The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

cover117511-mediumWalter Craig was a clever scientist. As a young man he took away all the honours and prizes and some of his work was ground-breaking. But after he became seriously ill, his genius faded, and he needed the help of an assistant. When Silas Webb was appointed to the job he seemed the perfect choice, but he always preferred to work alone, even in secret. Then, quite suddenly, Webb disappeared.

Why ?

Later, Craig opens a prestigious scientific journal and finds a paper, containing his own work, in detail, together with the significant results he had worked out. The research is his and his alone. But the author of the paper is Dr Silas Webb.

Craig determines that he will hunt Webb down and exact revenge.

Were it not for a terrifying twist of circumstance, he might have succeeded.

So begins the first of four short ghost stories by Susan Hill, something I have been looking forward to reading as the nights have drawn in and with Halloween not far away. I love a good spooky story and a good old fashioned scare and Hill has always been able to manage both where I am concerned with stories like The Small Hand and The Woman in Black.

Here, all the ingredients that make those stories so successful are there. The “old school” style of story telling, the simple language that lulls you into a false sense of security, the slowly building tension as you realise not all is what it seems – leaving you wanting to read on but worried that if you do, you’ll end up lying awake listening for things that go bump in the night.

The Binding Song by Elodie Harper

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Dr Janet Palmer is the new lead psychologist at HMP Halvergate in a remote, bleak area of Norfolk. At first, she was excited by the promotion. Then she starts to see how many secrets are hiding behind the high walls.

A string of inmates have committed suicide, leaving no reasons why, and her predecessor has disappeared – along with his notes. The staff are hostile, the threat of violence is ever-present, and there are rumours of an eyeless woman stalking the corridors, punishing the inmates for their sins.

Janet is determined to find out what is really going on. But the longer she stays and the deeper she digs, the more uncertain she feels.

Halvergate is haunted by something. But it may be a terror worse than ghosts…

First off, and shallow as it may sound, I have to say that I think the cover of The Binding Song is one of my favourites this year.  It is so simple yet says all it needs to about a book that is spooky and scary and right up my alley.  It’s what drew me to it (see I said I was shallow) so thank you to whoever designed it because what was inside the pages was a great read and an excellent debut.

It starts as it means to go on, with a man on the run, making his way through the woods in the dead of night and scared of his own shadow…as well as the shadow of someone else, the woman who has been haunting his dreams, urging him to kill himself – which he kindly obliges her by doing.  It’s a great opening, one that had me hooked.

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

34604719Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners—including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.

I am a big fan of ghost stories, where things go bump in the night and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and that is what The Upstairs Room promises with it’s tale of a young family and their lodger who move into a house that fills all but one of the adults with dread the moment they walk in the door. 

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill

25853382One dark and rainy night, Sir James Monmouth returns to London after years spent travelling alone.

Intent on uncovering the secrets of his childhood hero, the mysterious Conrad Vane, he begins to investigate Vane’s life, but he finds himself warned off at every turn.

Before long he realises he is being followed too. A pale, thin boy is haunting his every step but every time he tries to confront the boy he disappears. And what of the chilling scream and desperate sobbing only he can hear?

His quest leads him eventually to the old lady of Kittiscar Hall, where he discovers something far more terrible at work than he could ever have imagined.

There is nothing like a ghost story for this time of year, with the nights now darker earlier and the cold, foggy, mornings (at least in my part of the world). And, as far as ghost stories go, there is nothing quite like one written by Susan Hill. The Mist in the Mirror is no exception. It is a simple tale, spookily told, and one you can imagine being told late at night around a fire and with a glass of whisky in your hand.

The Mist in the Mirror is actually a story within a story, with a young solicitor being given a manuscript by Sir James Monmouth which he then finds himself sitting up all night reading. It is written by Sir James himself. In it, he tells about his experiences when he first moved back to England after years of living abroad. Now back, and determined to settle down, he decides to occupy his time by researching and writing a book on the man who inspired him to travel – Conrad Vane.

Everywhere he looks, though, everyone he asks for helps tries to deter him. Conrad Vane is not the hero figure Sir James initially thought. Still, he is determined, especially when he finds a link to his own family, a family he knows nothing about as he was orphaned at age 5. Even the ghostly figure of a boy will not stop him, nor the weeping child he can hear in the night but never find. It all adds up to the perfect setting for a ghost story and, from pretty much the first page, I had chills.

Chills are exactly what you want in a ghost story, not gore. You want bumps in the night and mysterious sittings of strange figures, unexplained noises and feelings of dread. Susan Hill gives you all these and more with a great twist in the tale that lets you know whatever evil was haunting Sir James lives on. Told in the first person, and in the style of the period, I was drawn in quickly and ended up staying up late to finish this one (it’s not a long book, more a novella) and would recommend it for anyone in the market for a spooky Halloween read. Liked this one a lot.

emma

(Revisiting) The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

imageProud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a pale young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

I first read The Woman in Black over twenty years ago, right before going to see the stage play, and loved it. I loved the stage play too and have seen it several times since, always amazed by how much it still spooks me out. I know that the play isn’t exactly the same as the book but it is really well done and the changes are more about how it is presented (with only two actors it’s very clever and if you haven’t seen it and get the chance you should). The story itself isn’t really changed.  I think that’s what I expected when I watched the movie. It’s not what I got. Though it’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen I spent most of it distracted thinking “I don’t remember this”…which is why I decided to re-read the book.

The Woman In Black is a fairly short story, which I think a lot of the best ghost stories are. To me, they need to be read in one sitting, at night with the curtains drawn and – ideally – with the rain lashing against the windows. It’s also a simple story – a young man travelling to a remote part of England to deal with the estate of a recently decayed spinster. Once he arrives he finds the locals skittish and unwilling to help him in his mission or talk to him about the mysterious woman in black he keeps seeing. As he begins to realise she isn’t what she seems and things start to go bump in the night, the tension builds and his mind starts to crack. It’s cleverly done and well written and, even though I had read it before and knew the ending, I still found it enjoyable to read and scary and spooky.

I like Susan Hill’s way of writing and how she had reflected the style of the time in which it is set (the late 1800s) in that it is written as a memoir in the first person and quite formal. It fitted the story well and drew me in. It also makes the story feel quite timeless, which I guess it is given it has remained as popular as it has on page and stage (it is apparently the second longest running in the West End after The Mousetrap). After twenty years I still liked this one a lot and am glad I found an excuse to re-read it. A recommended read.

Emma

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Title: Rooms
Author: Lauren Oliver
Genre: Fiction, Ghost Story
Source: Library
Rating: Liked it a Lot (4 out of 5)

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After the death of their estranged father, Minna and Trenton Walker return to their childhood home to bury their father and close up the house. With them, Minna’s six year old daughter Amy and their mother, Carolina. Already there are Alice and Sandra, ghosts that live in the bones of the house, it’s pipes and walls, radiators and floors and who know all the Walker’s secrets, secrets that will eventually need to be revealed.

To say the Walkers are damaged is an understatement. Each is carrying, it seems, the weight of the world on their shoulders, a lifetime of resentments and misunderstandings – against each other and the outside world. For the most part, it isn’t anything a bit of honesty wouldn’t cure but none of them seem capable of being honest. Instead, they hide behind drink, and pills, and sex and live around instead of with each other.

Alice and Sandra, the ghosts, aren’t much better. Forced to live together because they both died in the house, there isn’t much they can do to escape each other so they snip and snarl and do their best to wind each other up, picking at the scabs of each other’s pasts, pasts that – it appears – are just as unhappy as the Walkers present. Things begin to change for them with the arrival of the family. Even ghosts, it seems, must face their past.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

Title: The Orphan Choir
Author: Sophie Hannah
Genre: Horror (Ghost Story)
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

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Louise is tired. Her neighbour, nicked named Mr. Fahrenheit because of his love of Queen, keeps her up pretty much very weekend with his loud music and, when she complains, starts playing longer and louder just to annoy her. Just when she thinks it can’t get any worse, he turns from pop music to choral. This is especially hurtful as Louise is struggling with the fact that her seven year old son Joseph is living away from home as a Boarder in order to be part of a famous school choir. She never wanted him to go but was talked into it by her husband and hearing a choir sing every night is more than she can bear. She becomes convinced buying a second home in a rural gated community is the solution and, for a while, she seems to be right. Until she begins to hear the choir again and realises that, no matter how vindictive he is, Mr. Fahrenheit couldn’t have followed her there.

This is where, for me, the story should have got really spooky, if not scary. But it didn’t. It just got silly. I was turning the pages quickly, but only to get to the end. Which is a shame as the story started really well. I thought Sophie Hannah did a really good job of setting up Louise as someone who may be hearing ghosts OR going slightly off the deep-end. She wasn’t the most sympathetic character but then she was slightly crazed so it was ok. The response of her husband though, which was unsympathetic to say the least, and the flatness of the other characters around her (none felt fully formed to me) just meant I was left feeling flat too. The nail in the coffin was the twist at the end, which was more of a leap and felt wrong (sorry I can’t think of a better description).

My rating of 3 out of 5 is for the beginning. The ending means I couldn’t go higher. I think the fact that I’ve enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s other books added to my disappointment. As this was a novella, I wonder if it would have been better as a full length novel with time to really develop the characters and the story. In it’s shortened version it didn’t work for me. Looking at goodreads, which gives it very mixed reviews, it looks like it didn’t work for a lot of other people either. Have you read it? What did you think?

Emma x