The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

 The Greatcoat cover

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore was published in 2012. When I read the blurb I thought it would be a good book to read around about Halloween – and it was, I really enjoyed it. Having said that, this might be a disappointment to people who are really keen on very creepy tales, of the spine-tingling variety, they’ll probably find this a bit tame.

The setting is Yorkshire, the winter of 1952. Philip Carey is a young doctor just setting up in his first job as a GP and he and his wife Isabel haven’t been married long. He has trawled the area looking for a place for them to rent, until they can afford to buy a house of their own. The post-war housing situation is desperate and he feels lucky to have found the two rooms with a tiny kitchen and shared toilet that they end up renting. Isabel isn’t so impressed though as the place is freezing, dark and depressing and as Philip doesn’t want her to work she’s stuck in it on her own while he works hard – often night and day. The landlady lives upstairs and constantly walks around, every footstep being heard downstairs, and Isabel is sure the landlady goes into their flat whenever she goes out to the shops.

Philip is one of those people who hogs the bedclothes, one night Isabel wakes up freezing and decides to get up and look for something she can put over her side of the bed to warm her up. In a high cupboard she finds an old RAF greatcoat, it’s perfect for her purpose.

The next night she’s woken up by the sound of stones rattling off the window and when she opens the curtains there’s an airman standing there and so begins a gentle haunting although Isabel thinks he’s just an airman who might have known someone who lived there previously.

This is a very quick read, just a novella really because although it has 256 pages the margins are large as is the print. I think in what I think of as a normal paperback this would probably only have been about 90 pages.

Sadly Helen Dunmore died earlier this year but she left behind twelve novels, so I have nine more opportunities to enjoy her company.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House cover

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was first published in 1959 and it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. Lots of bloggers seem to have been reading this book recently and so I thought I would give it a go.

I have to say that I was less than enthralled by the book, but you know what it’s like, maybe it just wasn’t the right time for me to be reading something like this. With everything that’s going on politically at the moment it might be best if I stick to comfort reads for a while!

If you haven’t read the book – it’s about an old house situated in a remote area and the people in the nearest town won’t even admit the place exists. Doctor Montague has been interested in paranormal experiences for years and he arranges for two young women – Eleanor and Theodora – to stay with him at Hill House along with Luke the young owner of the place.

The house has been built strangely, it’s all a bit out of kilter and that goes quite a long way to promoting a strange atmosphere. It wasn’t strange enough for me though. If you’re going to write a ghost story then there’s no point in being niminy-piminy (dare I say spiritless) and restrained about it.

I must admit that I might have been influenced by the fact that I’ve actually lived in a house that was spookier than Hill House, and it didn’t freak me out! Well not much.

I’ll try a couple more of Shirley Jackson’s books sometime though.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

I hadn’t intended to read any more ghost stories by Susan Hill after being quite disappointed by her book Dolly but when Michelle of in The Silver Room mentioned that she had been reading it and the next day I was at the library and I saw a copy on the shelf it seemed like serendipity. Anyway I borrowed it and ended up enjoying it much more than Dolly. Not only was the story better, the writing was also superior, to my mind anyway.

Adam Snow is an antiquarian book dealer and on his way back to London after meeting a client who lived near the south Downs he gets lost and ends up driving down a narrow track which leads to a semi-derelict Edwardian house. The house had had a garden good enough to open to the public at one time, going by the sign saying ‘garden open’. On getting out of the car to have a look around he suddenly feels a small child’s hand clutching his own, but when he looks down there is nobody there.

It’s a ghost story so he obviously isn’t going to turn tail and never darken the door again, as most of us would do! He mentions the place to his wealthy clients and the woman does a bit of research on the house and he does eventually end up visiting it again.

Meantime Adam has to travel to France on behalf of his clients, in search of a rare Shakespeare First Folio which is owned by the Monastery Saint Mathieu des Etoiles, they want to sell it and he hopes to secure it for his clients. Things get spookier and spookier, as you would expect.

One quite spooky thing to me was the fact that the day after I started reading this book there was an article in the Guardian about a Shakespeare First Folio which had just been found – in a monastery in France! But this time it was in a monastery called Saint Omer, you can read about it here.

Dolly by Susan Hill

Dolly by Susan Hill was a random choice from the library, it’s a ghost story and I thought I would give it a go in the run up to Halloween. I can’t honestly say that I was very impressed with it.

I must say that I’m not a big fan of ghost stories or anything spooky really, I’m not keen on being frightened especially as until recently I did live in a house which gave me more than a few spooky experiences over the years!

Dolly seems to me to be very deja vu-ish, there are elements of lots of old well known ghost stories, such as The Turn of the Screw, if I’m remembering correctly, but there are really no likeable characters so I wasn’t too bothered what happened to anyone in it. Young cousins Edward and Leonora are sent to stay with their aunt for the summer. Her house is in a remote part of the fen country.

So the setting is good and you can’t go far wrong with an old house in a ghost story, but I found the story itself to be unremarkable, not very scary at all and a bit boring as far as I was concerned anyway.