As a younger reader one of the sorts of books I would most commonly take out from the library would be collections of real life tales of the supernatural. Ghosts, monsters, spontaneous human combustion etc all fascinated me. Years on I am still really interested in the paranormal and ghostly goings on to the point of having spent a few nights in some haunted locations both in the UK and abroad – not something I do every weekend mind, though actually I would quite like to. Anyway, one of my favourite tales as a youngster, and subsequently since, has been of Borley Rectory which many have said was the most haunted house in all of Britain until it burnt down in 1939. Neil Spring’s debut novel ‘The Ghost Hunters’ focuses on some of the facts of the case to make a story of one of its most famous investigators, Harry Price.
On a January evening of 1926 Sarah Grey is dragged by her mother Frances to witness the infamous Harry Price as he tests the powers of a spiritualist medium at 16 Queensbury Place. It is a night that causes a stir from spiritualists none other than Arthur Conan Doyle as the audience witness Harry debunking this medium in front of everyone. Some people are disappointed, some shocked and appalled, Sarah herself is intrigued despite herself. So when after meeting Harry Price he offers her a job she accepts, much to the consternation of her mother, friends and even initially herself, and becomes his secretary and medium testing and ghost hunting assistant.
Eventually this leads them to the mystery of the Borley Rectory. A house that has become famous amongst the British public after Vernon Wall writes about it. It is a building seemingly teeming with activity; bells ring by themselves, writing appears on the wall, pebbles and small objects fly across rooms and in the grounds there has often been seen a spectral carriage and horses along with a nun, The Dark Woman of Borley, who many believe has left a curse on the place. As they investigate Sarah is made to question what she believes could be real and what might be supernatural, what could be a hoax and who can be trusted, even Harry Price himself.
Recollections of the past sixteen months at Price’s side flicked through my mind, a montage of uncanny memories: the sun glaring on us at the Colosseum in Rome; damp, frigid mornings on the banks of Loch Ness; the teenage girl we encountered in Berlin who made knives and forks stick to her flesh as magnets grip metal. I doubted anyone in London had experienced a more thrilling, more adventurous or more peculiar year. There was no one more mysterious than Harry Price.
I have to say that I don’t think I have read a book, and this is almost 550 pages, so quickly in quite some time. Part of this is because I am so fascinated by Borley, and indeed Harry Price, and ghosts and also because Neil Spring writes a really gripping yarn which I became completely lost in and fascinated as the twists and turns, and spooky goings on, compelled me further and further into a world of the haunted and the hoaxers.
Spring does some great things with this novel. Firstly there is the way that he mixes the facts in with the fiction. As ‘The Ghost Hunters’ goes one and Sarah tells her tale we are treated to historical footnotes including which books or newspapers that quotes are taken from, cleverly not by Neil Spring but by Dr Robert Caxton who is reading Sarah’s tale, which of course makes it all the more believable and fascinating. He also does a really marvellous job of creating Harry Price who by all accounts was a very complex and rather shadowy character which Spring vividly evokes.
My only slight problems with the book were firstly that in some ways I wanted there to be less of it and in other ways I wanted there to be more of it and also in the relationship between Sarah and Harry. I won’t give away anything but I do want to explain why. Firstly as the book goes on Spring plays a brilliant game of twisting the perspective for the reader. We think that Harry wants to prove ghosts exist, then we don’t, then we do, then we don’t, then we do, etc. This makes for compelling reading yet occasionally I did think that maybe there was a twist too many and this started to make the whole book feel melodramatic. I like a lot of twists, an author has to gage when one twist is one too many because then it starts to stretch the world they have created to the point of snapping. In doing this, no spoilers, I began to be a bit annoyed with Sarah as she is clever and feisty at the start of the book but she seemed to become a bit passive.
I would have forsaken some of these twists to have had more details of the other investigations that Sarah writes of with Harry Price. Part of this is because I just wanted more, part of it was because focusing only on Borley we occasionally have lots going on for weeks then a year or two of nothing which we gloss over which means in a way we miss out on Sarah and Harry’s more mundane times which would focus on their relationship. This of course leads me to the second slight quibble I had with the book as I never believed the relationship to the extent we need to for the story to come to its conclusion, which will make sense when you have read it, I didn’t by it especially not in the circumstances it initially happens. I shall say no more though for fear of ruining anything, but it troubled me a little and broke the spell slightly.
The pepper pot, which stood on the table before us, was trembling. I had never seen anything so peculiar. And as if this were not enough to startle us, a glass of white wine that had been poured for Price just minutes earlier turned an inky black.
However there was so much that I really like about this book I forgave it these two things. The atmosphere is brilliantly created, the twists and turns keep coming, the historical elements of the times are really interestingly explored, it is often brilliantly chilling and it has a great sense of mystery and adventure to it. Also Spring clearly loves this subject and the enthusiasm for it is infectious. I had the feeling that Spring might have been the other kid who took out the real life ghost tales books which meant I had to take them back or couldn’t get a copy of. I don’t know much about Spring but I don’t think he was borrowing books from Marlborough library in Wiltshire when I was. Wouldn’t it be strange if he was, spooky indeed.
I would clearly highly recommend ‘The Ghost Hunters’ if you want a brilliantly dark and thrilling tale to read during the dark autumn evenings then this will be perfect. I would also recommend it if you like historical novels as this is a tale seeped in history, and facts, and shows a very different side of what was going on in London and its surrounding areas between the wars, with an unusual and enjoyable twist. I am rather hoping that we might get some more of the adventures that Sarah eludes she and Harry went on in the future as I am sure I would find them as entertaining and fascinating as this one.
Who else has read ‘The Ghost Hunters’ and what did you make of it? Do you know of any other true life tales of the supernatural that have been turned into brilliant books of fiction? If anyone knows of any novels about Winchester Mystery House then I would be delighted, it is another of my favourite spooky places. Oh and any non-fiction recommendations of books about ghosts would be most welcome, though the bibliography in ‘The Ghost Hunters’ has given me much to hunt down.