Monday, November 25, 2013

The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring

Quercus, 2013
522 p


"Do you suppose that those who hunt ghosts are haunted, in turn, by them

Normally a 500+ page book will take a few days to read; once I seriously got into this one,  I had it done in two.  I gave up a lot of sleep to read this novel, and it was totally worth it, in fact, the constant wind I could hear blowing outside provided the perfect ambience. The Ghost Hunters is really several stories meshed into one -- first, there is the story of Sarah Grey, a young woman living with her mother who in this book became confidential secretary to Harry Price, the subject of the second story, a "psychical researcher" and  debunker of fake mediums during a time when spiritualism was at its heyday. The third story focuses on the "most haunted house in England," Borley Rectory.  When I first bought this book I thought I was getting a horror story, and even though it didn't completely turn out that way, I was totally amazed at just how good this book is. Aside from a few parts that verge on melodrama, the novel is highly atmospheric and will definitely send shivers up your spine here and there.

The narrative is related mainly by Sarah Grey, looking back over her life and career from 1955.  Her story begins in 1926, two weeks before she turned 22.  Her widowed mother, having lost her husband during the war, is very much into spiritualism, and on this particular day in January, Sarah is reluctantly accompanying her to the gala opening of Harry Price's new laboratory.   Sarah disapproves of her mother's interest in mediums and seances, thinking spiritualism to be in "poor taste," and also believing that instead of focusing on the dead, people should be thinking about moving on.  The laboratory is paid for by funds from the Society for Psychical Research,  "equipped with the necessary scientific equipment," and is a place where "men and women with open minds can test the mediums unhindered by preconceived prejudices."  On this night, the two women witness the testing of a medium whose powers seem so real, only to be followed by Price's denunciation of her work as a trick.  Price also announces that he does not believe in ghosts, and notes that his "science, psychical research," will leave behind the "cheap mummery of the seance rooms."  His comments are objected to by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, famous  for his belief in spiritualism, making for an exciting evening.  Harry himself is rather at odds with the Society, and makes no bones about his stance on their methods.

Eventually, this gala opening turns into a position for Sarah as Price's confidential secretary, as well as his eventual assistant in his debunking activities.  It isn't long until Sarah comes across a letter from a Dr. David Chipp, who also attended Harry's lab opening, and who finds that his own experiences are "at odds" with what Harry had to say. The letter goes on to tell about several eerie things that happened to him during a visit at the family home of a colleague and friend, Borley Rectory.  After the visit was over, he heard many more stories about Borley Rectory and the things that his friend had witnessed, and while Dr. Chipp was himself looking for a "satisfactory explanation" on the rational side, he could never come up with an explanation.  Chipp tells Harry that perhaps he should investigate the place for himself. Sarah alerts Price, who is not at all interested, and the matter drops until sometime later when a story is written in the newspaper about Borley Rectory and the experiences of the new tenants of the place.  As it turns out, the reporter who wrote the piece, Vernon Wall, is eager for Harry to visit, because he himself had  traveled there and witnessed some things that "confounded all reason."  As Wall states to Sarah,
"In my occupation one is accustomed to discovering facts and reporting them -- accepting them. But when I remember what happened at that house I am unable to explain it to my satisfaction. Either what I saw wasn't real, or the bedrock of modern science is entirely inaccurate...I can't see how it can be otherwise."
Wall invites Harry to go to Borley Rectory to experience the place for himself, but it is only when Harry's  obvious reluctance moves Wall to say that perhaps the Society for Psychical Research might wish to go there that Harry decides he'll take the case.  With Sarah in tow, Harry meets Wall at the rectory, and what happens during this investigation will have an impact on the remainder of Sarah's life.

Borley Rectory, from
 While, as I noted earlier, this isn't a horror story per se, there are some spine-tingling moments in this book that ghost-story aficionados would love.  Mr. Spring details each and every event so well that I got totally immersed in the Borley scenes and didn't want them to end.  The author incorporates actual sources into Sarah's account; in fact, to be really honest, since this was the first time I'd ever heard of Borley Rectory, I thought they were all fake until my post-read curiosity got the better of me and I discovered that there really is a place called Borley Rectory, and that there really was a person named Harry Price; one of the footnotes even directed the reader to a book called Poltergeists Over England that I'd forgotten I actually own.  There is such a fine blending of reality and fiction in this book that it's hard to determine at times where one stops and the other starts.  The book also provides an atmospheric quality that gets under your skin as you read; whether or not you are in the Rectory, you can't help but wait for that next little jolt of fear to hit. But beyond all that, I really liked how the author set up the theme dealing with the costs of deception throughout the story.

When all is said and done, Harry Price turns out to be a character loaded with irony, and the author sets things up so that it isn't up to the last that we discover exactly what that irony entails. The "secret" Sarah carries around with her isn't so earth shattering when revealed (and I figured it out early on), but even with this little bit of drama (a tad bit overdone, imho), she is also an interesting person both with and without Harry Price.  There are many side characters who also come to life here -- most notably, the tenants of Borley Rectory, past and present.

Overall, considering I went into this book with the wrong expectations, I really enjoyed it ... just the perfect thing for a windy/stormy night's read. 

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