How do you like your ghosts? Supernatural fiction is arguably the hardest to get right. Ideally it should terrify, but what appals A might bore B and merely confuse C. The mechanics of apparition, however fanciful, must be internally consistent, and explanations kept simple. M.R. James excelled at giving his spectres agency and focus, but in some hands ambiguity is more effective. Read a Robert Aickman and half the time you have no idea what happened, if indeed anything did.
I was once put off by a description in a novel of a ghost drifting round a house at night and contemplating its sleeping inhabitants. While that might give you the willies, for me that violates an essential requirement for manifestation: that it involve interplay between deceased and living consciousness. (Alternatively, it’s all in the mind.) Finally, some knowledge of the genre should be established, if only to satisfy the exacting requirements of the ‘ghost story community’.
This sets the bar quite high for Laura Purcell’s debut from Bloomsbury’s new gothic fiction imprint; and in any case the supernatural novel is a tougher challenge than the short story. We are on immediately familiar ground here: The Silent Companions is set in an old, decaying house in the pre-Freudian Victorian era, so rich in suggestive ghostly fiction. A typically compromised female perspective is offered, that of Elsie, widowed as soon as wed, who sits out her pregnancy in her husband’s isolated Jacobean mansion. We know from flash-forwards that Elsie ends up in a lunatic asylum, like so many Victorian heroines. However, with hubby dead, it possibly isn’t the patriarchy that menaces her, but a witchy female threat from centuries earlier.
The ‘silent companions’ of the title are the lifelike painted wooden cutouts of servants and children that Elsie finds in the house, which soon begin to move around of their own accord. (They’ve been bought by her husband’s ancestor from that archetypal supernatural establishment, the disappearing shop.) Even being consumed by fire doesn’t stop the infernal planks; all the same, occult physics prefers things that don’t burn in the first place. There’s a scary attic (of course), and Purcell manages to make piles of sawdust creepy, which is quite a feat. But the mounting body count points to a growing uncertainty of tone, and in the end I lost track of who or what had it in for poor Elsie.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues