In the early hours of the morning I finished reading Sarah Rayne’s The Whispering. I have to admit: I downloaded it under the false impression that it was crime fiction, because I don’t ‘do’ ghost stories. Any more. I did love them when I was a teenager, especially the classics like M. R. James, The Turn of the Screw (which I still think is one of Henry James’ masterpieces), Edgar Allan Poe. But felt I had outgrown them.
Yet I read The Whispering in one day and started wondering why I am being such a pesky little genre snob even when I vow to myself that I will be open-minded. Have I not ventured into sci fi, chick lit, YA, historical or dystopian crime fiction and all sorts of other genres I was less enthusiastic about and been pleasantly surprised again and again? (Well, nearly everything, bar vampire stories.) What put me off supernatural tales after a while was that the stories tend to be rather implausible and ultimately depend very much on the reader’s willingness to believe in them.
This applies to this book as well: when you pick it apart at the end, there are some holes in the story. But ghost stories are not about logic and strong plotline: they are about build-up and atmosphere. On these two counts, this novel does not disappoint. It is a contemporary story about a researcher from Oxford University, Michael Flint, who sets off to a secluded country house in the Fens to visit the reclusive Miss Gilmore. She has family documents about the tragic fate of the Palestrina Choir at a convent in Belgium, so we know there will be a story within a story.
Of course we have all of the traditional and inevitable components of a haunted house mystery: the sinister, unwelcoming house, its strange mistress (whom Michael imagines to be a cross between Miss Havisham and Morticia Addams) the tree falling down and blocking the road, so that our main protagonist has to spend the night in the house. Michael finds it hard to contain his curiosity, even after an unsettling encounter upon his arrival at the front door with an elusive young man whispering demented things. The Fenland storms and mists may frighten a lesser man, but the library is well-stocked, the personal archives are beckoning as are the deep soft chairs and cosy fireplace, so ‘if the research took longer than the planned two days, it would be no hardship.’ Through careful perusing of archives, plus some supernatural inspiration, he begins to piece together the sad story of First World War soldier Stephen and his horrendous experiences at the German POW camp of Holzminden. So quite a topical subject in this centenary year of the start of WW1.
Now, bear in mind that I haven’t read supernatural tales in a long while, so perhaps the fashions have changed and I am merely stating the obvious. But what seems to me to elevate this book above the run-of-the-mill chiller/horror stories is the modern humour and interplay of characters. I have heard that Michael and his partner Nell West feature as investigators into the supernatural in a series of other novels. The author also ably intersperses scenes from the house with the research being conducted elsewhere, which gives a nice respite from the piling on of horrors. Yet there are some genuine frissons to be had and not just one but a few climaxes.
Am I glad I read this book? Yes, it was an entertaining, chilling and thrilling fun-fair ride. Will I seek out ghost stories from now on? Probably not. But I won’t avoid them and prejudge them either.
Your turn now! Are there any genres you shun or dismiss? And have you ever read them by accident? If so, have they confirmed your negative impression or have they pleasantly surprised you?