Sunday, 31 October 2010

REVIEW The Haunting of James Hastings by Christopher Ransom

Shade Point has two basic (light)house rules for reviews. Firstly, never write a review between the hours of midnight and three a.m. and secondly, try to avoid writing about books that I just didn't really enjoy - in any shape or form. 

Which brings me neatly to The Haunting of James Hastings. If you buy this on the strength of the UK cover design, thinking you're in for an old school ghost story, you're going to be disappointed. That's not to say there aren't elements of a peat-smoky old ghost yarn in there, only that it's not all this book is about. I've read a few reviews of it already, and I think it's fair to say that I'm not the only one who has come away slightly bewildered by the mixture of different approaches going on here. If you were to take Stephen King, and the Connollys John and Michael, put them in a room until they designed a book together, on an off day for at least one of them, then you might end up with a plot like this. Oh, and that is another rule for Shade Point - I'm going to try to avoid re-telling plots or spoiling them.

So, it is a mixture of mercies. Which is one way of saying this is part atmospheric ghost story, part horror story, part mystery novel, part visceral/gore/action novel. With some added Eminem stuff, in the guise of one of the characters in the novel, Ghost - an incredibly successful rapper based on the very same Eminem. And on the whole, I don't think it actually all works.

Which leads me to why I'm reviewing it. It's a shame it doesn't work on the whole, because in places, it is clear that Christopher Ransom can handle spine tingling dread as well as anyone. There are set pieces - particularly in the first half of the book - where Ransom creates very real tension, and often some very real scares. It is just a pity that these instances are surrounded by awkward dialogue and confusing shifts in narration, plot development and characterisation - not to mention genre. This is no better exemplified than in two chapters side by side, where the main character hides from a spectral visitor in a perfectly achieved atmosphere of dread  in the first (ch. 27 for anyone interested - a tour de force) and then in the succeeding chapter seems to shake off the experience far too easily after which the novel introduces an entirely unbelievable character, some excruciating dialogue and jumps back into some kind of different story altogether - thus undoing the brilliant work before. It is not a declining of tension before another scare that is achieved - more a breaking of belief in the story.

If you are interested in mining for the seam, and frankly there's not much else to do in a non-functioning tidebound lighthouse, then this book is worth reading, particularly for those studying the prose techniques of terror. Otherwise, you may well not like it. One Amazon reviewer said, "This book started out well but quickly deteriorated into stupidity". I wouldn't go quite that far, although I was disappointed by it. And I wouldn't go that far, because should he choose to go in that direction, Ransom could write a very credible, very, very scary addition to the ghost story canon. The Haunting of James Hastings starts out as if it was going to go that way, but ended up somewhere else completely. Mostly it is reminiscent of those brilliant horror movies that are ruined in the last 20 minutes by an ending that doesn't make sense with what has gone before or that takes inexplicable liberties with our well-earned understanding of the characters and their motives thus far. But a superb stylist Ransom can be, and I will read his next book just in case ...