I’ve gotten a little behind with my reviews recently, so to remedy that here are a few quick reviews of recent reads:
The Travelling Bag – Susan Hill. This was a terrible disappointment. That’s not to say it’s a terrible book: the four short stories which make up this sender tome are fine but not great ghost stories. In an earlier article I outlined what I feel to be the essentials of a great ghost story, one of them being the avoidance of providing the ghost with a reason which, in doing so, becomes humanised when it should remain unknowable, the unknown. These stories fall into the ghostly revenge category, as exemplified by the portmanteau horror films produced by Amicus in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, themselves often being adaptations of US horror comics: ‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘Asylum’ and ‘From Beyond the Grave’ being my personal favourites. An entertaining read, but not up there with ‘Dolly’, Hill’s ghostly offering from 2012.
‘I watched as he went to the mirror, undid his black tie and took the studs out of his collar. He then went to the travelling bag and put it down on the table. It was at this exact point that there crept over me a sense of claustrophobia, and an increasing fear, which made me sit back in my chair. My heart was beating too fast and sweat beads were forming on my forehead and across the back of my neck, and all of this increased as I watched the man open the travelling bag by the top clasp.
As the two sides spread wide, I caught my breath in horror…’
Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg. Despite sharing the similar themes of a young woman’s experiences in a cult-like community, ‘Foxlowe’ seems to have been completely overshadowed by Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’ which is a great shame as ‘Fowlowe’ is by far the better book. Whereas Cline’s novel was packaged with hints of the Charles Manson cult/ murders to give it added spice, Wasserberg’s book stands on its own, creates its own world into which the reader is plunged: a world with its own language, rules, superstitions and punishments, all bound together with a fearful mistrust of the outside world. A mistrust which eventually boils over into an awful, inevitable climax. ‘Foxlowe’ isn’t perfect: Freya’s character isn’t fully explored – her bullying of two young girls doesn’t fully explain her hold over the rest of the group. But this is a fantastic debut and marks Wasserberg out as someone to watch.
‘As we watched from the Stones, the sun dipped behind the hill called the Cloud, and shadows stretched across the moor. The Bad crowed in triumph, and we were afraid. Freya was cast down by the tiny hope that had flared in her , only to be extinguished again, Then the sun was reborn. It reappeared between the peaks of the Cloud, before sinking again. This is too much for the Bad, light renewed just as darkness sets in, it fled.
Freya held Green and kissed her, and lover her. This was the end of the Crisis, and Foxlowe became stronger and happier. We understood how the solstice could help us.
But the Bad will always remember it loved in Green. It’s still there, little traces inside the veins, little worms in the stomach. This is why the rituals are so important. Summer Solstice to drive the bad away, and the scattering to protect us when the sun is weak.’
Stones on a Landslide – Maria Barbal. A few weeks ago I wrote of my enjoyment of Cristina Andrade-Sanchez’ ‘The Winterings’, a book by a Spanish author, selected to holiday in Mallorca. However, as a proud island Mallorca often looks to its Catalan heritage and so I also took this book with me, an acknowledged Catalan classic. Published in 1985, it is the story of Conxa, a young girl who leaves her village in the Pyranees to live with her aunt. She grows up and finds love with Jaume and a family quickly follows, with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War waiting in the wings. Written in the first person it initially comes across as a simple read, almost badly written, until you adjust to Conxa’s speech patterns and way with words which reveals a raw power. Short, sharp and sad.
‘I’ve always been afraid of death. Of death at home. Of having to speak in whispers and look at someone who’ll be carried off feet first the next day to be buried in a hole. Of being kissed by everyone, of false condolences and sincere condolences and of seeing the reddened eyes of people I love. And now I didn’t even have a dead body. I was more afraid and more anguished not to have seen his body still, not to have seen his beautiful cheeks, once the colour of pomegranate flowers, pale and waxen. I was sad and I had no body with eyes to close, to sit up with or buy a coffin or accompany to the grave with freshly-picked flowers and weep over gently. He’d gone as quickly as a rose cut from the bush and I’d no last memory of him except a little spark as he looked at me during our strange goodbye.’
The Pier Falls – Mark Haddon. I’ve never read any Mark Haddon before, but after reading this I now know what I’ve missed. The book opens with a blast of death and destruction as Haddon describes in detail the collapse of a seaside pier and the life and death stories which result. Some of the stories share a similar theme: the punishment of those whose arrogance and ego allows them to take from those around them without a care in the world. Take ‘Wodwo’ in which a sinister visitor to a Christmas gathering sets in motion a chain of events which brings a reckoning for the dreadful Gavin…
‘Deep down Gavin believes that he should now be the head of the family – Sarah’s gender disqualifies her so completely that he never thinks of her as an older sister – and he resents the fact that his father has not ceded his position by dying or slackening his mental grip on the world. The simple fact of driving to his parents house is an act of obeisance which he finds demeaning and which the inclement weather has only made more irksome.’
A great collection of stories.
A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay. The Barretts are an ordinary suburban family until teenage daughter Marjorie begins to exhibit frightening signs of schizophrenia…This is ‘The Exorcist’ for the 21st century – a point even made within the book by an internet blogger. ‘The Exorcist’ asked us to consider the place of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in a world where the rules of life: family, religion, society, morals are rapidly changing. Tremblay’s book brings us up to date by questioning the nature of good and evil in an internet world of reality television and how this clashes with the ‘old’ values of family and church.
‘Who is it that needs protection in that scenario? Marjorie thumped her puffed-out chest and spoke in a man’s voice: ‘The righteous , courageous, humble holy man who might be tempted by the unclean perversions of a demon-infested slut.’? Marjorie then poked fingers into her cheeks, making dimples and she spoke in a baby-doll voice, ‘Or the poor, vulnerable, hapless, helpless woman? I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but Dr.Navidson, help us ut here. Even if you’re not a Freudian’
‘A Head Full of Ghosts’ is a gripping read but one which lacks the claustrophobic build up of William Peter Blatty’s seminal novel and leaves the reader disappointed because, despite the updates, it doesn’t really bring us any further than ‘The Exorcist’.