A dysfunctional British nuclear family seek a new life away from the big city in the sleepy Somerset countryside. At first their new home, The Hollow, seems to embrace them, creating a rare peace and harmony within the family. But when the house turns on them, it seems to know just how to hurt them the most, by threatening to destroy them from the inside out.
Yesterday evening, my mum, brother, sister and I decided to support WWF’s Earth Hour (this is relevant, I promise, bear with me a moment). Between 8:30pm and 9:30pm, we huddled around the dining table, a solitary, flickering candle in the middle of our little circle lighting our game of Uno. My mum’s house is a big old farmhouse that dates back to the 1800s. It was there before the rest of the village was built and, consequently, it’s isolated from the newer houses, only reachable by car down a narrow, winding lane. We’ve had some odd experiences over the years and as a result, it’s a house I’ve never felt comfortable being in at night. Earth Hour, while good for the environment, was something of a tense experience for me. My senses were on a high alert; my eyes were locking on shadowy corners, my ears picking up on the creaking of the floorboards upstairs. So when my brother blew out the candle when the hour concluded – before hitting the light switch – I borderline had an anxiety attack.
So, yeah, I’m a wuss. A scaredy cat. Despite that, though, I thoroughly enjoy both reading and writing horror. Hmm. What can I say? I guess I’m a masochist.
And this is why I picked up An English Ghost Story. One of its endorsements bravely states that it’s “a masterful and often disturbing updating of the traditional haunted house story”. That’s quite some claim and I was eager to see if it lived up to its hype.
And…Oh. My. God. Yes. It. Did. It goes completely and utterly above and beyond the traditional haunted house story.
Most haunted house stories focus solely on the houses themselves and their otherworldly inhabitants. An English Ghost Story addresses so much more than this. It’s a book that explores a range of different issues, from identity to family breakdowns, and because of this, you feel empathy for the Naremores. Each member of this dysfunctional family is deeply flawed and the Hollow reacts to these flaws. It reacts to the toxicity that seems to bind them together. It reacts and brings their underlying issues surging to the surface. It brings their true feelings – about themselves, about each other – out into the open, and helps each of them to address these feelings, albeit in a somewhat brutal manner. Not only that, it helps us, the readers, to understand them. So often when reading spooky stories or horror novels, we find ourselves tutting as the protagonists do something incredible stupid and predictable – like going into the basement with the lights off, armed only with a dying flashlight – but with An English Ghost Story, these overused tropes are nowhere to be found. The Naremores sometimes do stupid and, occasionally, horrifying things, but we understand the reasoning behind it. It’s not just a senseless haunting. It’s not just senseless self-preservation that makes them act the way they do. Everything that happens in this book happens for a reason.
The Hollow is haunted but not in a traditional sense. It’s filled with otherworldly energy and presences from years long gone, but they don’t just haunt for the sake of haunting. They react to the Hollow’s living inhabitants. They mold themselves and adapt, becoming a mirror reflection of whatever has entered the Hollow. By becoming a reflection of the Naremores – evident in the way the ghosts are personal to each of them – it enables them to see themselves clearly for the first time. It enables them to see the horror of what they’ve become and this clarity gives them the much needed wake up call to change. It’s intelligent storytelling at its best. It’s a haunted house story with meaning.
Not only is An English Ghost Story a fantastically fresh take on the traditional ghost story, though, it’s also creepy as hell! It’s very much got a less-is-more vibe. It’s not outright scary. It’s chilling. It’s unnerving. The little, soot-covered girl Tim sees standing beneath the fireplace isn’t terrifying. She doesn’t tear anyone’s jugular open. She doesn’t chase after him. She simply watches silently before crawling back up the chimney. An English Ghost Story is uncanny – it takes the normal and familiar (for example, the girl) and makes it do something not so normal and familiar (freaking crawling like a spider up a wall). It takes the things we seek comfort in the the normality of and turns them against us.
Song: Rockwell’s Somebody’s watching me
This book is available on Amazon in paperback and e-reader format.