Novel * Neil Spring * Gh-Gh-Ghoooosts! * 2013
Ghosts are weird. I’m of two minds about the concept, and I file them alongside all the other weird, paranormal things our culture is obsessed with. They absolutely do not exist, that should be pretty clear to any rational person. There’s literally no empirical evidence to support the idea of life after death. All we have are stories and legends and hearsay. Which brings me to the other side of my brain, because I really want all this ridiculous nonsense to be true. How much more fun is the world if there’s demons and shit lurking in some kind of in-between amorphous ether? Okay, maybe fun is the wrong word, but it’s certainly more exciting. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most of us know ghosts and mediums and ectoplasm and demonic powers and all that fun stuff are just that, fun stories to spook each other with. Also, though, wouldn’t it be a trip if all that stuff was totally real? The Ghost Hunters is a novel about that divide between rational skepticism and a desire to believe in a more magical, spooky world.
The protagonist of this novel, a very cool woman named Sarah Grey, is a fictional character. Obviously, you say, leaning back in your red leather chair puffing on your pipe, but of course the protagonist in a work of fiction is fictional. Why have words at all if you refuse to understand their meaning, young man? *puff puff* Indeed. Well whatever, old man, because the other main character – who splits the difference between protagonist and antagonist – is Harry Price, who happens to be an actual person who lived in the world. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. End scene. So, The Ghost Hunters is a historical novel, in that Harry Price was a real dude who did about half the stuff that happens in this book in real life. Most of that stuff has to do with “the most haunted house in England,” the Borley Rectory. Again, this was a real place in the world, and it had a reputation for being lousy with supernatural goings-on. More specifically, it’s haunted by the ghost of a nun who was betrayed and murdered and now has a vendetta against liars of all kinds. That’s not great news for Sarah and Harry, because these two goofs have a bad habit of keeping important things from each other.
I should probably talk about Harry Price a little bit. First and foremost, he’s a jackass. But he’s a fun jackass, so it’s not a drag to read about him. The novel mostly takes place in interwar England, and if you’ve been around these parts you’ll know that my academic interests largely fall between the two world wars. After the horrors of World War I, there was a major boom in mediums and supernatural beliefs in war-affected countries. You can understand why. Millions of people died, leaving millions more behind, and those grief-ravaged survivors had no real answers as to why their loved ones needed to die in the mud. Anyone who could offer a chance at closure with those who were lost were embraced. Obviously, most of these “mediums” were scam artists, which is extremely gross. Harry Price, who has a whole boatload of his own internal demons (in addition to the possibility of external ones), has made a business out of testing mediums with science and disproving their exploitative bullshit. Sarah, who lost her father in the war, joins Price as his secretary/assistant, because her own mother has bought all the way into this medium stuff and Sarah is tired of seeing her get hurt. As a team, Harry and Sarah are out to uncover the fakes, but both end up with reasons to believe that not everything is hogwash. They want the truth, but they also want to believe. It’s a hard line to walk.
I like The Ghost Hunters quite a bit, even though I didn’t find it all that spooky. I mean, it had its moments, but given the context of the story I spent more time wondering how certain effects were pulled off than I was being spooked by ghosties. I think part of the reason for that is the scope of the novel. Most haunted house stories span maybe a day or two. You know the template. Terrified home owners call the ghost experts to come in and quiet the restless spirits. The haunting has been going on for years, of course, but the story doesn’t start until the team shows up to experience the horror for themselves. Once they arrive, usually the story wraps up one way or another in a few days at most. The Ghost Hunters takes place over a long span of years, and time jumps all over the place, often when you’re not expecting it. As the months and years drift by, we’re watching these characters change and grow, or regress, or continue to make the same dumbass decisions over and over again. You know, like real people. The constant time-skips do leave considerable gaps, however, often in service of the plot.
The story itself splits itself in a few different directions, which is fine, but The Ghost Hunters could stand to be a little more concise. The haunting at Borely Rectory is clearly the focal point for what happens throughout the course of the novel. However, only about a third of the book is actually set there. Sarah and Price only visit a handful of times, and while the events that transpire during those visits are very important to both the plot and the characters, they don’t take up a lot of space in the narrative. Mostly what the book is dealing with is the relationship between Sarah and Harry, and Harry’s erratic nature. There are points throughout where he pulls some borderline evil shit on people he professes to care about. Of course, this is all wrapped up in Price’s megalomania and intense nature, so it’s no real shock when he starts betraying people and being a total dickhead. In retrospect, this is more a story about relationships than it is about spooks. It’s mostly well done, though, and when the spooks do pop up they’re generally pretty good.
I think there’s a discussion to be had about the role of spiritualism in the interwar period. As I mentioned above, it seems natural to me that the cataclysm of the First World War would spark a rush toward irrational beliefs in the supernatural. After all, look what modern technology and belief systems have wrought. Any student of Modernism is well aware of what an unprecedented shock World War I was for those who had to deal with it and its aftermath. Thanks to rapid industrialism, technology outpaced humanity’s ability to understand its effect in society. Science was moving our understanding of the world forward at an astounding rate while traditional social structures were undergoing a long overdue overhaul. All that alone is terrifying, but throw in the industrial meat grinder that was the war, and it’s completely understandable that once the war concluded there would be a reactionary yearning for the old ways. The Ghost Hunters deals with that impulse, but also illustrates the mindset of those like Price, who despite everything still put stock in scientific and technological progress. Of course Harry, in his desperate pursuit for rational truth, tramples all over the feelings of anyone around him, but you know, eggs and omelets.
The Ghost Hunters wraps up pretty neatly, as it’s kind of a framed narrative and both the prologue and epilogue tie into Sarah’s story. Personally, I found the ending predicable. That’s fine, as I’ve never understood the need for stories to be a string of gotcha-moment surprises. It’s a well-constructed narrative and that’s more important than some grand revelation. I wouldn’t even mention it if the story wasn’t constructed in such a way that the author thought they were being clever by hiding vital information from the reader. Whatevs. More obvious is the author’s desire for The Ghost Hunters to be a series. Sarah mentions, early and often, her many adventures with Harry before and between visits to the Borley Rectory. These incidents are glossed over, and as I mentioned there’s a ton of time that’s not accounted for in the novel. My issue with this structure isn’t that those stories aren’t worth telling, it’s more in how this first novel tells the overall story of Sarah and Harry to completion. Like, we know how their relationship ends, and it’ll be weird to revisit these two in an earlier phase of their relationship hunting the ghost of the Loch Ness Monster or whatever when we know how doomed they both are. It’s a strange decision, and I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next in the series because of it. That said, The Ghost Hunters is still quite good on its own. If you enjoy wishing ghosts are totally real, you’ll likely enjoy it.