Thursday, 19 November 2015

Reading and sampling: MORE ghost stories and spooky books

In the last couple of months I've spent lots of time combing through recommendations, lists and 'similar authors' in the hope of finding some good ghost stories by authors I haven't previously read. (I wrote a list of existing favourites last year and have always hoped to find another F.G. Cottam or something on a par with Michelle Paver's Dark Matter.) Much of the time, this has been a thankless task - there's so much rubbish in this genre - but it's led to the following books being added to my to-read pile and, in some cases, taken off it again...

Ghost stories and spooky books

A few I finished...

The Undesired (22 October 2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
The third book I've read by this author, and third time lucky, as this is the best yet. It combines elements of mystery with supernatural shocks in a story spanning two time periods. In 1974, we follow Aldís, a cleaner at Krókur, a care home for 'delinquent' boys; in the present day, the focus is on Ódinn, who's investigating past events at the home, including the death of two of the boys. Naturally, Aldís and Ódinn are connected, but it isn't easy to figure out how, and Sigurðardóttir really keeps the reader guessing. With plenty to keep the plot moving and the pages turning, the story flows effortlessly. The Undesired isn't as scary as Sigurðardóttir's I Remember You, but it has a really effective eeriness running through it, and it's also much tighter and more coherent.

The Ice Twins (29 January 2015) by S.K. Tremayne
This is completely addictive and a very quick read. But like most completely addictive things, it's not good for you and has no lasting value. It's also much more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel (despite the fact that it's one of the finalists for Best Horror in the Goodreads Choice Awards, which is what made me aware of/interested in it in the first place). The story is about a family who go to live on a tiny, virtually inaccessible island off the coast of Skye. The parents, Sarah and Angus, are still grieving after the death of one of their twin daughters a year ago. The remaining daughter, Kirstie, is coping rather differently, sometimes claiming she is her sister Lydia, leading Sarah to fear she misidentified the daughter who died. There are some good creepy moments and the setting is effective, but most of the story is well-worn 'husband and wife lying to one another' stuff. If you like thrillers, this might be one to try; if you prefer horror, I wouldn't bother.

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories (22 October 2015) by Sophie Hannah
Okay, I'm going to try not to be too horrible about this. So I'm not going to say anything about it, except - just don't read it. Honestly. Go read some creepypasta, they have better plots.

And some I've sampled...

An English Ghost Story (2014) by Kim Newman
(Read up to 8%.) Sometimes you just instinctively know you won't like a book from page one. That's how I felt about this, though I did drag myself through the first chapter regardless. The style annoyed me, the details jarred. (There's this scene where a teenage girl character wants to play old-fashioned music in the car and is annoyed when her family prefer to listen to a rap song called, and I am not making this up, 'Poppin' a Cap in Mah Bitch's Skull'. Yeah... okay.) I'm happy to abandon this without knowing what horrors will befall this unconvincing family.

The Matrix (1995) by Jonathan Aycliffe
(Read up to 8%.) Not to be confused with the film. This seems... not bad so far, but I'm not entirely convinced yet. In the style of a classic ghost story, it reads like an account set down by a dour academic, a natural sceptic who has experienced some troubling event that can't be explained rationally: Even now, goes the first line, it seems strange to me that I should be writing this memoir at all... As such, it's very dry and old-fashioned and the first few chapters take their time to set up the narrator's history before anything of note actually happens. I do enjoy this technique, but the story hasn't yet come up with anything to make me particularly feel it's worth carrying on with.

Nocturnes (2007) by John Connolly
(Read the first story and the beginnings of a few others.) I've avoided Connolly for years because I really hated a book of his, The Book of Lost Things, but I've heard good things about Nocturnes from several sources, and the ghost story quest finally persuaded me to give it a go. Unfortunately, I have not been converted. I thought the first story was really and truly awful, offensive as well as not very good. I tried starting a few of the other stories - and to be fair, they are written in a variety of different styles from the first, so I'm sure they're not all the same - but nothing grabbed me. Considering my feelings about The Book of Lost Things, I don't think I'm going to be making any further attempts at them.

Nyctophobia (2014) by Christopher Fowler
(Read up to 9%.) This is more like it. I'm not exactly sure where it's going - is it going to be more thriller than horror? - but the first few chapters are funny, sparky and engaging. Chapter one: narrator Callie is shown around a beautiful Spanish house by an eccentric estate agent. Chapter two: Callie and her (apparently very new) husband Mateo go to see the house again. Chapter three: we learn how Callie and Mateo met - so I'm guessing their relationship is going to play an important role in the plot. And if all this seems a bit irrelevant to the nyctophobia theme, it's worth it just for the line 'he had me at hielo'. Despite a few bits of awkward dialogue, I'm really interested in reading on.

I received an advance review copy of The Undesired from the publisher through NetGalley.


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