Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women in Horror: An English Ghost Story

The dysfunctional Naremore family wants a fresh new start, so they buy a quaint house called the Hollow in the country. This house used to be owned by a children's author whose books focused on a scrappy little girl, her ghost friends, and their home (a fictionalized version of her own home). The family rapidly realizes that the ghosts are real and the Hollow has a charming sort of magic. Everyone is suddenly getting along. All the problems of the past seem to melt away. Around every corner is something charming, inexplicable, and theirs alone. The Hollow is paradise and just what everyone needs. The novelty eventually wears off and old problems start coming back. All of the family members are suddenly at war with each other and the ghosts respond in kind. The charming magic of the Hollow is gone, replaced by menace as the ghosts pit the members against each other. The family is headed towards total destruction with the ghosts poking and prodding to get them there.

An English Ghost Story is kind of a bland and nondescript title, so I didn't really know what to expect. It doesn't disappoint. Kim Newman writes beautifully. The first third of the book introduces the characters and shows their idyllic existence when they first move into the Hollow. The family starts to heal, putting aside their petty differences and coming together. I love how instead of crazy infodumping information about the family and their background, it was seamlessly integrated into the text without interrupting the story. I also grew to care for the family as their pasts were fleshed out piece by piece to compare to their present selves. I am frankly jealous of their house. The chest of drawers with Mary Poppins-esque magic is my favorite object. The ghosts revealed themselves to each family member in an endearing and entertaining way. The house seemed to embrace them while they got along, but this didn't last. The old conflicts eventually resurfaced, causing the ghosts to help each member in their ultimate goal: to come out victorious.

My problem with the novel starts when the family begins to turn on each other. Each member of the Naremore family becomes obsessed with one thing or another. The father Steven becomes obsessed with dominating his household with an iron fist. The women must serve him hand and foot and follow him without question. He becomes more and more abusive as the novel goes on, eventually coming to blows with his daughter Jordan. The son Tim becomes more and more entrenched in his army fantasy where he alone protects the house from intruders and their attacks. He also turns his sights on Jordan as a perpetrator. The men of the house exhibit extreme, stereotypically masculine behavior and target the women of the house to subjugate. I was hoping these tropes would be subverted in some way, but the change to back to normal is very abrupt. They don't seem to even process what was wrong or why they did things.

The women go through a similar change. The mother Kirsty rails against her family and their life, insisting that her life with Vron, her best friend who she left behind, would be better. She looks back on her past failures and only sees her family getting in her way. Then she resolves to be rid of them. This reaction in Kirsty is more shocking because mothers tend to be more nurturing, but I just don't buy it. It's based on a very tired stereotype about women and I feel it would have been just as shocking to hear out of Steven. She does successfully rid herself of Tim at one point, but it seems to only serve to make her the meek, subservient wife that Steven wants because her ambition led to what she thought was her child's death. Jordan collapses inward and becomes anorexic after breaking up with her boyfriend. She becomes a shadow of herself, but then suddenly realizes that she looks just fine and ceases to be anorexic. This angered me because people go to therapy and work on their body dysmorphia for years to overcome eating disorders. To have it come and go so swiftly points to a lack of understanding and another stereotypical female reaction to rejection.

This brings me to Vron, Kirsty's mysterious best friend. Everyone calls her a witch ad her friendships are deemed toxic. It isn't ever really explained why or how, just simply understood. I immediately doubt their word because the circumstances seem suspicious and characters are notoriously unreliable. It seemed to me that one of the big reasons they moved there was because Steven hated Vron and wanted to isolate Kirsty from her friend. This just shows that Steven was a patriarchal husband even before the ghosts got a hold of him. The whole situation just rubbed me the wrong way and smacked of impending abuse. Then Vron actually arrives on the scene and she seems like a maniac. The ghosts protect the house from her and she eventually goes away. I expected so much more from Vron and it was disappointing to see her reduced to a creepy, one dimensional villain. She could have been so much more.

An English Ghost Story is a slow burning haunted house novel with an eerie atmosphere and lyrical writing. My problems stemmed from the characters, their stereotypical transformations, and the lack of a resolution. The ending has the family too frightened to even disagree with each other for fear of angering the ghosts. What kind of life is that? Never truly resolving conflicts or having yourself be heard is just frustrating and awful. The ending left me less than satisfied.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins  

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