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.
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?