Sunday, 24 November 2013

REVIEW The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring

As I read, I was hardly aware of the hours passing, the faded pages seeming to turn themselves; and by the time I was done, the fire beside me had long since died down, its embers glowing like eyes somewhere in the distant past, watching me.

ShadePoint last crept around the history of the Borley Rectory in Roger Clarke's quite superb A Natural History of Ghosts, which we reviewed last year. For fans of the paranormal, the story of Borley is hard to beat. Now, Neil Spring's delightful The Ghost Hunters opens the door once again to "the most haunted house in England" and more than fills the place with eerie chills and great storytelling. From start to finish, The Ghost Hunters seemed a book custom-designed to be enjoyed here on the Point.

Fortunately, I don't know crates of detail about the real story of Borley Rectory, so was able to dive straight in, unencumbered by fact-anxiety. And so, it's 1926, and Sarah Grey has landed a job as an assistant to the legendary Harry Price. Gradually Sarah is drawn deeper and deeper into Price's strange world of paranormal debunkery and all-round weirdness, and their working relationship reaches a fever pitch when they travel to investigate the mysterious world of the Borley Rectory. It is a case that will shape them both as people, frame the rest of their lives, and finally define their understanding of each other.

Spring captures this relationship perfectly, and his attention to their bond, to the extent that Borley almost plays second fiddle to its dynamic, even when Price and Grey are under its tenebrous roof, is one the key elements in this book's success. In our last review we were praising Adam Nevill for his perfect construction of a setting rationale, and here Spring achieves that other intensely important factor - supporting a genuine relationship of central characters. This is so important in mysterious fiction, because the nature of relationships between main characters is often key to sustaining our belief that people will go down into a cellar, sleep in a haunted house, die together in a cold clearing, and so on.

Along the way there are superb set pieces in The Ghost Hunters - from ectoplasm-spewing mediums to high profile seances, and on to the supreme chills of Borley Rectory - and Sarah, in particular, is always an exceptionally well drawn and engaging character in the midst of it all. And this is saying something when she is sidekick to the much, much larger than life Harry Price - who Spring also captures very well indeed. Price comes across as part Sherlock Holmes, part Aleister Crowley and the tension in his psyche shivers at the centre of the story. Together, this wounded and determined Grey and Price are superbly drawn.

It is something of a joy then  for fans of paranormal fiction to follow them as the dilemma of Borley sharpens to a fine point - in a lifetime seemingly devoted to uncovering hoaxes and pretence, has Harry Price at last stumbled upon the real deal? Sarah Grey is a compelling conduit for the creepy happenings of Borley and reels the reader in as the pull of the investigation threatens to overtake everything. She is reminiscent in ways of the splendid Florence Cathcart in The Awakening (which we reviewed last year as well) and indeed The Ghost Hunters shares many thematic features with that terrific film.

The blend of fact and fiction is extremely well handled, right down to the appearance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, without giving too much away, Conan Doyle has one startling starring moment in one of the high points of the story. Spring clearly knows a very great deal about the history of Borley, but he marshals this with subtlety, and where maps, drawings, references or photographs appear, the reader does not step outside the narrative, and indeed these features serve instead the interior world of the story itself, and this is really quite an achievement. The story is always out front, so that where some may find inconsistencies or alterations with the factual Borley story, nothing should jar at all with most readers and they will be carried along. In fact, this is very impressively done. It will be little wonder if sales of non-fiction on Borley leap up as readers turn the last page of The Ghost Hunters and are then eager to know more.

All in, The Ghost Hunters is highly recommended. Harry Price and Sarah Grey are finely created, their relationship is integral to the story, and the structure of the narrative is always compelling and exciting - while Borley Rectory beats at the very centre of it all like a very bad dark heart.