This amazing debut novel opens with the ballad of Long Lankin - a tale of murder, witchcraft and supernatural menace that immediately sets the tone of the story to come. Cora and her little sister Mimi aren't exactly thrilled when they're sent to live with their great-Auntie Ida at the creepy old Guerdon Hall, but with their mother falling apart and their father unable to cope they have little choice in the matter. Things get even worse when they arrive on her doorstep and are met with a barrage of threats, warnings, rules and the bitter knowledge that she wants them gone as soon as humanly possible.
But what Cora doesn't know is that there is a dark evil lurking in Bryers Guerdon - an evil that has been haunting the village for hundreds of years and has ripped her family apart down the generations. Why are the children forbidden from visiting the old church, and who is the man in black in the graveyard? Why do all the doors and windows have to be kept permanently locked, and what are the long scratches marking more than one local door? Together with her new friends Roger and Pete, Cora must uncover the mystery of Bryers Guerdon before it's too late for her little sister - maybe even for them all...
Although this is a young adult book, for me it bordered on Stephen King-esque in the way it preyed on my mind and used psychological thrills to build tension. In some ways it reminded me of the film 'Signs'. You know, the one with Mel Gibson and the alien threat and the crop circles? You weren't sure what was happening, but you knew it was evil, you knew it was out there - and you knew that sooner or later it was coming for you. Barraclough excels at building unbearable fear in the reader using tantalising clues, a slow reveal of the truth, and terrifying glimpses of the menace on the marshes, skilfully bringing the whole story to a macabre and gritty climax in the inevitable final encounter between Lankin and the last of the long-suffering Guerdons.
I can't recommend this highly enough. It is an outstanding first novel that had me absolutely gripped, weaving a complex tale that spanned centuries yet never felt dull or over-written. It captures post-war rural England beautifully, and has a refreshing thread of humour through it that owes much to Barraclough's wonderful eye for the little things children say and do that always make adults smile! The Long Lankin ballad is a haunting theme that preys on our deepest fears, and I raced to the end of the book, heart pounding in my chest, winding up absolutely exhausted, weeping, as I finished the final chapter. Read it!