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Posts Tagged ‘John Boyne’

smallhandSusan Hill, who wrote the contemporary classic The Woman in Black, knows that a good ghost story lives in the shadows. The Small Hand and Dolly (Vintage, digital galley) are two stories that evoke candlelight and dusk even when the sun shines.

In the first tale, the narrator, an antiquarian bookseller, gets lost on a country road and chances on a derelict house. “I should have gone back,” he says several times as he describes the tree-lined lane and empty, overgrown garden, blanketed by ivy and creeping vines. But he has an urge to see more, and then, in hushed twilight, he feels a small hand grasp his fingers, and he returns the clasp as if he were a father holding his child’s small hand. “But I am not a father and the child was invisible.” Shiver. There’s more, of course, as the past impinges on the present, which is also the case with “Dolly,” in which a young girl’s long-ago destruction of a china doll reverberates through the years, tangibly haunting the innocent.

hauntedJohn Boyne is another writer familiar with the eerie eloquence of the 19th-century, and the shades of Bronte, Dickens, M.R. James and Henry James echo in This House is Haunted (Other Press, digital galley).

In 1867 England, 21-year-old narrator Eliza Caine impulsively answers an ad for a governess after her father’s sudden death leaves her alone in the world. She arrives  at spooky Gaudlin Hall in windswept Norfolk to find her new charges, precocious Isabelle and shy Eustace, without any apparent adult supervision since the sudden departure of their last governess. The local solicitor who pays the household expenses provides only vague answers to her questions, and the daily help does a disappearing act whenever Eliza’s around. She does learn, however, that she is one of a series of governesses, most of whom died while at Gaudlin Hall. And someone — or something — seems determined to drive Eliza away: the sensation of being strangled in her bed, the push at her back near an open window, the stone urn falling from the roof.  As Eliza learns more about the children’s absent parents and the family’s secrets, she becomes convinced that the house is haunted by a malignant spirit. Boyne artfully delivers standard gothic chills.

searlesJohn Searles’ Help for the Haunted (HarperCollins, digital galley and review copy) is a contemporary gothic, coming-of-age tale and ghost story told in a teasing non-linear narrative. Sylvie Mason, 14, is left in the distracted care of her older sister Rose after their parents are murdered on a snowy night. But she already knows the life of an outsider because her parents were demonologists who investigated the paranormal and provided “help for the haunted.”

Moving back and forth in time, Searles gradually reveals that Sylvie knows more about the circumstances of the murder and Rose’s whereabouts that night than she has let on to the police. Also, that the house’s basement is one scary place, that there’s a doll that’s possibly possessed, and that this is a family with more than one dark secret. The suspense mounts as  Searles deftly pieces together his psychological puzzle.

bellmanHere’s what I learned from Diane Setterfield’s rather puzzling Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story (Atria, paperback ARC; Nov. 5): Don’t mess with slingshots; rooks have long memories and are harbingers of doom; working at a mid-19th century English textile mill is tedious and poorly paid, unless you are the owner or his heir; and death is always in fashion because people need mourning clothes. I expected more mysterious magic from the author of The Thirteenth Tale.

Setterfield still writes beautifully, but I was never that interested in the story of William Bellman, who kills a rook with his slingshot when’s a boy and obliviously lives to regret it. Boy, does it take a procession of sudden deaths and subsequent funerals for William to figure out that the same black-garbed stranger keeps appearing at the cemetery and acting so familiar. Even as William works his way to the top of the mill’s management, he keeps losing those close to him. Finally, despairing that his beloved daughter Dora is dying from the fever, he shakes hands with the stranger. Soon after, he goes about setting up a new business — Bellman & Black — the London big-box store of mourning clothes and accessories. It flourishes under William’s obsessive care. Then the rooks come home to roost, so to speak, and the stranger returns a la Marley’s ghost. But by far the most haunting scene is still to come — Dora awestruck by a field of thousands of rooks taking flight. “She…forgets everything but the bliss of the shapes that paint themselves on the sky.. . To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life.”

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