Even though I’m afraid of the dark and would sleep with a nightlight on if I didn’t have my husband next to me, I’m not one to pass up a good ghost story. Stephen King rates too high on the horror scale (so high, in fact, that I’ve never had the gumption to read one), but a creepy, gothic goose-bump-inducing romp through dark houses full of family secrets? Now that’s definitely my style.
Enter John Harwood, whose The Ghost Writer currently tops my gothic reading list. (And, no, this is not the inspiration for the recent movie with the same name.) Harwood is a modern writer, but his imagination clearly dwells in the Victorian realm of ghosts and spiritualists, as this novel reads like a Wilkie Collins or Sheridan La Fanu classic.
The Ghost Writer follows Gerard Freeman, a pansy of a librarian, through the first 50 unremarkable years of his unremarkable life, as he tries to discover the truth of his mother’s childhood, which was not unremarkable at all. As a young boy searching through his mother’s private things (without permission), he comes across a faded photograph of a beautiful woman and a ghost story. He guesses that the woman is his grandmother, but when his mother discovers him in her drawer and beats him to cement message that he must never pry into her privacy again, he realizes that trying to get the real story from her is going to be difficult. A few decades pass, filled with lively letters from Gerard’s penfriend, Alice – a paralyzed girl who lives in England and prefers to confine their relationship to the page - until his mother dies, and Gerard determines that he must discover the truth of his mother’s past. What he uncovers is far more sinister, convoluted, and eerie than he ever imagined.
Spliced into this riveting narrative are four ghost stories – discovered serendipitously by
Gerard and written by his grandmother – that mostly give the novel real sparkle. The stories are intended to hold keys to Gerard's family's secrets, but the connections are not always as clear as they could be. Still, Gerard's mother's cryptic whisper on her deathbed, "one of them came true," will have you reading wide-eyed and quickly to discover the ways in which stories and family history intertwine in this complex, spellbinding novel.