Ghost stories tend to work best as short stories rather than as novels. Or, at best, as novellas, such as The Turn of the Screw. The reasons for this aren’t hard to discern: the point of a ghost story is to evoke fear – to create in the reader a state of mind that is susceptible to suggestions of supernatural terror; and so delicate and fragile is this state of mind, so easily destroyed by even the slightest intrusions of reality, that it becomes virtually impossible to keep it intact across the span of a full-length novel.
John Harwood is aware of the difficulty in his first and much-acclaimed novel The Ghost Writer. He solves it in part by interpolating into his principal narrative various short ghost stories, purportedly written by the deceased great-grandmother of first person narrator. These ghost stories, we are told, may or may not be related to a dark mystery at the heart of the principal narration. But here, we run into a problem: to maintain the principal narrative over nearly 400 odd pages, Harwood has to present it as something other than a ghost story: he chooses to present it as a mystery story. And, while the ghost story and the mystery story may superficially appear to have much in common, they are very different beasts, and make very different demands.
A mystery story is essentially all about plot. The author may create a strong atmosphere, but ultimately, the whole point is to tantalise readers with unrevealed elements of the plot, and to reveal these elements by the end. The enjoyment is in the unravelling of the plot, and once the plot is unravelled, it is of no greater interest than is a completed crossword puzzle.
But plot generally counts for little in a ghost story. Indeed, many of the finest of ghost stories are virtually plotless. And, far from resolving issues by the end, a good ghost should deliberately leave at least some of them unresolved, or merely hinted at, to ensure that a sense of unease lingers even beyond the final lines. Neat explanations that are essential for a satisfactory conclusion of a mystery story can completely destroy a ghost story; the rationality that resolves mysteries is grotesquely out of place in a context in which it serves but to destroy the fragile susceptibility to supernatural terror.
John Harwood treads a skilful line between the competing claims of the two genres he is attempting to combine, but, looking through various readers’ reactions across the net, I do strongly get the impression that fans of the mystery genre were unhappy that not all plot details were clearly explained, while aficionados of the supernatural genre were unhappy that too much was revealed. Well, you can’t please everyone, I guess, but when two genres have such different criteria of success, it’s possibly best not even to try to combine them.
However, it must be conceded that the mysteries at the heart of the novel are intriguing; and that the sequences of supernatural terror, when they come, really are quite spellbinding. The interpolated stories are variable: M. R. James has been evoked, but he always is evoked when creepy old-fashioned ghost stories are being discussed. Tthe comparison, it must be said, does Harwood no favours, but that’s hardly a disgrace: M. R. James is, after all, almost universally considered the master of the genre, and there is no reason why every practitioner must be compared with the best. But, leaving M. R. James out of it, the short stories interpolated by Harwood into the principal narrative are, on the whole, rather good: I particularly enjoyed one set in the Reading Room of the British Library, and featuring a deeply sinister doll. However, at the centre of the novel is interpolated not a short story, but a novella – “The Revenant”, some 70 pages long – and here, I was less convinced: as ever with narratives of any length, it is very difficult to focus on ghostly matters over the entire span, and so the author has to focus on other matters; and here, John Harwood – or, if you prefer, Viola Hatherley, the fictional author of this story – focuses on the characters, and on the relationships between them. However, since the characters are rather two-dimensional, I found it, I must admit, rather dull: it is hard to be interested in a story of sibling rivalry involving two cardboard cut-out sisters.
This is, I admit, a problem I often have with much popular drama, and popular literature: I really can’t be bothered with the relationships and dramas of characters who are little more than their names. Is Beatrice the nasty one, or is it Cordelia? Which one does Harry really fancy? Why do they all have Shakespearean names? Do I care?
To be fair, this longueur doesn’t last long: after “The Revenant”, we enter into the finest part of the novel, in which the narrator is in London, determined to find out the family secrets his mother had hidden from him. And we are introduced at this stage to that venerable, time-honoured element of a ghost story – an old, abandoned house. Not that there is anything wrong with that: the ghost story is quite a conservative genre, and its effect depends not on introducing radical new elements, but, rather, on doing established things well. And John Harwood does it supremely well. There are several scenes set in that old house, and Harwood very skillfully tightens the tension just that bit further with each successive scene; and the final sequence seemed to me superbly carried off. I wouldn’t recommend reading this section of the novel when on one’s own late at night.
So, despite a few reservations – mainly due to my personal lack of interest in the mystery story genre – I did enjoy this: towards the end, I enjoyed it greatly. Harwood’s follow-up to this novel is The Séance, which, I gather, is a mystery story with supernatural trimmings. It’s a shame he has gone in that direction. Let’s hope that he returns to the full-blown ghost story; and that, this time round, he writes a collection of short stories rather than a novel.