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Mar 08

Book Review: An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman

What’s It About

It’s a haunted house story featuring a dysfunctional family set in Somerset in the late 90s.

Should I Read It?

Unfortunately no.

I’ve always been a big fan of Newman’s work.  Everyone talks about Anno Dracula and the subsequent novels, which are good, but in my mind can’t compare to the anarchic madness that is Jago.  And since then I’ve loved the playfulness, wry humour and subversiveness of novels like The Quorum, the Diogenes Club series and the choose your own adventure brilliance of Life’s Lottery.

An English Ghost Story has moments, Newman is incapable of writing a bad sentence and his wry sense of humour is present.  However, the novel never gets out of second gear.  The book follows all the usual and expected conventions of the haunted house story as reality is blurred and the house plays on the fears and paranoia of the family.  And the ending – well, I won’t spoil it here – but it’s deeply unsatisfying.

Representative Paragraph

If you look dysfunctional up in the dictionary you’ll find these guys:

The family was wrong. As individuals, they were acceptable, even decent. Potentially good people. But they were mismatched. Like kippers and custard, Stravinsky and Sinatra. If ever a man and woman shouldn’t have married each other, it was Mum and Dad. If ever a marriage shouldn’t have had children, it was theirs. And if ever children could make a bad situation worse, they were Jordan and Tim. Each of the four was incompatible with the other three. Cross-currents of tension were doomed to grow and grow until there was an explosion. Yet, they stayed together. As a family, they were so inner-directed that splitting up, even for the sake of sanity, was never an option. You couldn’t divorce parents or children. If those ties remained, severing others wouldn’t make much difference.

Commentary

An English Ghost Story is Kim Newman’s first stand alone novel – discounting Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles – since Life’s Lottery which came out late last century.  Having adored his earlier novels I was excited that Newman was again writing stand alone fiction and was fascinated to see how he would approach the haunted house / ghost story genre.

But if I was expecting a playful, subversive novel that deconstructs the haunted house, what I got instead was a very familiar story.  To be fair, Kim Newman sets up this expectation before you start reading the book with its prescriptive title – An English Ghost Story.  The fact that I thought that this would be part of the joke, that the traditional title would play off against a non-traditional narrative, is more my problem with having unmet expectations than an issue with the book itself.

Having said that, the book does play against type in one way with the Naremores, the dysfunctional family who move into the Hollow, quickly accepting that the house is haunted. This self awareness means we don’t, thankfully, get pages of boring self doubt as the family wonder whether they might be going insane. Instead the Naremores not only welcome the visitations but view it as part of their own self-healing.  There’s also some cute window dressing involving the previous owner of the Hollow, Louise Teazle, a famous author of children’s chapter books that would often use the house as the main setting.  This results in some mildly amusing scenes where Teazle’s adoring fans come to visit (or invade) the Hollow hoping that the Naremores will remake the place so it reflects the novels. Also, interspersed between the main narrative, are snippets and excerpts – a chapter from a book on haunted houses, diary entries from a previous resident – that provide further detail about the Hollow.

But when you look past all that, An English Ghost Story sticks to a well trodden route.  The gore and violence is kept to a minimum. The Hollow works on the insecurities of its dysfunctional residents, playing them against each other. And there’s the sort of temporal and geographic anomalies that often feature prominently in haunted house tales (and was done best by Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves).

But other than doing very little that’s new, the novel has other problems.  Less significant is the artificiality of setting the book around the time he wrote his last stand-alone novel, the late 90s.  Rather than wanting to capture the quirks of that decade, this decision seems more motivated by a need to limit the technology the Naremores have at their disposal, so no social media etc.  It’s not a deal breaker but it’s an odd and distracting narrative choice.  (I also wondered whether the book was written shortly after Life’s Lottery but only published now.  I can’t find any evidence of this though).

However, the novel’s biggest stumble is the ending where, after surviving a terrible night with the house as its worst, all the anger and hate and frustration seems to have vanished, the family and their dysfunctionality seems to have been cured.  It’s deeply unsatisfying given that the Naremores had suffered a number of major concerns ranging from anorexia, a deep lack of self worth and borderline child abuse.  And the fact that the family unit is still together after the physical and verbal violence that was hurled between them isn’t inspirational or moving but an example of an ill fitting happy ending.

As I said above, Newman is incapable of writing a bad sentence. His wry sense of humour, especially in regard to the Teazle anoraks, is more than evident.  But a predictable and familiar last third culminating in a poor ending, meant that for the first time I was less than impressed with a Kim Newman novel.

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