An English Ghost Story
In this brand- new novel, acclaimed Anno Dracula author Kim Newman crafts a chilling gothic tale with a modern twist
At first the Naremores are charmed by their perfect new home, the Hollow. But soon the secrets of the house that brought them together will rip them apart…
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. Zam- Bam, Alla- Ka- Zamm! 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.
They got out of the hunchback in a tangle and overwhelmed the agent. If he expected city folk to keep their cards to their chest and strike a hard bargain, he was surprised.
“I love it,” said Mum. The shift was miraculous: suddenly, she was relaxed and open, uncontrollably smiling. “I just love it.”
Jordan saw she had been wrong. The spotty agent’s smile wasn’t fake. Of course, he had known. He had been waiting by the Hollow for a few minutes, and he was familiar with the property. He could feel it too. The charm. This was what they needed. A new place, to start all over again, to put the past behind them, to build something. Yet an old place, broken in by people, with mysteries and challenges, temptations and rewards. They might as well cancel the remaining viewing. “I’m Jordan,” she imagined herself saying to her new friends, “I live in the Hollow.” No, “I’m from the Hollow.”
Was the Hollow the house or the land? The name was misleading. Weren’t hollows dents in hills or woods? The property rose a little above the surrounding moorfields. An island that had come down in the world, it still refused to sink into the Somerset Levels.
Her arms didn’t feel cold. A million tiny dandelion autogyros swarmed on warm winds. “Brian Bowker,” said the agent, “from Poulton and Wright’s.” His spots were mostly freckles, though some had whiteheads. He looked as if he was blushing all the time, perhaps a handicap in his business. Unlike Rowena Marion, he didn’t try to hide his West Country accent. He didn’t sound like a yokel, though; it was just a way of talking, a burr. Dad shook hands with him. “This is the Hollow,” said Brian Bowker, standing aside and making a flourish as if signalling stagehands to haul open the curtains.
Tim had to be restrained from running. Jordan did the honours, hugging her little brother with a wrestling hold. Mum and Dad put arms around each other’s waists and a hand each on a child’s shoulder, as if for a family portrait.
“We’re the Naremores,” said Dad. “I’m Steven, this is my wife Kirsty, and our children, Jordan and Tim.” “Pleased to meet you all,” said Brian Bowker. “I think this is it,” said Mum, out loud. The agent’s smile became a grin. “You ought to look closer; not that I should say that.”
“We will, old man,” said Dad, “but I think Kirst is right. I can feel it. Have you sprinkled fairy dust about the place?”
For once, Jordan wasn’t embarrassed by Dad. She knew what he meant. It wasn’t just the spring- blossom; the air seemed
to dance. This was the season of the songs, the happy songs about love blooming with the greenery, not the melancholy songs of faded flowers remembered in fall.
The house stood in the middle of a roughly square patch of land, boundaries marked not by hedges or walls but still ditches from which grew bright green rushes. A moat ran alongside the road and the Hollow had its own bridge, wider than it was long, for access. Mum, cautious after the dispiriting fuss at Clematis Cottage, had parked on the road. That felt wrong: they should have driven through the gate and across the bridge, up to the barn, which was large enough to garage a fleet of cars.
Apple trees grew in what Jordan supposed was a deliberate pattern. The largest lay on the ground, roots exposed like a display of sturdy, petrified snakes, hollowed- out body sprouting a thick new trunk, fruiting branches stretching upwards. Tim was enchanted by this marvel, which had been smitten but survived. He had to be called away from exploring before he disappeared entirely inside the wooden tunnel of the original trunk. A couple of trees beyond the house, at the far edge of the grounds, were too close together, upper branches entangled and entwined, like giants kissing.
“The property used to be called Hollow Farm,” said Brian Bowker, consulting his clipboard, leading them along a paved path that wound through the trees. “It goes back as far as there are parish records, to the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, the surrounding fields were sold off to one of the big local farmers and it became just the Hollow. The householders kept only this small apple orchard. You’ll still get all the cookers and eaters you need.”
Jordan could hear the trees. They moved, very slowly. Each leaf, twig, branch and trunk was rustling or creaking, whispering to her. There were trees all over London, but any sounds they made were too faint to be heard above traffic and shouting. City trees were furniture, but these were living things; worlds in themselves, populated by insects, birds, squirrels.
“In the barn, there’s a cider- press,” said Brian Bowker, “disused since the thirties. It’d cost a fortune to fix, I’m told. A shame. Miss Teazle, the last owner, didn’t work it, but liked having it there.”
The walk was further and the house bigger than Jordan had thought they would be. The house stood on raised stone foundations – Dad said something about a high water table and flood country – 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 gabled Rapunzel windows. Aside from the towers, it was a farmhouse built at twice life- size. The ordinaryscale 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’s planning permission, evolving to suit its inhabitants. Brian Bowker unlatched the front door. “You might want to put locks on the exterior doors,” he said, “though Miss Teazle never felt the need.” Dad was horrified. “This isn’t exactly a high- crime area,” the agent said, “but times have changed since the old girl was a young thing. It won’t be a big job to make the house secure.”
Brian Bowker stood aside so they could step into a foyer. A combination of veranda and conservatory, it had a pleasant, damp straw smell. The ceiling was so low Dad banged his head on a dangling light- fixture – which would be the first thing to go. It took moments for Jordan’s eyes to adjust to the green gloom. Plants were all around, some overgrowing their pots, extending tendrils across the stiff, brushy doormat. Something like ivy grew inside the foyer, twining around a wrought- iron bootscraper, creeping up a trellis. A row of brass hooks was ready for a burden of coats. Several pairs of boots were tumbled together by the door. A bright yellow pair of wellies looked scarcely worn.
“Miss Teazle’s things are still here,” said Brian Bowker. “Her relatives in Australia want to throw in furniture and bric- a- brac. A lot of charity- shop stuff, but there might be treasures. She was rich, after all. Now, come on through and see this…”
He touched a section of the wall. A pair of doors slid open like secret panels, with a woody scraping sound. Beyond was cool darkness and a windowless hallway. The agent shepherded them inside and along a cramped corridor to another set of doors, which he pushed open.
As one, the family gasped. To find out what happens next, pick up An English Ghost
Story, out now from Titan Books ( RRP £ 7.99). Ebook also available. www. titanbooks. com