There are three types of stories that I love in the autumn and winter months; gothic tales, Victorian sensations and ghost stories. It is the perfect time for all three in my opinion. I especially love a short sharp ghost story to unsettle me just before bed (I am not a believer that ghost stories are just for Halloween) which is possibly a bit weird. Sophie Hannah’s new collection The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories is the perfect fodder as I discovered when I read a story a night a few weeks ago.
In her (brilliant) crime novels Sophie Hannah usually sets out to find a seemingly impossible crime and, after covering up her tracks cleverly, making it all too plausible by the end of it. In this collection of four ghostly tales she uses that deft touch to make the everyday and the ordinary unsettling and rather chilling. This might mean that these tales won’t have you jumping out of your seat screaming in fear (but not many ghost stories do it is not their intention) instead each story disturbed me, and stayed with me, because it was in many ways conceivable and because of the atmosphere and twist in each tale. How to explain this without giving each of the endings or twists away is going to be bothersome in a whole different way.
In the title story, and indeed the opener, The Visitors Book a woman goes to her boyfriends house for the first time where upon he becomes insistent that she sign the visitors book that he has in the hall, the more she refuses the more intense he gets. In The Last Boy To Leave a woman holds a party for her child only to discover that afterwards one of the children, who she hadn’t really noticed, hasn’t been picked up by his parents. All the Dead Mothers of My Daughter’s Friends sees motherly competition at the school gates take on a whole other meaning and in Justified True Belief someone has started seeing ghosts in the street, the question is why?
The second thing I notice about the woman waiting to cross the road is that the roots of her teeth are visible and blackened where they meet the gum. I see them clearly as she talks; dark flashes in her pink mouth. She hasn’t noticed that the green man is illuminated. Her friend has, but doesn’t want to interrupt. Both are smartly dressed, with laminated name badges on strings around their necks. I can’t read their names. The friend, the listener, is considerably more attractive. How could she not be, when the speaking woman is a ghost?
Which was the first thing I noticed about her.
What I loved about this collection, and what I think makes all great ghostly tales a perfect thrill, is that in none of the four did I even guess the way that it was going. Somehow in a condensed space of words Sophie Hannah manages to take you in one direction before pulling you down a dark alley you hadn’t even noticed ahead of you, it was just out the corner of your eye right in your blind spot. This is as deeply satisfying, entertaining and thrilling as it is in her crime fiction.
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
Manderley, in the novel, is a vast country estate. Would Rebecca have become a classic if Maxim De Winter had lived in a two-bedroomed terrace in in Walthamstow? No, it would not. Mrs Danvers would have had to sleep in the second bedroom. A stone’s throw from the first; she’d have heard her boss and his new wife having sex through the partition wall.
I used the above quote for two reasons, well three as naturally if any book mentions Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it needs to be acknowledged and gives me the chance to remind you that if you haven’t read it then you really should. Anyway, where was I? Yes, the quote… What I thought this highlights is twofold. Firstly, it shows both Hannah’s wonderful sense of humour which I like, sprinkled with a hint of sauce, and Hannah’s nod to the gothic greats. Secondly, I think Du Maurier could make a classic tale set in a two bedroomed semi detached in Walthamstow if she had been given a chance, and Sophie Hannah certainly could as she makes the domestic and the ‘normal’ somehow very other, it is the strength of the whole collection.
If you are after a thrill and chill or two then I would highly recommend The Visitors Book and Other Stories, it is a slight and solid spooky selection that I think would be a wonderful addition to your autumn or winter reading – or even better as an extra gift in someone’s stocking for a festive fright or two.