Haverscroft is a very modern ghost/psychological story. It’s written in an apparently effortless and easy style, which I’m sure this was a lot of hard work to achieve. The uncomplicated prose allows the mood and atmosphere of the novel to seep into your pores – this a genuinely gripping tale. The new Keeling family home may be haunted but Kate Keeling (the mother) is unsure of herself, she is recovering from a breakdown and doesn’t entirely trust to her own eyes or her emotional state, maybe it’s all in the mind. After all, a door lock that catches but then releases is easy enough to rationalise. Haverscroft addresses some very modern concerns and some eternal themes cogently and with an intelligent core (grief, mental well-being, self-doubt, emotional manipulation, relationships and second starts in life).
Harris has also managed to achieve something very difficult to pull off – matching the modern style and sensibilities to an evocation of the gothic feel of the Victorian melodrama and even a light sprinkling of Dickens. As Kate and the rest of the Keeling family are drawn into the story of their new country home and it’s past the contrast between the past and the present are starkly realised. Allowing Harris to explore her themes from the contrasting perspectives of different times. This reflects the changing attitudes between generations and the way we deal with/understand the issues that underpin the novel. We are in the territory more common to what is now called ‘domestic noir’ dealing in self-doubt and manipulation by a malignant partner/force. I really like this fresh way of exploring some of those issues in relationships.
So here’s a question: Have you ever dreamt of living in a beautiful isolated house in the country? If you’re a city dweller, this chilling ghostly tale might cure you of that particular longing. This is a novel that lives in the twilight area between reality and perception, we are in the hands of a narrator who struggles as much with what she is telling us as we do. This atmospheric and subtly spooky novel unsettles you right from the start. It’s so well written that almost every line seems to carry a portend and adds to the tension. We are instantly aware that the past and the future are dark worlds set on a path of collision.
October 2nd. Kate Keeling, her husband, Mark, and their two children, Sophie and Tom, are moving into their new house in the country. Slowly we will discover what it is that the adults are running away from. For now, the usual chaos presides as the movers unload the family possessions. Mark sneaks away to the garage for a bit of peace and the kids have gone missing too. Kate thinks it should be all hands on deck, so she sets out to find them. While she is looking for the children she encounters a door that is locked, no, try again, it was just stuck. When she opens the door and enters the room, it shuts behind her and won’t open again.
“The door is shut. The light bulb flickers, a useless thing. It’s only half a dozen steps to the door, stupid to be nervous of shadows and dark corners. I suck in a breath and hurry towards the door, grab and turn the tiny brass knob. Locked.”
It’s unnerving but old houses are a bit like that – knocking, things sticking etc.
This is a fresh start for the family, away from the city. Kate resigned her job after she became ill but she’s better now. She needs a new challenge, but nothing too taxing, at least that’s what Mark seems to think. The next morning Mark is back off to the city for his job, leaving Kate and the kids. He won’t be around much, he has a big case on. Before he leaves, he tells Kate not to forget her medication, but she hasn’t been on it for a while now. Now the children hear the knocking too.
The attic is locked, it was when they visited before they bought the place. The solicitors, Lovett and Lyle (is S.A. Harris a country fan?), have the keys. Kate will need to retrieve them and it seems they are looking for a new solicitor so maybe she can get a job there too. There’s that knocking sound again.
The previous owner, Mrs. Havers, is now in a home, they forced her to sell the house against her will because she has Alzheimer’s. She wants Kate to visit her, there are things she wants to tell her:
“I would discuss with you the business of the attic.”
Kate retains Mrs. Havers’ old cleaner, Mrs Cooper, and the gardener, Mr. Denning. Kate sees a fleeting shadow at the top of the stairs and Sophie is talking about a dog she sees running around the place.
Why is the attic locked? What happened to Mrs. Havers’ family? And as Kate asks, “Are my children safe here, Mrs Havers? At least tell me that.”
Mrs Havers (appears in the story like Miss Havisham) is supposedly an Alzheimer’s sufferer but that isn’t the whole story. Plucky, confused, determined Kate Keeling is trying to get her life back on track, she’s a great character. She is dealing with things that haunt her past and may now be faced with somebody else’s ghosts too.
Haverscroft is a complex layered tale, told with admirable simplicity, a story built on shifting sands; is this a ghost story, a gothic tale or a tale of loss and mental ill health? A ghost story for our times.
Paul Burke 4/4
Haverscroft by S.A. Harris
Salt 9781784632007 pbk May 2019