Ghostly tales -Book recommendations for Christmas Reading


December’s bleak weather – drab grey clouds creating a state of perpetual twilight in the short daylight hours contrasts sharply with the twinkling lights of Christmas Decorations. No wonder we all huddle in the warmth and light of our homes, gather together by a crackling fire and read dark brooding tales. Winter weather gives rise to the the gothic novel, Frankenstein was written after a lengthy storm, maybe the tapping of rain against the windows gives us a deep contrast to our cosy nest, that just beyond the walls, something lurks.

It was a Victorian tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve – maybe created by Charles Dickens Christmas Carol although Shelly’s Modern Promethus better known as Frankinstein was written a good twenty years earlier after a particularly violent storm.    Whatever the tradition, there is nothing nicer than being curled up safe and warm reading brooding gothic tales – I thought I would offer some recommendations as alternatives to the flickering box on the wall.


The Winter Ghosts – by Kate Mosse

Kate is a local author to West Sussex, I was delighted to meet her a few years ago. She has written a number of books but this is an engaging a ghostly tale. Set in France between the wars our protagonist, Freddie is lost; not just on his way to Ax-les-Thermes to spend time with friends but suffering deep grief at his brother’s death.  He is caught up in a blizzard high on a mountain road – crashes his car and wanders towards the nearest village.  In the woods, he hears a woman’s voice calling.

This is a good read – the ghosts are not scary enough to give you sleepless nights. The tale is evocative – the atmosphere definitely one that makes this tale believable. Although you might need to wrap up warm – his wandering in the snow made me gather lots of blankets round me!


The Woman in Black – Susan Hill

This is my favourite gothic novel – one that set me on the road to reading more from this genre. The tale begins with the cosiness of a happy family gathered round the fire on Christmas Eve, where the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, is asked to tell a ghost story by his step children. This evokes terrifying memories for Arthur – of his time spent in the aptly named Eel Marsh House – the memories surface and disturb his peace.  Arthur is unable to rest until he has written his account down on paper.

Unlike the film, this story is darkly plausible – Arthur convinces us that until the visit to Eel Marsh House, he was a man of logic, one not easily given to melodrama and superstition. The Woman in Black is a tale of heartbreak and revenge – whenever she is seen death follows shortly behind, he fears catching sight of her and is always looking over his shoulder. The happiness of his family home, the joy of love and peace that surrounds the house is not able to drive out his fear, instead it casts a shadow on his life – will he escape her clutches or will she get her revenge?


Florence and Giles – John Harding

Set in New England – this tale of innocence, neglect and crumbling mansions has all the elements to create a gothic story. Florence and Giles roam free, while servants go about their business in the absence of the Master of the house and uncle to the children. Florence is forbidden to read, because her uncle was rejected by an educated woman. However Florence is not to be thwarted, she escapes to the library, hides herself away and teaches herself to read, devouring novel after novel in her Uncle’s vast library.

I have been a life long reader – my childhood was spent escaping into books, so I could relate to Florence and felt sympathy with her almost straight away. I loved the way Harding gave Florence a strange way of speaking – creating her own words and phases that were uniquely her own and quite endearing.

However, we are talking gothic novel – where suspense and horror lie. It gathers pace, in a similar way to the Turning of the Screw – layer upon layer  right up to the horrifying conclusion. It left me completely traumatised at the end – with a complete book hangover for several weeks. Read if you dare!

 

 

What Alice Forgot – and the perils of running book clubs

I feel bereaved; as if I have lost a warm cosy family all at once – Liane Morriarty is such a talented writer – from the first page of this book I felt so immersed into Alice’s world that now I have come to the end of it, I have lost a whole family of characters that I had come to love. 
I am being constantly given books and felt I needed to be strict with myself – I had to read a few on my growing pile before I could have the treat of another helping of Liane Morriaty. I slipped it into my bag for this trip to the Cotswolds, guiltily leaving behind  several aborted books looking reproachfully at me – I just did not care enough to keep reading. I don’t know where it comes from, but there is some sort of compulsion that I need to stick at things, as if giving up on a book somehow implies that I don’t stick at anything in life. Why on earth do I think that way? 
I started a book group some years ago it was extremely popular but there were two distinct camps, those who considered reading arduous – something that you had to stick at, books were an enlightenment, an education and should be challenging. They would turn up with their six pages of notes, their cross referenced analysis pinned to a clipboard! Yes they turned up with clipboards! If they did not enjoy the book – it seemed to please them more- as if they had somehow become better people for enduring. 
The second camp were at the group just to make friends, drink wine and have a good time, often they would turn up saying that they did not really like the book and had stopped at page such and such. (I was in the second group although often I would endure until almost half way,I was after all supposed to be running the group, but some of the books were quite frankly abysmal). 
The library supplied sets of books to us – after a couple of months  I noticed a pattern of dreadfulness – a definite guarantee if the book had won any form of award. The worse culprit was one that had won an orange prize for fiction – three chapters on the character’s early years making pictures from the phlegm bespectacled bowls he had to carry downstairs in his mother’s boarding house. I think that was when I felt I had to do something.
One lady in particular was a nightmare, she would treat the sessions like she were a university lecturer, often leading the group and ignoring whoever was hosting at the time (we had a rule that the host would lead the group). If someone did not agree with her analysis (she later confessed the six pages were taken from the internet) she would accuse them of not being intelligent enough to see the ‘underlying theme’. She suggested a book that everyone hated, surprisingly most people had the courage to say so at the meeting, I had a flurry of phone calls the next day, complaining that I needed to ‘do something’. I ignored the tactful advice of my better half I tried to  suggest we lighten up a bit a bit and the clipboard loving – eight page note takers went elsewhere following her like little duckings, while hurling some very personal hurtful remarks in their wake about my ‘lack of professionalism! It was painful but I was left with the fun, nice people who thankfully were not frightened enough of the clipboard lady. It all settled down. I vowed never again to plough through books and gave myself a free pass never to finish any book again that did not thrill me from the first page – I had served my time several books over while running that group. 
Not so with Liane’s books: Alice slips in her step aerobics class and forgets the last ten years of her life – we journey into Alice’s world as she begins to piece back her life. The cast of characters that surround Alice are like the average family – they are all flawed individuals who are bound together by family and love. I think this book is so uplifting because it’s message is one of hope. Despite the messiness, the imperfections of family life, our general business, we can, somehow come together. 
I was hooked from page one and have read solidly for the last three days. One of the wonderful things about the other half also being a reader is that no-one complains, we just sit companionably together, the odd page being turned breaking the silence or the gentle snoring of the dog. One of us will move occasionally to make a cup of tea, a plate of chocolate biscuits just within reach – we sit comfortably on the same sofa in separate worlds. (I think he is in Italy while I am in Sydney). 
I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, so I won’t go into any more detail, however, I can say that I think Liane Morriarty is one of the most talented writers around. I almost envy you – if you haven’t read it – it is simply delightful. Now to Amazon…