Please note: The following contains spoilers for An English Ghost Story, so read at your own risk!
Do you believe in ghosts? According to surveys in the US and the UK, there’s a pretty good chance that you do. So if you did indeed answer “yes,” the more interesting question might be: what do you think ghosts are? The spirits of those who have died with unfinished business is one common answer, but it is surely not the only one—nor, as Kim Newman’s latest novel demonstrates, is it the only interesting one. There is, to be sure, a long and venerable tradition of using the paranormal as a reflecting glass for the neuroses of one’s earthly protagonists, but in An English Ghost Story, Newman carries this tradition to intriguing extremes. Here, it is the unfinished business of the living that drives the plot, as the fissures and shifting alliances within a troubled family spill psychically into the environment that surrounds them.
Clearly, such a story demands a tight focus on the inner lives of the characters, and to Newman’s credit, An English Ghost Story never loses sight of this, despite the everyman, metafictional bent of the title. From its first pages to its last, the novel is a dissection of the dysfunctional Naremores, its point of view rotating between all four family members and revealing the fears and grudges unique to each. Steven, Kirsty, and their two children (Jordan and Tim) are looking to move away from London in the hopes of rekindling some family feeling when they come across the Hollow—the former home of a celebrated children’s storybook writer, and a place that promises no end of bucolic delights. After moving in, though, the Naremores slowly begin to suspect that something more than pastoral charm won them over; the house is the apparent site of a benevolent spirit (or spirits) unknown, and in the midst of the Hollow’s magic, the family seems to stand a chance at repairing itself. Unfortunately, Jordan’s breakup with her boyfriend proves the catalyst for a renewed bout of tension, and as the family begins to disintegrate once again, the Hollow itself becomes sinister and angry.
There is a certain amount of risk involved in titling your book as Newman does—that promise of self-referentiality, the implicit aligning of the work with some very famous British ghost stories—and whether the novel lives up to its name is an interesting question. Certainly, An English Ghost Story is a cut above the average horror novel, if only on the level of prose. Newman’s descriptions of the Hollow—particularly in its earlier, bountiful guise—are beautiful and enchanting, but have a whiff of feverishness about them, and the picture-perfect life the family seems to fall into upon moving there has an unnerving, Stepfordish quality:
Jordan woke up in the orchard with the dawn, face glazed with dew, her brother curled up against her tummy. She blinked in the light, expecting the hammer of a hangover headache to strike, but there was nothing. She could think and breathe and see clearly.
Tim mumbled and rolled up into a ball.
She stood. Sparkling cobwebs hung between the rushes. She had wound up making her bed by the stream, in a natural depression. Dawn-warmth smoothed away her momentary goose-flesh.
…It was like the first healthy day after a bad cold.
The morning after the best-ever love.
Everything was fresh. Her moth tasted different, cleaner, sweeter. She ran her hands through her hair and found it finer, untangled, heavier.
…The smell of fresh bread emanated from the kitchen, and the soft whistle of an old-fashioned kettle.
Tim snapped awake.
‘Come on, soldier,’ she said. ‘Reveille.’
Mum leaned out of the kitchen window, beaming and beckoning.
‘How many eggs?’ she shouted.
‘Infinite eggs,’ Jordan shouted back.
‘I’ll try my best.’
Jordan and her brother entered the house by the kitchen door.
It’s a scene that begins like a fairytale and ends like something straight out of 1950s mythology—the wife in the kitchen, the cute banter, the apparent ease with which both household and family function—and you know that it simply can’t last.
Nor does Newman disappoint when it finally comes time for the fault lines to show through. Once the initial spell is broken, the Hollow absorbs and magnifies the dysfunctional tendencies that so often underwrite the nuclear family, and Kirsty in particular is quick to realize just how thin the veneer of familial bliss had always been—especially when she is faced with her husband’s response to the disintegrating situation, which takes the form of a kind of benevolent despotism:
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of,’ said [Steven], ‘I’m in control. That’s what I want to tell you. Things have been slipping, going to hell again. I’m stepping in to protect you. I’m suspending democracy in this house, taking up the reins of government … We have a chance for something good here are the Hollow, something precious and perfect. I wouldn’t be much of a man, much of a father and husband, if I didn’t fight for it. I may have to be hard, make firm rulings you won’t agree with, but you must believe me that it’s all for the best. I’m doing this because I love you. There, now that’s settled and we all feel better. Kirst, love, go into the kitchen and make us all a big pot of tea.’
Kirsty didn’t know whether to howl or scream … She couldn’t look at Steven. With his talk of taking the reins and making firm rulings, he wasn’t on the same page. Or in the same book.
‘Tea all round would hit the spot right now,’ Steven said, rephrasing the order as a suggestion.
How could she have married this man? How could the man she’d married turn into this fool?
‘Come on, Kirst, hop to it.’
She didn’t want tea. She wanted a divorce.
‘You don’t want tea, Steven,’ she said. ‘You want your head examined.’
Thus, in its best moments, An English Ghost Story reads like a supernatural riff on the familiar (if still highly relevant) story of a family collapsing under the weight of societal expectations and long-suppressed grievances. There is something nightmarishly fitting about the lengths to which Newman pushes each family member’s anger; at times, he seems to be tapping into some very deep-seated desires that modern family life has not been wholly able to suppress—has, in some cases, perhaps even exacerbated. Kirsty—the frustrated housewife tired of living solely for her husband and children—goes to some truly frightening extremes in her attempts to carve out a space for herself, and in having her do so, Newman yokes a kind of primal aggressiveness to a more culturally specific, gendered form of anger. Nor is Newman’s eerie blending of psychology and the supernatural restricted to Kirsty; in the echo chamber of the Hollow, each family member swells into a larger-than-life embodiment of unconscious desires. Throw in a kind of chicken-and-egg reflection on the nature of ghosts, and you have a novel that comes quite close to justifying its metatextual title.
The problem, as is so often the case, lies in the resolution. The ending feels pat, and the speed with which the story wraps up once each family member has had an epiphany on the true value of love doesn’t help matters. The almost saccharine feeling of the ending undercuts the complexity of what precedes it; the deep cracks in the family’s cohesiveness, far from being addressed in any meaningful way, are effectively recast as figments of the imagination with the feel-good realization that love truly is all you need. Worse still, because Kirsty and Jordan’s frustrations are the clearest cut and most emphatically voiced, it is the female characters who seem to shoulder primary responsibility for the earlier downward spiral, their hysteria ruffling the otherwise smooth waters of family life (remember, it was Jordan’s anger over a breakup that initially set the family on its dangerous trajectory). In short, any critique of the modern nuclear family falls by the wayside in An English Ghost Story’s final pages.
Perhaps this is what Newman intended all along. In the wake of the novel’s conclusion, certain jarringly overblown moments in the novel take on new significance; you recall a painfully melodramatic moment like Kirsty’s diatribe against the “cruelties of the penis-bearing sex,” and think that perhaps you were never really meant to sympathize with her resentment to begin with. As someone generally inclined to give writers the benefit of the doubt, though, I can only say that Newman seems to have an uncanny grasp of the strains and stresses of family life elsewhere in An English Ghost Story. Indeed, there are hints of complexity even in the novel’s overly tidy ending. Perhaps it is not love alone that ultimately binds the family together, but rather (or additionally) an uncomfortable awareness of the necessity of preserving domestic harmony:
Mum and Dad disagreed about the wine to have with dinner. Each got a few words into their argument, then halted, eyes straying from each other, skittering towards the dark corners of the kitchen. Then, almost comically, each backed down so fast there was almost a real row over who would give way.
Always, Jordan knew the others were there. Mostly, it was a comfort.
Could the Hollow itself have stepped into the role of society, training the family to police themselves, and to take comfort in that policing? It’s an interesting possibility, and in the absence of a real airing of the family’s problems, it’s one that would make for a more grimly satisfying conclusion to a novel about a family in crisis. If Newman had only followed through on it, An English Ghost Story might be a truly standout novel, with a cynical “happily ever after” perversely suited to today’s world. As things stand, it remains an engrossing but ultimately slightly disappointing read.
An English Ghost Story was published in October 2014 by Titan Books.
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