Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Ghost Hunters (2013) by Neil Spring

Borley Rectory is, for me, the ur-haunted house. The original. The most 'pure' manifestation of the idea of the 'haunted house.' When I close my eyes and think of a haunted house, it's that Victorian red-brick monstrosity I see, its twin front windows staring malevolently. Before there was Hill House, before there was the Belasco House, there was Borley Rectory. I can't even hear those two words without being forcibly yanked back to my childhood: a childhood filled with 'real-life' books about ghosts and hauntings that I collected obsessively.

And those books were filled with Borley Rectory.

Colin Wilson and Peter Underwood had a lot to say in their books about Borley Rectory, but the one that first introduced me to that rambling Suffolk mansion was the Usborne supernatural guide Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres. I've still got my copy, and the painted illustrations in it still give me the creeps. I remember reading it on a sunny summer's day, aged about ten, and within minutes being so terrified I couldn't bring myself to took out the window, lest the ghostly nun of Borley Rectory be there, looking in at me, as she looked in on the Bull family so frequently. Eventually, I read, the rector was forced to brick up the dining-room window.


So I think it's fair to say that I was pretty excited to find that someone had finally dramatised the story of the Borley Rectory haunting. Neil Spring's book The Ghost Hunters tackles the haunting of the house, and it's investigation by Harry Price. Price was one of my heroes as a child; the books I read painted him as a heroic man of science who investigated the most unusual unexplained phenomena the pre-war world could muster. He was a psychic investigator; a ghost-hunter. I must have thought the man had the best job in the world. To this day, I still believe that ghost-hunting ought to be done by English men in tweed who are scrupulous scientists and sift through their evidence in wood-paneled libraries, and not by fat, uncritical middle-aged American southerners who listen to too much Coast To Coast Am.

Great cover.

The story of Price's investigation of Borley Rectory has always been one of my favourite stories of 'scientific' paranormal investigation. As a kid I was mad for the idea of the time between the wars being a world in which intelligent men of science could properly investigate - and maybe just prove - the existence of the supernatural. Price investigated spiritualists, mediums and ghost reports, talking mongooses and even magickal demon-summoning. But his most famous investigation, the one with which he would always be associated, was the haunting of Borley Rectory.

The nun - THE NUN!

Spring rightly focuses on Price in his book, mixing fact and fiction skilfully throughout. His narrator is the fictional Sarah Grey, Price's assistant during his investigations at Borley Rectory. Sarah is a young woman who begins working with Price in 1926. Gradually her life comes to revolve around Price and the Rectory. It's a clever way to make a study of the man, and though Spring doesn't stick scrupulously to the historic record, and isn't afraid to bend the facts to fit the story he's crafted, I feel that he paints a portrait which is correct in tone if not in detail. Harry Price was a showman as well as a scientist; as much P. T. Barnum as he was Sherlock Holmes, and was in reality frequently accused of faking the phenomena he was supposed to be studying. My early fears that this aspect of his character would be glossed over in the book in favour of a more clean-cut, heroic version of Harry Price, were thankfully unfounded.

Harry Price - who you gonna call?

When Sarah first meets Price, he's a confirmed skeptic who delights in exposing false mediums. But when they hear stories about 'The Most Haunted House In England', they wonder if Borley Rectory just might be the case that changes Price's beliefs. Price and Sarah meet the various inhabitants of Borley Rectory (who are frequently not what they seem) and become involved in the haunting - and Sarah comes to wonder if the horror at the Rectory has come to take over her own life.

There were a few little things that didn't quite work for me in this book. The story takes place over many years, with years sometimes passing in just a few lines. This has been done to follow the true story, but it does result in some occasionally odd plotting. Also, there are just a bit too many plot twists, with Price's character flipping and flopping quite a lot as to whether he's a skeptic or a believer, some of his revelations happening off the page and some of his behaviour being a little inconsistent. And there's some clunky dialogue in the opening chapters that didn't sound like anything any real human being would ever say, including a cameo by a historical character who basically turned up and name-dropped a bunch of things that he's famous for.

Borley Rectory

BUT, having got the bitching out of the way, I can say that The Ghost Hunters is a fantastic book. I can't remember the last time I devoured a book as quickly as this one. It took me three days to read, but that's just because real life kept getting in the way. If I'd been left to my own devices, I would have read it in one sitting. And it's not a small book either. It captured my interest and filled my mind. Granted, I was already fascinated by the subject matter, but Spring does the subject proud.

Spring's greatest skill is in his treatment of the supernatural. Just as he straddles the boundary between fact and fiction, he leaves us ever unsure as to whether human agencies are causing the 'haunting' or whether something fantastic is really happening. Like the actual reports of the haunting, the manifestations are mostly low-key but extremely disturbing. There are some real scares to be had in this book, and had without forgetting the complex reality of the Borley Rectory story. The line between truth and lie becomes so tangled that it'd hard to know what to believe or what to expect. many characters have reasons to make up stories about the house, but some of the phenomena remain inexplicable. The sense of mystery, rather than in-your-face horror, is masterful. The nun chilled me just as she did years ago, the seance scenes tapped into my sense of wonder, defeated the cold, logical part of my brain and left me wondering if it was just possible that communication with the dead wasn't all just smoke and mirrors. And it's this dichotomy between belief and skepticism, between the real and the fake, that fuels the plot of the book.

This IS the definitive version of the Borley Rectory story; not the true story, but the legend that Borley Rectory has become. There will never be a better fictional take on it. This book is the closest you'll ever come to spending a night in a haunted house with the first ghost-buster, Harry Price, back when people believed that science was going to prove the existence of life after death. And not just any haunted house, either:

The original.

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