shocks and gore. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review: The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat is half ghost story, half poignant love story, but if you are expecting to be half scared to death you are going to be disappointed. There are no jump shocks here.

It is 1952 and middle-class women were supposed to give up work when they married. Isabel spends her entire day cooking meals for her GP husband and trying not be be fobbed off with fatty cuts of meat from the butcher - a completely alien lifestyle to me living in the 21st century - I actually snorted out loud when her husband suggested they got a cleaner in to help her out!

The two-roomed flat they are renting (from a very Mrs Danvers-ish landlady) is freezing. In an effort to keep warm, Isabel uses the old RAF greatcoat she has found in a cupboard as a blanket. It doesn't take long for the original owner (Alec) to make an appearance, tapping on the window like a vampire from a horror movie, and it's not just his greatcoat he's after!

There is a lot of historical detail about life in the early 1950s, and that of an RAF pilot during the war, but the most chilling scenes are when time seems to slip. Occasionally Alec realises life has moved on without him before his mind resets, and Isabel glimpses Alec's long-lost world superimposed on her own. It reminded me of Tom's Midnight Garden and The Time Traveller's Wife.

There are a few twists I didn't see coming, mainly because I wasn't expecting them. I'd been lulled into believing this was a nice little paranormal romance, but the final scenes are genuinely chilling, along with the revelations about Alec's death and the reason for his return. 

This is a lovely ghost story, which I thoroughly recommend, although it is more poignant than frightening.

About the Author

Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952. She won the first Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Prize) for her novel A Spell of Winter. She wrote about the Siege of Leningrad in her 2001 novel The Siege, which was described by the historian Antony Beevor as 'a world-class novel'. It been translated into more than twenty languages. Her 2014 novel The Lie focuses on the trauma of the First World War and its aftermath through a group of three characters who come of age during that war. The Lie was a Sunday Times bestseller. She is also a poet, short story and children's writer. Her 'Ingo' series of novels for children has been published around the world.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I originally downloaded this book because the title caught my eye (I love castles!) along with the cover - and the fact that it was written by Shirley Jackson. I love her style of writing - she is one of the few authors I'm prepared to forgive for not always settling for a traditional happy/satisfying ending. 

The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood (also known as Merricat, sometimes affectionately, but often as an insult by the people who live in the village). The Blackwoods are a wealthy family who have lived for generations in a large house surrounded by a large estate. "As soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world."

Six years ago Merricat's father, mother, aunt and brother all died when arsenic was put into a sugar bowl. Merricat's elder sister Constance was arrested for the murders, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Their Uncle Julian was the only other survivor. Everyone in the village hates the Blackwoods, although it is unclear whether this is due to their wealth, because they are 'different' or because one of them is believed to be a murderer. Merricat refuses to be intimidated and visits the village every Tuesday to buy groceries. Constance is agoraphobic and does not like to leave the house; Uncle Julian's mind is going and he is confined to a wheelchair.

At the start the story reads like a mystery. Why do the villagers hate the family so much? What did happen six years ago? Who was the murderer? The answers are dripped in very, very slowly. The writing style is deceptively simple and yet the tension curls tighter and tighter. It is closer to psychological suspense than horror. Is Merricat an 'unreliable' narrator? Every word she speaks is the truth - but it's the truth as she sees it. She casts spells, buries objects or nails them to the trees in the wood. Is she a witch or just completely bonkers? 

When their estranged cousin turns up, hoping to divide and conquer, and make off with the family fortune, you just know it won't end well. But don't under-estimate the Blackwoods. They have always lived in the castle - and they always will.

Recommended if you love claustrophobic psychological suspense in the style of The Turn of the Screw. Avoid if you're a fan of fast-paced jump shocks and gore.

About the Author

Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by five more: Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, The Sundial,The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalised magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965 at the age of 48.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Halloween Reads 2016

I am one of those boringly predictable people who love to read holiday books in the summer, Christmas books in the winter and spooky books leading up to Halloween. There was one time when I made a habit of re-reading Bram Stoker's Dracula in the last few days of October, but I'm hoping I'm past that now. When you get to the point where you can quote large chunks of text from a book, its probably time to move on!

But I've had a rummage through my Kindle and found lots of long-forgotten gems - old favourites as well as books I'd downloaded and then forgotten about - and I'm planning on working my way through they over the coming weeks. They will not necessarily be straight-forward tales of horror; some might only have the slightest hint that not all is as it appears, some won't be frightening at all! But gather around the fireside my friends, for something wicked this way comes ...

Related Posts:

10 Books Which Chilled Me (on my personal blog)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

The Red Queen is #2 in Philippa Gregory's Cousins War series about the Wars of the Roses. The heroine is Lady Margaret Beaufort, who I had vaguely heard of but didn't know much about, other than she was a tough old biddy who gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of thirteen.

I am a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. Ironically, my favourite books are about the real-life historical characters I'd never much cared about prior to reading their stories, such as Katherine of Aragon in The Constant Princess and Mary I in The Queen's Fool. I suppose that is part of Philippa Gregory's skill - making the reader feeling empathy for a person who was probably unlikeable in real life.

The story is told in the first person from Margaret's point of view, apart from a couple of battle scenes. We first meet her as a very pious, precocious child. Even at the age of nine she knows she wants to devote her life to God, after becoming obsessed with Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, her sole duty is "to bear a son and heir ... a boy for the House of Lancaster" and she is soon packed off to Wales to marry Edmund Tudor.

The plot deals mainly with Margaret's conviction that it is God's will her son should become King of England and her obsession with ensuring it happens. Unlike some of the other more unfortunate characters, Margaret's life is never really in danger, despite all her double-dealing and plotting. But the story is a fascinating read none-the-less, and there is the occasional humour in the way the characters, particularly Margaret's husband, tolerate her obsession. This is funny while Margaret is a child but around the halfway mark, as she grows older, you realise how much her obsession is hurting those around her. Towards the end of the story it is clear she has become absolutely ruthless, although there is a point when you feel the penny has finally dropped: "At last I recognise that the sin of ambition and greed darkened our enterprise." But then it is revealed that rather than admit to any failings of her own character for her troubles, Margaret is actually blaming her hated rival, Elizabeth Woodville!

I loved this book and look forward to reading the others in the series.