I was idling time in Waterstones just before Hallowe’en, and this debut novel by Neil Spring leapt out at me. Amongst the dreary-looking missing women / quirky psychopath / grim procedural / overtly horrific horror novels this one seemed to be reaching back into the golden age of ghost stories. (Golden age sounds wrong for ghost stories. The Cobweb-Coloured Age would be better.)
It’s a set of interleaved stories and documents, with a Seventies academic being given a parcel of papers from Sarah Grey, who was a Ghost Hunter back in the 1930s alongside the famous debunker, Harry Price. The manuscript tells the tale of their repeated journeys to Borley Rectory and the queer goings-on – and the queerer people – that they encountered there. Even though most of the book is about long, shivery nights and that creeping, uncertain feel of the uncanny – there is a great warmth to it.
I loved the two main characters – they’re like Art Deco-era Mulder and Scully, both wanting to believe, both attempting to impose scientific rigour on the hair-raising stuff they encounter. Their relationship is endearing and enduring – and not at all cosy. There are gaps in the story and some wonderful conflicts between them. Both are entirely driven and obsessed with engaging with the world of spirits, and every time it seems as if they’ve got irrefutable proof either way – the rug gets pulled from under their feet, or our feet, or both. There are some wonderful twists here – and I daren’t spoil them for you. But hardly anyone is telling the truth, it seems. Even (especially!) our main narrator Sarah is holding secrets back.
There are hints throughout that, even though this book tells the over-arching story of Sarah and Harry from their first, awkward meeting to their final one, there are other adventures and investigations that we haven’t heard yet. It sounds as if we are being set up for sequels dealing with other excursions into the unknown with these two – and I think they’ll be very welcome.