Reading The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring

Earlier this year, I decided I was going to stop reviewing bad books on Paper Knife, because bad books are legion, and I could be doing something more constructive with my writing time. Also, I had begun to suspect myself of enjoying that kind of reviewing rather too much, not least because it is so easy to do, if not entirely rewarding (like the empty calories of sugar – a quick hit but not very sustaining). As it turned out, I didn’t write a lot during the second half of 2015 anyway, and most of that was about theatrical productions. And now, as the year comes to a close, I’m once again about to write a review of a bad book. Have I learned nothing? Perhaps not, but one thing I’ve realised during my blogging hiatus is that sometimes one must bear witness to a book because it is bad. And Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters turns out to be a novel that demands my attention.

The Ghost Hunters was published in 2013 but I had no idea it even existed until it began popping up all over my social media outlets a couple of weeks ago. This turned out to be because the novel had been adapted for tv, to be broadcast over Christmas. But having looked at the novel I was slightly surprised I hadn’t noticed it sooner, given its topic – Harry Price’s investigation of the haunting of Borley Rectory. And that interested me because, as a ten-year-old, I had avidly, read Price’s books about the haunting, both of them, several times. They were gripping stories, filled with ghostly nuns, ghostly carriages, and inexplicable phenomena, not to mention a lot of old-school hints on how one might set about investigating a haunting. Good stuff for kids with a taste for the supernatural. Later, older, wiser, much more sceptical, I would learn that it was probable that Price had faked some of the incidents himself. Later still, and by this time remotely unsurprised, I would find that Marianne Foyster, the focus of many of the later events, had also faked a lot of stuff. At which point the case became interesting all over again because, while I might not any longer believe unquestioningly in ghosts, I had become interested in why people did believe, and the lengths to which they would go to convince themselves and others of their existence.

On top of all this, there’s no denying that Harry Price was a fascinating character: like Harry Houdini, a debunker of mediums and others claiming to engage with the spirit world; a skilled magician who used this knowledge to uncover others’ trickery. What is interesting too about Price is that he seemed to want to believe, if only he could find the genuine article in among the fraud and trickery, whereas other groups of researchers seemed to work from the assumption that everyone was genuine until shown to be otherwise. Price began working at a time when there was huge interest in spiritualism, fuelled in part by the terrible loss of life caused by the First World War. Arthur Conan Doyle had moved from scepticism to outright belief in an afterlife, as a result of losses within his own family. Although the two men were initially friendly, he would become antagonistic towards Price as a result of his activities.

How, you might ask yourself, could this not be the stuff of novels? How, indeed, and yet Neil Spring has taken this rich topic and turned it into something that is at best staggeringly dull, and at worst just plain inept. The question is, how has he managed this remarkable feat, give that a novel about Harry Price and the haunting of Borley Rectory should theoretically have massive potential? I mean, just think about it: fiercely driven man, ambitious, with huge ego, eager to make his mark, who may or may not have been rather secretive about his own early life, determined to expose fraud in others; who investigates a woman who herself has a rather shadowy past, and all this set against a background of immense anxiety about what happens to the mind after death but also of rapidly developing new forms of communication. How could all this go so wrong?

If there is one moment in which The Ghost Hunters conclusively begins to go wrong it’s in Spring’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Sarah Grey, a young woman who becomes Price’s personal assistant, works for him for many years, and among other things accompanies him to Borley Rectory during his early investigations. In fact, I’m not even sure that the problem lies so much in the creation of Sarah Grey in particular as in Spring’s inability to create a character, period. For it is noticeable that The Ghost Hunters is in fact not one novel but two; and that Sarah Grey has two roles within the novel. The first novel is a recounting of events in Price’s life as a researcher, his encounters with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, his debunkings of various mediums, his work at Borley, and so forth. All this is well documented and easily told. Here, Grey functions as Spring’s narrative mouthpiece, parroting information to keep the reader up to speed. Spring is clearly comfortable with information. Apparently, he spent three years researching the novel (and indeed, obligingly provides footnotes for events within each chapter, just in case the reader might be uncertain. This does, on occasion, lead to unexpected moments of revelation – for example, I had not realised that Robert Aickman, that Robert Aickman, was an investigator at Borley. However, I have the distinct impression that Spring doesn’t realise the significance of the R.F. Aickman whose report he briefly quotes from.)

The second novel is Sarah Grey’s own story. Literally her own story, the story she tells, about herself and about Price. A young woman, living with her widowed mother, in somewhat straitened circumstances since the death of her father, a barrister, during World War One, Grey is, in common with many in post-war London, somewhat adrift. It’s difficult to get a sense of who she is exactly. She works – or has worked – but while she is anxious about money, about supporting her mother, about keeping the house going, there is nonetheless no real sense of urgency in her search for employment in London. Instead, the two women struggle on in genteel faux-poverty. Sarah’s mother is coping with her grief at the loss of her husband by going to séances, something that Sarah, seemingly a rationalist, does not approve of. However, she finds herself coerced into attending a lecture at which Harry Price talks about his work, exposing fraudulent mediums, and about the establishment of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Grey is impressed by Price, goes looking for him, finds her way to his private office, where he surprises her, and promptly offers her a job as his assistant, as you do. And after a little to-ing and fro-ing, she decides she will do just that.

And here is one of the great failures of the novel: Spring cannot communicate in any shape, size or form, the fascination that Price seems to hold for Grey. This is not some great coup de foudre – Grey is far too decorous and virginal a character for that – but neither is it a meeting of minds. Although Grey will enjoy her work and become rather good at it, at least according to her account, one never has the sense that she is totally immersed in it. The problem is that the attraction is inexplicable only in that Spring does not know how to communicate an inexplicable attraction. Grey never questions it, not properly, mainly because Spring doesn’t question it either; because, as a writer, he doesn’t know how to question it. It doesn’t help that he has decided to use a first-person narrative viewpoint. While this works well enough in those portions of the novel where Grey is called on to describe Price’s actions, it fails miserably when she accounts for her own.

Now, one might argue that as a first-person narrator she is, almost by definition, unreliable; this much is true, but for me the problem is that she isn’t actually interesting in her unreliability, and an unreliable narrator needs to catch the reader’s sympathy and/or interest in some way. As a reader I might laugh at her adoration of Harry Price while accepting its sincerity within the frame of the novel, but I’d expect to see some foundation for that unquestioning admiration. Yet, try as I might, I can find nothing in this novel that seems plausible. It is as though Spring has decided that this is how she will be, so this is how she is.

This is not to say that Spring doesn’t make an attempt at providing some sort of accommodating back story. We are led to believe, for example, that Sarah may be suppressing memories concerning her father. He died a hero, we are told, though the family turns out to be in dire straits because of his mismanagement of the family finances. How he might have mismanaged them becomes plain only much later. Sarah gradually retrieves odd memories – a stranger who comes to the door, her father crouched over a trunk of letters, crying. We could argue that she sees something of her father in Price, turning to him because she is in need of a father-figure after losing her father, but that doesn’t seem right either. And Sarah’s mother is behaving more and more strangely. She insists on getting up early, to meet the post, and opens all the letters herself, including Sarah’s. Later, we will learn that she has also been intercepting Sarah’s letters. She forbids Sarah to go into what was her father’s room; later, we will find her constantly scrubbing out the room, insisting that it is mouldy.

This strand of the story is given its head after Grey ceases to work for Price, for reasons that remain unclear for most of the novel. The rationality of her investigative work is replaced by a superstitious conviction that she herself is being haunted, by a dark woman, by a mysterious medallion taken from Borley, and by a series of mysterious scratching noises in the walls between her mother’s room and her own bedroom. We’re led to believe that Price’s investigations have released something evil from Borley, which has found its way into the world through the people who have visited the place.

There is one straightforward way to account for all this, and that is to read it as an externalisation of Grey’s guilt, and also her mother’s knowledge about her father. Swiftly unpacked, it turns out that the father was having an affair, and that the woman’s husband had found out. His death was in fact suicide. Grey, it turns out, went to bed with Price during a particularly fraught night of mysterious happenings at Borley, and became pregnant. She had the child in secret and didn’t tell Price that he was the father. The child was hidden away in another part of the country and adopted. All this comes out conveniently, right at the end of the novel, almost as though Spring had suddenly realised himself. I think the withholding of this information is supposed to be a highlight, a grand revelation. Instead, it feels more as though the author has either been unduly manipulative, or literally been making it up as he goes along.

Also, we are supposed to believe that Grey comes to recognise that there really are dark forces out there, that some manifestations are indeed genuine. And yet Spring is utterly maladroit in handling all of this; he’s clearly not comfortable with writing about heightened emotions, and would much rather scuttle back as fast as he can to describing Price’s career, because he does at least know what he’s doing with that, as it is so thoroughly documented. He doesn’t have to imagine any of it. Certainly, he doesn’t have to imagine Harry Price, which is a pity as I would dearly have liked to know what was going on in Price’s mind for much of the novel, rather than having Grey stand between me and him, telling me how wonderful Price was. Yet the one thing we do not have access to is the contents of Harry Price’s mind.

Now, it may be that I simply came to this novel with unreasonable expectations. I am not, I admit, a huge fan of novels about historical characters because I often feel very uneasy about the way that fiction ascribes to them thoughts, actions, motives they may not have had. On the other hand, I can also see that there are moments when fiction is the only tool one can employ in attempting to account for people’s behaviour (for all sorts of reasons, some of them surprisingly practical),and based on what I knew about Borley, a novel seemed like a useful way of approaching the matter. That is not what I got.

And fine, that might not be what Spring set out to do. Having said that, I’m really not sure what Spring did set out to do. What he definitely did, however, was to create probably the most unconvincing female character I think I’ve ever read. I keep asking myself, what in god’s name possessed him to use the first-person narrative viewpoint when he clearly has no idea how to construct a female character, any character for that matter. There is something so painful about his presentation of the inner thoughts of Sarah Grey it’s almost too embarrassing at times to read them. No subtlety, no depth, no sense of someone breaking under the strain of dealing with a sick mother, with personal guilt, with very odd experiences, just generalised flailing and wibble which stands in for emotional content.

Then again, given the clumsy construction of the novel generally, perhaps I really should not be so surprised. At every level, this novel feels one draft shy of being truly finished. Some of the dialogue is truly jejune; the kind of thing I’m accustomed to seeing in work by inexperienced, unpublished writers. The narrative generally feels like the writer is running a marathon he hasn’t really trained for, collapsing momentarily with relief as each major goal in the race is finally attained. It’s baggy, unnecessarily convoluted, and much of the latter part of it (pretty much everything post-Borley) seems irrelevant. Indeed, the strangest thing is that the novel is not one but three first-person viewpoint narratives, linked chronologically, to bring us to Grey’s long-lost son, who finally learns that his mother is alive, and in need of his help. Why, we don’t know. I do note that Spring’s second novel is set in Wales, but there seems to be no connection. (The Watchers focuses on a series of alleged UFO sightings in West Wales in the 1970s, the so-called Dyfed Triangle, another well-documented case. I begin to sense a pattern here.)

But here’s the interesting thing. As I said at the beginning, this novel has been adapted for television (it’s on tonight, in fact). I joked to Paul Kincaid that, given the quality of it, I’d not be remotely surprised to learn that they’d kept the characters and lost everything else, When I looked at the listings write-up, this seems to be to some extent the case. Or, at any rate, this one-off drama is not about Borley Rectory but about an alleged haunting of a house in Finchley, with Sarah Grey recast as a housemaid who helps Harry Price solve the case. My best guess at this stage is that they have taken the story of Grey’s mother and father from the novel and made that the basis of the ‘haunting’.

And that is why I read The Ghost Hunters. Because someone adapted it for tv, and I was curious. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount from it, but neither was I expecting to be quite so disappointed by it. I feel a little sad for Spring that the novel was published in this state. Whether another draft would have fixed it, I don’t know, but it’s clear it was bought because it was mediocre but could be filleted for names and a few details of plot, and turned into something else altogether. One can only hope that it’s going to be better.