For the last two years I’ve been getting more into horror – specifically ghost stories. For a long time I wasn’t able to consume any but I’m devouring them now. I have a theory to explain my famine and feast of horror, but that is for later in the post.
The latest I’ve consumed in the genre is An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman, published by Titan Books, given to me for Christmas by a good friend. Newman’s prose is tight, and he truly inhabits the minds of his characters letting the reader delve into their individual neurosis and psychological ticks. True to the title, there is a lot in the set-up which appears to be part of the classic ghost story, with more than a passing nod to the gothic.
A small family moves into a new home in rural England. The parents are having trouble in their marriage. Their teenager daughter is a bubbling cauldron of mental health issues. The youngest, a boy, in an attempt to avoid the continual tension in his family, has become hyper vigilant which expresses itself in a militrisitc inner world. At first the move to the isolated house is seen by them all as a chance to heal and move on, until… duh, duh DUH!
So far, so many tropes. However Newman is an exceptionally skilled writer and he wouldn’t be ticking all the inevitable boxes unless there is a reason…
(DON’T READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS)
…And there is. It turns out in the end that although the house is riddled with ghosts it isn’t the ghosts that are haunting the family, it is the family who are haunting the ghosts. The family is a bundle of exaggerations, inability to cope, diagnosable illness, teetering on the edge of a break down, pain, poor choices, a lack of consideration, humiliation and need for grandeur. They are brokenly human. However their many problems, in which they have become entangled like a maze, effect the ghosts and the ghosts can’t help but react to them.
This is what makes this book by Newman great. He taps into a current vein in popular thinking. Whether it is the credulity stretching The Secret, or the rather more established teachings of Buddhism, you can’t read anything on personal development, spirituality, relationships or mental health without being told we manifest our own worlds. What our inner world is, becomes our outer world.
While The Law of Attraction stretches it for me, we’ve all known people so miserable they can’t see happiness in anything, so determined to be angry that even the most neutral thing is a slight that explodes their rage. It is not for the family to exorcise the ghost in their home. It is for them to pay attention to their own problems (ghosts), and take responsibility to make them better.
It’s this tapping of the cultural vein that makes English Ghost Story so relevant. Newman has taken the concept of “manifesting” from this stream of popular culture, applies it to horror and the results create themselves.
As readers we get a refreshing new take on the haunted house. As ever though, with a great bit of writing, this is not the whole story. We also get a master class in just what makes horror such an important genre.
I was only able to start consuming horror after I’d dealt with and put to rest my own “inner daemons”. Because the real truth of the world is that there are no monsters on the outside, they reside within us all. The only way to be whole and healthy is to accept and acknowledge the dark within you, however it got there. As long as you try to ignore it or push it away it only comes back stronger.
Horror as a genre is uniquely helpful, because it exorcises not just our dark sides, but out fear of it. Whether it is the vampire/narcissist, the wear-wolf/serial-killer/paedophile, the ghost/passive-aggressive victim it allows us to deal with them in the same way Halloween allows us to cope with the scariness of the encroaching winter nights. By brining them into the light, by laughing, by having fun.
Horror, in whatever shade, is a vital part of individuals and cultures coming to terms with themselves. Newman knows this, and shows it to us so well.