Top critical review
75 people found this helpful
on 7 November 2013
This book is an imaginative account of the haunting of Borley Rectory, apparently "the most haunted house in England", and its investigation by ghost hunter, showman, charlatan (make up your own mind which) Harry Price. Set between the 1920s and the 40s, it takes us to a world where the relatives of those who fell in the First World War are exploited by false(?) mediums. These are hunted down in turn by the indefatigable Price. But Price has a problem. He is being supported and his "laboratory" accommodated by the Spiritualist movement, whose pet mediums he keeps debunking. So it may seem very convenient when an opportunity arises to investigate a serious haunting. Might Price (who was a real person), and his assistant, Sarah Grey (who wasn't) encounter something much darker and much nastier than they expect?
Based on real events, the story is told, mainly, by Grey, in a dusty manuscript found years after the events it narrates. It has received lavish praise. But is it really any good? I don't like to have to dissent from the general positive tone of most reviews, but I had big problems with this story. I feel it's best seen as two different books, one rather mundane, the other more effective.
The first part, following what actually goes on at Borley, seemed rather plodding. Frankly, nothing much happens. Spring moves his characters to Borley and back, introduces a journalist, Vernon Wall (another real person) to inject some tension, and tries to animate a conflict between Wall, Price and Grey. It just didn't convince. For example, there is a scene where Wall leaves Borley for London and Grey apparently faces a choice - him or Price? That is referred back to repeatedly in the book and is apparently a key emotional episode to all three. But somehow the writing never matches up to the importance of the moment so through the rest of the book I simply became more and more puzzled as to why everyone behaved as they did.
It doesn't help that the writing is, in places, rather garbled. For example, consider this description of a haunting:
"...One night, Marianne found pebbles behind her pillow; another time, just outside the Blue Room, she was struck in her face by some unseen force only to be turned out of bed, three weeks later, three times in one night!"
Struck in her face by some unseen force - horrible. Turned out of bed three times in one night - ghastly. But there are three weeks between the two events, yet Spring has crammed them together as though one followed immediately on the other. This just reads as odd.
Spring has clearly carried out an admirable amount of research, which he often deploys with skill - but in other places, and this is one, it looks as though he's simply dumped the content of his notebooks into the story without much attempt to edit it. Another example of this is towards the end of the book, where there is confusion about who owns the Rectory then - we are told that in the 1940s the Rectory was about to be disposed of "by the Rector" so that Price had to act quickly with his investigations, then that (earlier) it had been sold to a Captain Gregson, who filed an insurance claim only to have it rejected. I realise this may seem picky, but glitches like these bring the reader (well, me) up sharp and make it hard to stay in the book.
Another problem is the numerous phrases ("video camera", "glamour modelling", "photo shoots", "State-of-the-art", "I like unconventional", "hijacked my thoughts", "the Rectory is in lockdown") which belong more in the 2000s than the 1920s or 30s. There are howlers such as "mitigated against" (for "militated") and - in a book that features Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! - Sherlock Holmes's famous saying "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth" is misquoted as "when you have eliminated the improbable..." making it into a nonsense. All this is, I think, simply poor editing. It is a shame when an author is let down by stuff like that: the point of editing a book is to pick up things which the author, having read the text over and over, simply can't spot any longer.
For all these reasons, I found it very hard to keep going with this book through the first two thirds. I didn't believe the characters, I kept tripping over the writing, and not much happened.
I have to say the book does improve though as the story moves on, it becomes less an account of "bumps in the night" (flying bars of soap, heaving tables and the like) and turns into something more subtle and chilling. It is difficult to say more about what happens without giving away the plot, but on balance I think it's worth persevering through the first section for the sake of the ending and based on this book I'd judge that Spring is much better at writing fiction than fictionalising real events - the later plot developments are largely imagined and much less based on the "facts" of Borley (whatever they really are!) with less occasion for notebook-dumps. In fact I think if you took the last hundred pages or so of the book, rewrote it as a novella (the ideal length, perhaps, for this sort of ghost story) with a little context at the start, and proofread it drastically, you'd get a much better book.
That gives me a dilemma in rating the book. If I had to judge the first part on its own, I would award it no more than two stars. For the ending, I'd give four. So overall - three stars.
Neil Spring is a promising author. I hope he writes more, hopefully out-and-out fiction, and that in future his books are better edited.