James Bradley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS -

on ghosts and the dead

IT’S prob­a­bly sig­nif­i­cant that of the var­i­ous gen­res and sub­gen­res of fan­tastika, it’s the ghost story that re­mains the most re­sis­tant to in­no­va­tion. Un­like sci­ence fic­tion or fan­tasy or even hor­ror, all of which in­ter­breed with each other and with more main­stream and staidly re­al­is­tic gen­res, the ghost story re­mains stub­bornly stuck in a mode that dif­fers lit­tle from the play­book set down by the master of the form, Bri­tish writer M. R. James, more than a cen­tury ago.

Ad­mit­tedly, some writ­ers, such as China Mieville, whose exquisitely un­set­tling

is one of the creepi­est sto­ries of re­cent years, have at­tempted to up­date the ghost story by seek­ing out con­tem­po­rary set­tings suit­able for haunt­ing.

But the ren­o­va­tion is largely su­per­fi­cial, for be­neath the sur­face Mieville’s story dif­fers lit­tle from a novel such as Sarah Wa­ters’s

a book that for all its de­sire to de­con­struct the genre cleaves so close to the Jame­sian model it is lit­tle bet­ter than pas­tiche.

Out­wardly, at least, Sadie Jones’s new novel, reads like pre­cisely this sort of pas­tiche. Set in an Ed­war­dian coun­try manor in the years be­fore World War I, it fo­cuses on the Tor­ring­tons: mother Char­lotte and her three chil­dren, Emer­ald, Clo­vis and the ne­glected youngest, Imo­gen, or Smudge.

As the novel be­gins the house­hold is pre­par­ing for the de­par­ture of Char­lotte’s new hus­band, solic­i­tor Ed­ward Swift, for Manch­ester, where he aims to se­cure enough fi­nance to pre­vent the up­keep of the house from bankrupt­ing them. The house be­longed to Char­lotte’s first hus­band and fa­ther of Emer­ald and Clo­vis, Horace Tor­ring­ton.

In Ed­ward’s ab­sence, the fam­ily is ex­pect­ing guests: friends of Emer­ald and a lo­cal busi­ness­man to cel­e­brate Emer­ald’s birth­day. There are se­crets and ten­sions, of course, of which the money trou­bles are only one, yet the ac­tion prop­erly be­gins when the vis­i­tors ar­riv­ing from the sta­tion are alerted to a hor­rific train ac­ci­dent not far from the house, and told to ex­pect sur­vivors in need of refuge.

As dusk falls the sur­vivors be­gin to ar­rive, a still and star­ing mass’’ whose num­bers seem to grow in­ex­pli­ca­bly as the hours pass. Ab­sorbed with the prepa­ra­tions for Emer­ald’s party, the self­ish and self-ab­sorbed Char­lotte ban­ishes them to the morn­ing room.

Yet soon af­ter­wards one more pas­sen­ger ar­rives, a malefic fig­ure from Char­lotte’s past named Char­lie Traver­sham-Beech­ers, who falls in with Clo­vis and, se­cur­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to din­ner, pro­ceeds to or­ches­trate a strange and ter­ri­fy­ing un­rav­el­ling of the so­cial or­der. It’s tempt­ing

as one sense it is, for Lon­don-based Jones takes the same sen­su­ous de­light in the tex­tures and busi­ness of Ed­war­dian life that lends its tele­vi­sual coun­ter­part much of its plea­sure. Cer­tainly it’s not ac­ci­den­tal the novel lingers so ec­stat­i­cally over the rap­tur­ously de­scribed food, the slip­pery joints’’ and ten­der baby flesh’’ of the meals, and the draped silk and em­broi­dered flow­ers’’ of the wardrobes of the ladies of the house.

But it’s also rather more than that. For as with Jones’s first two nov­els, and

which were con­cerned with the THE DEAD SPEAK THROUGH KEYS, MEN TRAP SEAL WOMEN BY STEAL­ING THEIR SKINS, AND MAG­I­CAL ROPES TWIST AND BRIS­TLE WITH POI­SON ghost that with its sense of mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and the sus­pen­sion of the rules of con­ven­tion is oc­ca­sion­ally rem­i­nis­cent of Shake­speare’s mag­i­cal forests, but in fact is closer to the imag­in­ings of wild hunts and rest­less spir­its one finds in English folk­tales and the work of Alan Gar­ner and Pene­lope Lively.

Jess Richards’s de­but novel, is very dif­fer­ent. Set on an Orkneyesque is­land off the coast of a fan­tasy coun­try rather sim­i­lar to Scot­land, it im­merses the reader in a world in which the dead speak through keys, men trap seal women by steal­ing their skins, and mag­i­cal ropes twist and bris­tle with poi­son.

Told in the al­ter­nat­ing voices of two teenage girls, Mary and Mor­gan, the plot fo­cuses on Mary’s des­per­ate search to lo­cate the boy she be­lieves to be her younger brother af­ter he dis­ap­pears, a search that not only sets the two girls against their fam­i­lies and the rest of the com­mu­nity but also leads both to un­cover truths buried deep in their pasts.

Writ­ten in a dense and some­times mu­si­cal di­alect (‘‘My lit­tle brother is sat on my lap. Hims puts hims hands on the ta­ble, leans round and looks up at me’’), is a heady brew of fairy­tale and Freud that owes more than a lit­tle to the work of An­gela Carter

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