“The Ghost Writer” by John Harwood

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.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the nudge. I have this on the shelf, bought after a recommendation from someone, and it’s remained there since. I’ve had the urge to read a ghost story lately and couldn’t seem to dredge up a decent one.

    Reply

  2. Posted by emperorbjt on March 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for the great review.

    Something that you wrote is something that I really feel the same way about:

    “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. ”

    Personally, that the more I am exposed to stories involving complex and real seeming characters, the more bored that I become with the typical cookie cutter and one dimensional personas that are so common these days everywhere I seem to turn. Some have expressed to me that such simplistic portrayals of people is comforting and non – threatening way to a pass the time and it is a relaxing escape from the stresses of the real world. For me however, it leads to very dull and grey fiction. I prefer to escape with characters that engage me and help me to think about the world.

    Reply

    • Hello there,

      I agree fully. There are certain types of fictions where depth of characterisation isn’t important – indeed, where it may get in the way. A ghost story, for instance, should scare us: we don’t want any distractions from this – we don’t want all the complexities of human relationships clutttering up the picture. But in non-genre drama, if we are to engage with the characters, then they must be made interesting in some way or other. And like yourself, I become bored when I am expected to take an interest in characters who are merely one-dimensional.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Brian Joseph on March 29, 2012 at 11:12 pm

        Hi Himadri – I do see the appeal of a ghost story where characterization is kept simple in order not to distract from the fright. However, there have been some great tales, in particular some of the stories written by Edgar Allen Poe, where dysfunctional, troubled and tormented protagonists find themselves in a frightening situation. The reaction of these characters can add both to the horror of the situation as well as add interest and meaning to the story.

      • Hello Brian,

        Yes, you’re right – there is a certain type of ghost story in which the supernatural element is closely linked to the (often abnormal) psychology of the protagonist. Many of Poe’s stories certainly fall in that category, as does, quite brilliantly, The Turn of the Screw. Although I must admit here to not being the greatest fan of Poe: the supernatural is at its most frighteningw when we witness it irrupting into an everyday world, but when the world itself is fantastic, then the impact of the irruption seems to me diminished. However, I appear to be very much in a minority in my reservations about Poe, so Icertainly won’t insist on them!

        But in general, I think, the ghost story and human drama are perhaps best kept apart; for if the human drama is weak, it is merely dull; and if it is strong, it distracts attention from the ghost story. I think The Ghost Writer falls into the former category: the human drama behind the ghost story is a tale of sibling rivalry, and I’m afraid I found thoat part of the novel rather dull. The ghostly parts, however, areexcellent!

  3. Posted by Sue Gedge (Klara Z) on April 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Great review, Himadri! I do take your point about the different demands of the ghost story and the mystery story, but I think John Harwood achieves an excellent balance here. And I’m still not entirely sure what DID happen at the very end; I still puzzle over details just as I do with Charles Palliser’s historical mystery ‘The Quincunx’.
    I was hoping John Harwood would produce another book, but there’s been nothing since ‘The Seance’.

    Reply

    • I did actually enjoy the ending: it’s just some of those earlier bits about sibling rivalry where I found my interest flagging. When he is out simply to scare us, I agree, he’s very good indeed. Those chapters in that old house are among the best “haunted house” passages I’ve come across!

      Reply

  4. Posted by Patti Harris on June 16, 2015 at 1:10 am

    I read this book THREE times because I couldn’t understand what the heck happened in the end. I kept thinking, “What am I missing?” To this day, I don’t know who it is that Gerard is locked up in the house with at the ending. PLEASE someone….type a big SPOILER on the top of your response and tell me what happened at the ending. Why did Alice want him for a pen pal? Why is he locked in the house? What is going on in the end?????

    Reply

    • Hello Patti, I am afraid I read this such a long time ago that I have little or no recollection of the plot. I do remember the general atmosphere of terror, and perhaps the feelings a book projects is more importantthan “what happens”: it’s the feelings that tend to stay with you longer, so it’s possibly not that important to figure out precisely “what happens”.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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