The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

When I heard that Hammer Horror were going into a publishing partnership with Random House I was instantly excited. I do love a good ghost story and who better than Hammer to bring the genre back again. The first of the novellas to come out is ‘The Greatcoat’ by Helen Dunmore, not an author I have to admit I would have associated with ghost stories, I was intrigued.

Hammer Horror Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 196 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ghost stories are always really difficult to write too much about as they work best when the reader knows very little and so they can work their suspenseful magic. This is something Dunmore does very well and it would be bad of me to spoil any of this. I will however give you the premise. Our narrator Isabel is a young woman, recently married, taking on the life as doctor’s wife in a small English town in the countryside near York in the early 1950’s. As a new found housewife Isabel is unsure what to do, she feels the locals love her husband yet don’t feel so inclined towards her and so she leads a solitary life under the roof of her slightly disapproving landlady. However when she discovers an wartime greatcoat in her flat there is soon a rapping at her windows when her husband is on call one night things begin to change.

That sounds incredibly vague but really it’s all I want to say about the premise, what I can talk more about are the factors of what makes a great ghost story and the way Dunmore uses them to create a quietly gripping tale with ‘The Greatcoat’ which gets under your skin more than you think.

The first thing you need in a great ghost story is the perfect location ripe for a spooky atmosphere. Isabel leads a solitary life in a small town, often frequented by fogs, surrounded by fields and nothingness, well apart from a disused over grown dank airfield. The second is the question of a narrators reliability, Isabel spends a lot of time on her own and her husband Philip starts to notice that she not only becomes slightly too attached to an item of seemingly forgotten clothing from the war but that gin is disappearing in the house. Is Isabel really coping with her newfound life, could more be going on than meets the eye.

You also need unease and here I think Dunmore created her finest character in the form of Mrs Atkinson the landlady. Does she go into Isabel and Philip’s flat when they aren’t there? Is she moving things? Why does she seem to intensely dislike Isabel from the off? Why does she walk back and forth in her room upstairs all night long? As you can probably imagine I loved Mrs Atkinson and was most intrigued by her, there is a slight Mrs Danvers likeness about her.

Finally and most importantly you need a good ghost. Should the ghost at any point seem unreal then all the work the author has put in is lost for good. Well, again without giving anything too much away here, Helen Dunmore does something very clever because we have an initial obvious (but believable) ghost and then as the story goes on we realise there might be more than one ghostly thing going on, if not more. That sounds incredibly vague yet again, but sadly I must be if not to ruin everything should you read the book.

‘The Greatcoat’ is a very good ghost story. It didn’t scare me like I imagined it would (though there is one scene with a fingernail and a tap-tap-tapping which did bother me quite a lot), possibly because this was after all a Hammer Horror book so I had hyped it in my head a little, but the unease builds and just when you think you have worked it all out, or that it might all be over, like the best ghost stories there are some very clever twists in the end you don’t see coming.

I am very interested to see what the next Hammer release, written by Jeanette Winterson and based on the British legend/true story of the Pendle Witches, is like as they have certainly got off to a very promising start. I am also looking forward to seeing ‘The Woman in Black’ tomorrow, how I have managed not to dash to the cinema and see it for so long I do not know.  What’s your favourite ghost story?  Have you read any of Helen Dunmore’s other novels, should I give them a whirl?


Filed under Hammer Horror, Helen Dunmore, Random House Publishing, Review

19 responses to “The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

  1. I want read this one not my usual type of book but caught her talking about this book and how she partly got idea because her father had a greatcoat that she slept under as a kid she made this sound like a great wintery read ,all the best stu

    • Oooh I haven’t heard that interview, where did you hear it, but now you have mentioned it that certainly makes a lot of sense. Not giving any spoilers of course. I am surprised at the time of year they are releasing these, but then good books shouldnt just be autumn reads should they (even if they suit that the most)?

  2. I really need to read more ghost stories. I’ve read so few and when I read Dark Matter on release I adored the book and the idea of reading more from the genre. I have a few of Susan Hill’s books here that I must get to, but I may have to add this, too!

    • There are very few good ones, though I am excited that the form seems to be being reignited again. I love The Woman in Black but I know lots of people who were left cold by it for all the wrong reasons.

  3. Sounds great–I hope it will come out here in the U.S.

    My favorite creepy ghost story is probably Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It has a little bit of a Turn of the Screw flavor, yet without being utterly boring. On the lighter side, I love Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” but I love anything Wilde.

    • Oops, I didn’t realise Hammer weren’t releasing this worldwide, that said a certain site will deliver them for free *cough*.

      I haven’t read The Haunting of Hill House, though I haven read some of her short stories and We Lived in the Castle, so I should – thanks for the recommendation.

  4. David

    Interesting – I’d been looking forward to your review of this one since I spotted on Goodreads that you were reading it. I wouldn’t say I’m a ghost story fan but I do quite like being frightened by a book (I loved “The Little Stranger” but was incredibly underwhelmed by “The Woman in Black” for just this reason). I do however like what I’ve read of Helen Dunmore (“Mourning Ruby” and “House of Orphans”) so I’ve been umming and arring over whether to get this one or not. Having read your review I’m leaning towards giving it a go.

    • You see I was the opposite David. I loved The Woman in Black but was completely underwhelmed by The Little Stranger.

      This book didn’t scare me, it left me feeling very, very uneasy.

  5. Really like the sound of this book, thanks for the review.

  6. Louise

    I’ve only read one adult book by this author and that was, A Spell of Winter, which I really, really enjoyed 🙂

  7. Interesting – I used to love a good ghost story (bit of an M R James purist), but haven’t read any in a while… I get spooked!

  8. novelinsights

    This sounds really entertaining – a sort of point horror series for adults? ESPECIALLY like the sound of the Jeanette Winterson one.

  9. I heard Helen Dunmore talking about this a few weeks ago (either on BBC or Guardian Books), and I was definitely intrigued! I hope we get it here. I have read a couple of others by Dunmore and thought they were pretty good.

  10. Haven’t read this one. ‘The Lie’ is magnificent though. SD

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