Thursday, 6 March 2014

"The Ghost Hunters," by Neil Spring

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I discovered "The Ghost Hunters" through word of mouth on Twitter. When I was deciding what to put on my new Kindle to read while being kept awake at night by a young baby, this was one of my first picks.

In the framing narrative of Neil Spring's novel, Dr Robert Caxton receives a letter which summons him to the Senate House Library in London. Once there, he is given a mysterious manuscript that had been found in the collection of infamous ghost hunter Harry Price.  This document - written by Sarah Grey relating her time working with Harry Price, their relationship and their involvement with the allegedly haunted Borley Rectory - forms the main body of the novel.

I wasn't aware when I started reading this that Harry Price was a real person and Borley Rectory was a real, supposedly haunted, place. This added an extra level of fascination for me.  In the past I have been interested by the plays of Terry Johnson, who merges the real and fictional in his work, and where that demarcation point becomes blurred. However, where the historical figures that Johnson uses are well-known, even iconic - for example Einstein and Marilyn Monroe in "Insignificance" - I had no knowledge of Harry Price.  Spring's use of Harry Price comes with no iconic, recognisable character traits as far as I am concerned - unlike Einstein or Monroe, where public knowledge of the person forms a character shorthand - which also means it comes with no expectations or preconceptions.  Rather better known to me is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fascination with spiritualism was well documented, and who Neil Spring also uses as a character in his narrative.

Of course the real measure of a ghost story is how scary it is. It might be down to circumstances to an extent - reading in near darkness in the middle of the night - but it did effectively creep me out (so much so that I alternated it with another book when I got too freaked out to continue reading at night).  It is a bit of slow burn, quite M.R. James-y (which is a very good thing) and effectively builds suspense and foreboding. There was an element in the narrative that I didn't quite buy into and felt a little cheated by - I won't disclose what, as it would be a significant spoiler - but in the main I found it very satisfying and unsettling.

Neil Spring's novel has strong characters as well as a creepy ghost story to recommend it, with an element of verisimilitude. As well as reading the novel, I would recommend reading the fascinating author's note which relates events in the narrative to the details of the actual alleged haunting of Borley Rectory.