It's rare nowadays to find a book classed as a 'ghost story' to be just that- about ghosts. So when I picked up this book in the library I was in two minds about it. Also it was another one that was new so I couldn't rely on reader's recommendations. Still, the write-up looked good so I decided to try it.
I found out the author, an American writer, was highly respected and has already written thirteen fiction books amongst which was one I had read before so was soon keen to finish my current book and get down to this one.
****An Explosive Start****
Few books have such a gripping prologue as this with a brief introduction to a haunted house, followed by an airplane crash! The house part has its place but the crash really got me sitting up in my chair. The pilot and main character of the book, Chip Linton knows he's got a problem when a flight of geese take out both engines on his plane. He stays cool since the plane is a medium sized one and he's not long taken off, so has time to think of options. He could try and land the plane back at the air base but the thought of crash-landing is worrying. Instead he recalls a time when another pilot had pulled off a miraculous save by landing on water. With a nearby lake looking good, Chip makes a decision, which will haunt him for the rest of his life. He saves himself and nine other people but loses 39 others in a freak accident.
Some time later Chip has recovered physically but will never fly again. His mind and nerve has suffered too much and along with his wife, Emily and twin ten-year-old girls, Hallie and Garnet, they move from a populated part of Philadelphia to a quiet location in a rambling old Victorian house in New Hampshire. At first it seems ideal for all the family and Chip needs time and space to recover. What he doesn't need is to find a sealed off door in the basement, a door heading nowhere and sealed tight by thirty-nine bolts. It could be co-incidence but there are other reasons to suspect the house has more secrets than he can cope with.
Meanwhile his wife is finding rural life quiet but friendly. She is the main breadwinner and as a lawyer soon finds work. Chip will start to get the house in better shape. It's a big house and needs work and Chip has plenty of time on his hands. The girls are going to miss their friends but being twins they have each other.
The women of the town are keen to make the Linton's feel comfortable, so why do they all seem so similar in tastes, with almost every house having a huge greenhouse and why are they so determined to teach the girls about Herbalism?
As the family settles in and makes friends, Chip is not doing so well and his hold on reality is starting to become tenuous. Something stirs in the basement, and it's not something that herbs can placate.
****Building on the atmosphere****
Despite the strong promise made by such a start, the book takes a while to get into. I was starting to wonder whether I'd made the right choice since although there was some inexplicable co-incidences, nothing else seemed to be happening. Sure, Chip had problems with flashbacks to the airplane crash, but that didn't mean he was haunted. The women in the story were hard as characters to respond to and I wasn't sure whether there was one group of 'witches' or two. Not that the book says they are witches, but the story strongly suggests that premise and it's even a topic joked about by Emily and the girls. I didn't notice that the background was carefully being laid for the first round of what can only be classed as haunting, but since it happens to Chip, then the reader expects this.
Just as I struggled with the background of the house and the women who were acting like busybodies but nothing stranger, so Chip starts seeing and hearing things and that's when I decided to carry on reading. By this time I was about sixty pages into the book and since it's quite a long one with 377 pages of small type then I needed to make my mind up.
However, once it got going the atmosphere in the house became strained and all kinds of things start to happen to the family. The air became taut with tension and the twins start to act as if there are things that only they know. Both sets of the women herbalists are set on re-educating the girls, though they have no time for Chip. Strange things happen and it would seem the house is really haunted.
Even then it could be possible that Chip's fear was beginning to affect the whole family. It takes some very strange happenings and some rather nasty deaths to get the story back on pace and from then on it's a race to the finish.
With such a long book and a story that has a deeply disturbed man as one of the characters, it's no wonder that the author spends a while building up mind pictures of each character. Chip is naturally one of the characters that the story revolves around, but there are some very unusual characters among the villagers, especially with the herbalists having a given name but also a plant or herb name. So one of the women who you suspect of poisoning the family is called Anise. Her vegan brownies have a lot to answer for!
The girls are intriguing with Hallie the slightly older twin and more of a leader and Garnet (named for her red hair) more like her highly-strung father. I often have problems with reading into the minds of American characters, so I wasn't too bothered that I found the twins just a bit creepy themselves. I expect the author means this, but for ten going on eleven, I found them quite childish one moment still playing with dolls, and then taking on topics of death with ease. It did make me feel that the author was having a bit of a game with the reader to see how much we could believe at one moment.
Despite that I found Chip suitably frightening with echoes of Johnny in Stephen King's 'The Shining'. I wasn't sure who was behind the haunting and how far the character would be pushed before cracking and murdering his family, as that seemed to be where the story was going. Emily, his wife, was a bit annoying with her glib attitude to things that needed looking closely at. Maybe that was just my idea of being pushed into friendliness with a group of barking mad women with more than dandelion roots on their minds.
In fact it's hard to say without spoiling the story who the guilty party or parties are. Of course there is the possibility that none are and Chip is just mad. But the herbalists are just too spooky, both the women and their husbands. Since a great deal of the story includes these characters it's hard not to say much about them.
Despite some misgivings, I found this a very compelling read once I got into it. I think the author either tried too hard to give a different explanation to the haunting of the house and family or he wanted the reader to keep guessing right until the end. Unfortunately I'd already made my mind up. This is a ghost story with a twist. More of a 'who is haunting who?' question.
I did like the parts where the author decided to tell the story instead of trying to hint at it. But that could have taken about 100 pages off the book.
Among the critics of the book are those who say this is a haunting tale of a family coming to terms with grief. Others liken the author to other great American writers. The words Tragic, mystery, gripping, insightful, are all applied to the author. I felt one of the words much nearer to my mind, 'manipulating'. (As in manipulating the plot). He does this with ease and I think it's what makes the book so readable.
I did enjoy it and as a ghost story it lives up to that with a really creepy ending. I just felt it overlong and for that reason I have to give this four stars.
Recommended for both men and women, it would be rated at 16 and over.
Thanks for reading.
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