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‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

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.