The vast, unsentient reality that’s always present

Thin Air
by Michelle Paver

When this was picked for my book club I was pleased because I really enjoyed Paver’s previous novel Dark Matter. However, this was basically the same story in a different setting and not done quite as well. I still enjoyed it, but there was the missed opportunity here to be a little more original.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined his brother Kit’s mountaineering expedition at the last minute because they need a medic. But this isn’t just any jaunt up a mountain; this is an attempt to be the first to successfully climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, straddling the border of Nepal and India.

It’s the early 1930s and rich Europeans are obsessed with racing each other to the extreme points of the world. Kit’s plan is to follow in the footsteps of his hero Edmund Lyell, whose disastrous 1907 expedition came the closest to date to reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Stephen dislikes this idea and feels they should strike their own path, especially after an ominous warning from the last survivor of the Lyell expedition, Charles Tennant. But Stephen is not only the newbie to the group, but also the least experienced climber, and as such has no real vote.

Stephen is frustrated that fog obscures the view of Kangchenjunga for weeks before he gets his first glimpse. He’s spooked by Tennant’s warning and any reminder of the Lyell expedition. But there’s something else as well, a shadowy figure on the mountain that at first Stephen dismisses as a trick of the light, but later becomes convinced is a ghost, and not the harmless kind.

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No, sitting in a cold dirty hole was not awesome

anyas-ghost-coverAnya’s Ghost
by Vera Brosgol

This is a sweet, honest and spooky tale told in stylish graphic novel form. It’s one of a handful of comics I added to my Christmas wishlist on the back of Googling something like “best comics by women”, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that paid off.

Anya is in many ways an ordinary American teenager – she only has one close friend, Siobhan, and she’s given up on ever being popular, but she worked hard to hide her Russian accent and chooses her clothes carefully so that at least she isn’t a target for bullies. She worries about her body, about turning into her frumpy mother, about ever attracting the attention of hunky star of the school basketball team Sean. Normal. Until she falls down a well and finds the ghost of a girl who died 90 years ago and is longing for a friend.

The ghost makes for an interesting new friend – one who can spy on people for Anya and wholly accepts Anya’s word on what’s cool. (Incidentally, I personally think Anya’s taste rocks based on the posters in her bedroom: Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Metric, the Shins, Weezer…Pretty excellent.) However, the ghost is not an entirely benevolent force.

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Twists and turns

Don’t Look Now and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

Though I’ve read quite a few du Maurier novels and even a guidebook to Cornwall that she once wrote, I hadn’t tried her short stories before this week. Thanks to Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I have now, and I’m glad.

The title story was of course made into a successful and critically acclaimed film of 1973, a film I have never seen and only had a rough idea of the storyline to, so I was able to come to it without foreknowledge. I think this greatly helped with my enjoyment of the story so I won’t reveal more of the plot than I knew beforehand: it’s a horror/thriller about a couple who travel to Venice following the death of their child. That’s all I knew (well, okay, I knew there was also something to do with a red coat, but then that’s really it).

As always, du Maurier is greatly skilled at creating complex, believable characters. All of these stories have some element of horror, but for the most part that horror comes from within, from the very human flaw of misreading a situation or other people, from imagining something that isn’t real. When there are “real” horrors, they tend to be somewhat banal, nothing like the troubled or possibly disturbed minds of the characters.

Another great skill of du Maurier’s that is evident here is her ability to describe diverse locations, imbuing them with real atmosphere. (This must be a skill she developed over time because it was something I found specifically lacking in scenes set outside of Cornwall in The Loving Spirit.) This book ranges from Venice to Crete to Ireland to Jerusalem to East Anglia, each time taking a character away from their home in England to a strange new location. There’s the schoolmaster on holiday who gets caught up with a strange American couple. There’s the young actress who decides, following her father’s death, to track down his former best friend. There’s the working class vicar who reluctantly agrees to guide a group of rich strangers around holy sites. And there’s the electronics engineer whose boss seconds him to work on a secret project that combines science fiction and spirituality.

All these stories have a certain tendency to mislead the reader, or at least I personally felt many times that I had been led down one path and was then blindsided by the story’s very different conclusion. As horror goes, there is none of the gore or violence you might expect. Or if there is it’s not described in any detail. These stories are all about the psychological, and even when it gets a bit supernatural or spiritual, the emphasis is on its effect on people rather than whether or not the apparently supernatural is real.

I think “Don’t look now” in particular will bear repeated readings, if only to hunt for the clues to how things turn out that I missed first time around. I think it is the best written and cleverest story in the collection, though none of them was by any means bad. They all share the same fish-out-of-water, sinister atmosphere, yet they are very different. I’m looking forward now to reading the other du Maurier short story collection I have, The Breaking Point.

This collection first published 1971 by Victor Gollancz.

When is a ghost story not a ghost story?

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

Once again I’m sad to say that I’m a little disappointed by an author I had invariably liked. Not that this is by any means a bad book, it just wasn’t great.

What it is is a long book, and it takes a few hundred pages for the story to get going. The narrator is solid, sensible bachelor Dr Faraday and he tells the story the way you imagine he might tell any anecdote: dully, with too much dry detail and no distinction between what’s important and what isn’t. This actually turns out to be key, but that doesn’t take away the dullness of the style.

It’s certainly cleverly written, with hints and clues and red herrings aplenty. But for what purports to be a chilling ghost story, I was not frightened or spooked once.

The story is set shortly after the Second World War. Dr Faraday has worked hard to rise from humble beginnings to being a village doctor. He has always been fascinated by Hundreds Hall, the mansion at the centre of the local landed estate, and when he is called to a patient there he is saddened to see that the place is in serious decline, largely due to the sagging finances of the once-great Ayres family. The doctor gradually befriends the three remaining members of the family and records the increasingly strange goings-on at the hall. He is torn between finding a logical physical explanation, a medical psychological explanation or an entirely supernatural explanation for it all.

Which might have been the basis for something fascinating indeed. And to her credit, Waters did surprise me with some of the directions the story goes in. But for me nothing can make up for dull narration and, while a few quiet slips from the narrator near the end made me look at the story rather differently, with more respect, that couldn’t undo the experience of slogging through hundreds of pages semi-bored.

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Virago Press. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009.