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