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I haven't read a decent horror or ghost story in quite some time, simply because the new trend for all things vampire chick-lit are driving me mad. I want to read things that chill the blood or tell a damn good story, not some teen angst because her favourite demon is out with another spook. Anyway, I saw this book in my local library and it was among the new releases, so I read the synopsis and it caught my eye. The book jacket looked quite good as well with old school gates wrapped in swirls of fog and the words under the title-A Ghost Story. At last, I thought, something about a real ghost.
This looked good, an American dropout Andrew Taylor sent to Harrow in England to sort himself out and get a decent chance of getting into a University after spending sufficient time in an English public school. There is mention of some scandal at his last school and this is soon picked up on by fellow pupils, especially since I wouldn't expect an American to be very popular in The best public school.
However, our would-be hero has an unexpected advantage, he's the dead spit image of Lord Byron who once went to the school and it just happens that the school are putting on a play about Byron, so Andrew Taylor would fit the bill. Before he has a chance to read a few lines he has to settle in to his new home, the building called 'The Lot' a tumbledown building that members of that house reside in. (Houses are public school equivalents of gangs). He meets a few boys that are fairly friendly and starts to think things might not be so bad when he also meets Persephone Vine, daughter of one of the governors and a fellow pupil who co-incidentally is also in the play.
Unfortunately he chances upon the 'Lot Ghost' whilst taking a stroll around the grounds one morning and the dastardly chap is strangling one of his new friends, Theo. Rubbing his eyes because there isn't anything there, it appears that Theo has expired and Andrew is in for more trouble than he needs. Things soon get worse as there is no easy answer to Theo's death and when another boy shows symptoms of Tuberculosis panic sets in.
It's up to Andrew and his newly sober housemaster, Peter Fawkes (ex poet and hell-raiser), to discover why the ghost is attaching himself to Andrew and trying to bump off anyone who gets near to him. When Andrew finds some old letters in a blocked-up basement he needs help in deciphering them before the ghost decides that Andrew (who is now thinking he really could be Lord Byron's double) becomes a target as well as Persephone.
Joking aside I thought this was going to turn out to be quite good, especially since Byron has always been a kind of brooding presence of the past who attracted plenty of supernatural attention in his time. I've read some good books about the poet and the incestuous relationship with his half-sister Agatha, apart from all the rumours about him and the Shelleys. Byron seems to attract the same kind of reputation as Alistair Crowley, Algernon Blackwood etc and to be mixed up in séances and other unsavory activities. He was also way ahead of his time with his writing and had scores of relationships with both sexes. So the premise in this book that Byron once had a love affair with another boy at Harrow and that boy is seeking revenge on Byron's double, Andrew had the potential for a really good plot.
Unfortunately it never really gets off the ground at all. There are some suitably gripping scenes of boys gasping for breathe and coughing up blood in a foggy white-wreathed room. The authorities diagnose tuberculosis (which I thought highly unlikely) and for the first time in it's long history there is a question of isolating the school. Andrew himself has plenty of frightening moments when he feels the ghost near to him and also feels strangely attracted sexually to the ghost. If Andrew was really like Byron though then what was the background and why hadn't anything like it happens before? I felt that the research was insufficient and the whole thing implausible.
If the story has any saving grace it's with the character of the Fawkes who has to come off the bottle quickly to save his pupils and his character. He, at least, had some properly spooky visitations and acted on them. The author does manage some atmosphere with the weather mirroring the wet, sluggish breathing of the ghost (who was stricken by TB and is attempting to infect everyone who is after his boyfriend).
I liked the idea of the story as well and thought it had some great mileage in it. It just didn't go far enough or give any background detail. Where Byron's past is mentioned I felt the research shaky and not up to standard. Even I, with my basic knowledge about poets could mention most of the background in the book. Surely then a writer who just happens to be a film scout and actually spent a year at Harrow could have done better? I attended a girl's own grammar school so knew about 'houses' and house points, letting the side down, school uniforms etc. Justin Evans talks about it as if he was letting us into secret knowledge.
Andrew Taylor is the American boy who got into trouble with drugs at his old school and initially lives up to his image by not giving a damn about anyone. I didn't mind him sneering about English school traditions as Americans do that anyway and he's supposed to be bad. If he was a throwback to Byron then he would be foul-mouthed and a hell-raiser. The author starts off well then suddenly the bad boy turns out to have fewer guts than his girlfriend.
Persephone (where on earth do people call their children such names in this day and age?) has more rebellion in her little finger than half the boys. I suppose she has to as the only girl in a boy's school. Quite why she takes up with Andrew is another matter. I liked the characterization though and again felt a bit letdown. Here was another possible double, say Mary Shelley?
Most of the time I felt the author was giving us stereotypes of the kind that went out of fashion a while ago. He gives us a priest who throws a bit of incense around and gets the boys to say a few prayers, when the hungry ghost needed the big guns. There wasn't even a decent exorcism to look forward to. Of course I could say a lot about the ghost but that would be a plot spoiler as this is the best bit about the book. The story behind the ghost is believable, has lots of potential and lifts the book out of the ordinary into something that's worth a read. Add in a couple of scared governors, a school full of adolescent boys who probably could raise plenty of poltergeists with all that unfulfilled sexual energy and a half-decent setting to give some background.
Considering the standard of ghost stories this was pretty good as a take on the gothic horror. It just lacked that very English way of subtly creating a creeping horror that makes the spine tingle and the quick glimpse over the shoulder. I'm not against American writers, Steven King is still the best, I just felt the author over-reached his ambition with a lack of research and some lame description. I haven't visited Harrow yet I've seen old schools that gave me the creeps just standing outside the gates.
The author quotes three accounts for his research. One a book about Byron, one about Harrow, the school, and one account of the death of Keats. I'm not sure why Keats, but maybe he needed inspiration. He started the narrative with good intentions but seemed to flag towards the end and rushed the ending. I'm tempted to award this three because it lacked a real punch, but with the poor standard of spooky stories this just merits a four. It's worth a read for the plot alone.
My copy is a brand new library hardback. This is only available at the moment in hardback and Kindle version. You can pre-order the book on Amazon in paperback for £7.99.
Thanks for reading my review.