Lauren Oliver: Rooms (2014)


This is a carryover review from last year. I finished the book before Christmas and wasn’t even going to review it at first – like so many others – but since it’s new, I thought it would be good to write about it anyway.

Rooms is Lauren Oliver’s first book for adults. She’s famous for her YA novels, Panic, Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy. I haven’t read them, so I came to this novel without any preconceptions. I only knew it was said to be a rather unusual ghost story or – to be more precise – a haunted house story. I do love ghost stories and haunted house stories and the mini-review I read was so appealing that I had to try it.

Richard Walker died, leaving behind a huge country house. At the beginning of the novel his estranged family, – his ex-wife Caroline, his daughter Minna, her young child Amy, and his son Trenton – arrives to take possession of the house and his things.

The house is occupied by two bickering ghosts, Alice and Sandra. Unlike other ghosts who haunt houses these two are woven into the fabric of the house. They have become the house. They are in the walls, in the plumbing, everywhere. That’s an unusual idea and could have been really spooky, but it wasn’t because Rooms focuses too much on the story of each character. With the exception of little Amy, they are all troubled. The ex-wife is an alcoholic, Minna is a sex addict, Trenton is a suicidal teenager, Sandra, one of the ghosts, was shot, and Alice has secrets of her own.

The story moves along quickly, the descriptions are evocative, and the end is, although foreseeable, not bad. The biggest problem is that there are too many characters and, especially the ghosts Alice and Sandra, are too alike. They have different names and a different story but that’s not enough to tell them apart. The voices are too similar, even though they use another vocabulary. The same goes for the family members. They are all equally dysfunctional but if they were not so distinct through age and gender, they would blend into each other as well. Some of the descriptions of alcoholism or Minna’s and Trenton’s behaviour are spot on but they seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no history other than that the father was a bastard. We don’t understand Caroline’s drinking. We have no clue why Minna’s this bad, popping pills, jumping every guy that enters the house. Trenton’s the only character we get to understand a bit better.

Although I wasn’t too keen on this book, I think some readers might like it. Lauren Oliver knows how to write a scene or a description. However, overall this felt like a highly artificial attempt at a ghost story. The worst was maybe the lack of atmosphere. We don’t always need to know why a ghost is haunting a place but we want to feel the haunting. Atmosphere is a key element. As the story of a dysfunctional family it doesn’t work either because it lacks depth; for a character to be interesting he/she needs a bit more than being dysfunctional.

Maybe she’s better at writing for YA. Since I’ve got te first in the Delirium trilogy and Before I Fall I’ll certainly find out sooner or later.

Have you read any good ghost or haunted house stories lately?


Michelle Paver: Dark Matter – A Ghost Story (2010)

Dark Matter

It’s been raining for weeks and very cold. It feels a bit like autumn, which could explain why, all of a sudden, I was in the mood to read a ghost story.

Dark Matter starts in London in 1937. Jack’s life isn’t going the way he was hoping it would. When he is offered the opportunity to accompany an expedition to the Arctic he accepts gladly. It sounds like the chance of a lifetime. Together with four other men he is to leave London just before summer. They will overwinter in Spitsbergen, or, to be more precise, on the fictional island of Gruhuken. When they arrive they are amazed how much life there is in the Arctic in summer. So many animals, so much light. By the time they have set up their camp, only three men and a pack of huskies are left.

When the nights get longer and the daylight is about to disappear for a couple of months, Gus, one of the remaining men, has appendicitis and needs surgery. His friend Algie leaves Gruhuken with him. Jack stays behind on his own, he wants to save the expedition. The two men promise to be back in a couple of weeks. Although the idea of eternal darkness frightens Jack, and the fact that he senses a malevolent presence near the camp doesn’t make it any better, he still wants to prove himself and please Gus.

The novel is told in form of a diary. In writing it, Jack tries to make sense and stay sane in the long dark Arctic night. Allusions by the captain and a trapper confirm what he felt early on: there is a dark presence lurking outside. When he discovers Gus’ diary he learns that he and Algie saw something too.

Most ghost stories are deeply rooted in their setting which is one reason why I like them so much. Haunted houses are my favourites but extreme weather conditions and wild landscapes are ideal too. I must say, to set this story during the cold and endless nights of the Arctic winter was a terrific idea. While the haunting as such wasn’t that creepy, to image what it would be like to spend days and days all alone in the darkness was scary. There is an instance in which Jack gets lost in the night and I could feel the dread. He couldn’t just wait until morning, as the morning would be as dark as the night, so he stumbled around blindly, got panicky and almost gave up. I found it equally unsettling to imagine living inside of an illuminated cabin located in the middle of nowhere and to never know whether someone was outside looking in or not.

Michelle Paver has spent a few times in the Arctic, in summer and in winter, which is certainly the reason why the location is rendered so well, everything was captured in such vivid details.

The story has another layer, which is even darker than the setting or the haunting. In a few scenes Paver manages to say more about cruelty than many other authors I’ve read before. There were two scenes in which cruelty against animals was described, both of which I found very unsettling. The history of the ghost was equally sordid. In some ways you could also say that the cruelty and injustice of society was another main topic. Those who are well-off have all the chances in the world, while people like Jack who come from a humble family or very poor people like the trapper, will always be taken advantage of.

It was interesting to read this novel just after having watched The Wall. While The Wall isn’t a ghost story, the dread and menace are very similar. Nature and loneliness are seen as hostile but ultimately what is to be feared the most are other human beings.

Dark Matter is a wonderful book, I really loved it. It is scary in more than just a supernatural way and works on many levels. Anyone who loves a good ghost story, has an interest in the Arctic or a love for dogs would like this book.

I’m still in the mood for ghost stories and would love to read some more. Has anyone a suggestion? Do you have a favourite ghost story?

Taichi Yamada: In Search of a Distant Voice – Toku no koe wo sagashite (1986)

Last year I read Taichi Yamada’s Strangers and it was one of the best books I’ve read that year. It haunted me for weeks. The mood, the atmosphere, it was beautiful and sad at the same time. I knew that it wasn’t his first book but the first to be translated into English. There are two other of his novels available in English one of which is In Search of a Distant Voice.

Just like Strangers, Yamada’s older novel In Search of a Distant Voice is a ghost story. But what a peculiar ghost story. Tsuneo works as an immigration officer in Tokyo. This means he chases illegal immigrants, takes part in raids, arrests people and sends them back to their country. Early on in the novel we learn that he has complex emotions which he fights and tries to repress. Some of them are linked to his professional life, some to his personal, very lonely life and another part has something to do with an incident which lies back ten years and took place in Portland, Oregon.

At the opening of the novel, Tsuneo has to get up in the middle of the night and take part in a raid to arrest Bangladeshi immigrants on the outskirts of Tokyo near a cemetery.

First he was overcome by a sense of foreboding. A second self would realize this back-and-forth was just part of the program. And the he would notice that even this realization itself was part of a ritual he had performed many hundreds of times. He was used to holding back moods. Keeping his feelings suppressed. Today, too, everything was happening as it always did.

When he runs after one of the immigrants and wants to arrest the man in the cemetery he is suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling which he cannot define at first but seems to be of an intense sexual nature. Tsuneo is delighted and shocked at the same time about the intensity of this experience. Something, a ghost, he thinks has flooded him with his or her emotions. When he returns home that day, he starts to hear the voice of a woman who speaks to him. At first he thinks he is going mad but then he is sure the voice is outside and not inside of his head. And although nobody else hears her, she seems real. It’s like having a phone conversation, only with a ghost.

Tsuneo’s has a lot on his mind these days. He feels pity for those people he arrests and he is wary of the arranged marriage he has agreed to. He is not in love with the woman but she isn’t a bad choice. But the more the book progresses, the more Tsuneo talks to the invisible woman, the more absurd the arranged marriage seems to be. He has a hard time to suppress his feelings and during the engagement ceremony when everyone is performing meaningless gestures and speaking empty words he starts to laugh uncontrollably and in the end breaks down and cries.

There is too much, Tsuneo has never told anyone. What happened in Portland for example or why he even went there. He cannot talk to his fiancée about that nor about the voice but he opens up to that invisible woman and tells her everything, the whole tragic episode that happened in Portland.

More than a ghost story, this is the portrait of a man who, at only 29, has given up on his hopes and dreams, who has repressed all of his feelings but cannot cope anymore. It’s the story of a breakdown, an analysis of guilt, suppressed sexuality, loneliness and search for meaning. There is a moving scene in which Tsuneo tells his friend that his life is completely meaningless. The friend is quite affected and answers that if this was the case, then his life would be meaningless as well.

It’s a flawed book as the end of the ghost story is not as satisfying as in Strangers – and the book is certainly pale in comparison to Strangers – but it’s still a very interesting book.  There are many beautiful scenes and reflections and I don’t think I’ve read a lot of novels which dealt as powerfully with the two complementary themes “strangers” and “immigrants” as this book. I didn’t love it as much as Strangers but I liked it too.

There is a third book available in English I Haven’t Dreamt of Flying for a While which I’d like to read as well.

The review is a contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and Carl’s R.I.P. VII.

Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose.

The Woman in Black is the second ghost story by Susan Hill I have read in a very short time. But since we are nearing the end of the R.I.P. Challenge this was the time or never.

I feel tempted to compare them as there are a lot of similarities but The Woman in Black is the creepier of the two. The settings are similar as well, although in this novel most of the horrifying events take place inside of a grand old mansion and only a few in the foggy marshes. The nature of the ghost in The Woman in Black is much more evil. It does really mean to harm those who see it.

Susan Hills writing is again very traditional, old-fashioned. This novel could have been written in the 19th century. This includes the narrative style as well as the themes and motives. Even so or maybe because of this it is beautifully written. The descriptions are detailed and atmospherical.

The story begins some thirty years after the main events. It is Christmas Eve and Arthur, our protagonist, is enjoying the company of his extended family on his beautiful estate Monks’ Piece. The family is gathered in the drawing room telling ghost stories when Arthur comes back from a short refreshing walk outside. They urge him to contribute to the fun and tell a ghost story of his own. He is not willing to do this as he is reminded of horrible events he hasexperienced as a very young man. Instead of telling what happened he decides to write it down.

As a young solicitor he was sent to Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow an elderly client of the firm he is working for has died and his boss wants him to attend the funeral and spend some time sorting out the papers the old woman has left behind. It gets creepy early on as no one in the little town wants to talk about the deceased or her property. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman in black who looks very wasted as well as a group of children that no one else sees.

Later, at Eel Marsh House, the stately home of Mrs. Drablow, he sees the woman in black again. The estate is located on Nine Lives Causeway and is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded only by the sea and marshes. The setting alone would creep out many but Arthur also  hears terrible noises, the cries of a child,  noises as if someone had an accident in the marshes. It is also spooky inside of the house. He feels he is not alone. There is one room he doesn’t have access to but there are distinct noises coming from  inside and when the door stands ajar all of a sudden he almost freaks out.

After his first stay at the house he goes back despite his fears and it gets worse. The incidents culminate.

Like in The Small Hand the story is resolved in the end. We get to hear who is the ghost and why he haunts people. The spite- and vengeful being will not stop to haunt Arthur after his departure. It strikes again.

The Woman in Black is a dark tale, darker than The Small Hand. As a whole I think I liked The Small Hand better. But the beginning of The Woman in Black, the chapter titled “Christmas Eve” is one of the most pleasant initial chapters I have ever read and stands in striking contrast to the events that are narrated later.

Apparently the novel has been adapted for the stage and been made into a TV movie.

Has anyone read both? Which one did you prefer?


Nymeth’s review

Susan Hill: The Small Hand (2010) A Ghost Story

Returning home from a visit to a client late one summer’s evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity, he approaches the door, and, standing before the entrance feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. Intrigued by the encounter, he determines to learn more, and discovers that the owner’s grandson had drowned tragically many years before. At first unperturbed by the odd experience, Snow begins to be plagued by haunting dreams, panic attacks, and more frequent visits from the small hand which become increasingly threatening and sinister …

I really bought The Small Hand with the R.I.P challenge in mind when I found it at a local bookstore. And because I love the cover and had wanted to read something  by Susan Hill anyway. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It is beautifully written but surprisingly old-fashioned in tone. It is quite an eerie and mysterious ghost story. What I appreciated is the fact that the mystery is solved in the end.

The Small Hand has quite a lot to offer. Adam Snow being a bookseller every book lover will feel a certain affinity right away. What sounds more enchanting than a job that involves travelling the world and looking for rare books? One of his trips brings Adam to the South of England. On his way back he gets lost and discovers an abandoned house with an overgrown garden. This is not exactly an original idea, especially not in a British novel as the British novel has a great tradition of descriptions of grand old  houses and mysterious gardens (from Great Expectations to The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden to The Forgotten Garden and many more). The lack of originality did not disturb me one tiny bit as I love descriptions of old houses and descriptions of gardens that return to a state of wilderness. Susan Hill is very talented in describing nature with great detail. It is in this very garden that Adam feels for the first time the presence of the ghost of a little child.

Ghosts are normally bound to certain places but this one is not. It will haunt Adam all through the story and wherever he goes. Telling more would be a spoiler so I will stop here.

On one of his hunts for rare old books, a First Edition of Shakespeare in this case, Adam travels to a forlorn French monastery. This is another extremely well rendered description. And such an appealing one. I would love to spend a few weeks there myself.

I think this book could be quite scary for some readers especially if they have a history of recent panic attacks as this is the way Adam experiences the presence of the ghost or rather ghosts.

The Small Hand is a wonderfully old-fashioned and very British (a high compliment coming from a fervent Anglophile) Ghost Story creating a pleasant frisson. It is best read at this time of the year, preferably at night in bed.

I have already ordered The Woman in Black, another of Susan Hill’s Ghost Stories. What Susan Hill novels did you read and like?

Here’s another review of The Small Hand by Susan Hated Literature

Mary Higgins Clark: Voices in the Coalbin (1989) A Ghost Story

This is not on my R.I.P. list but it suits just fine and I am in the mood to stray from the path. I felt like reading some Mary Higgins Clark after having visited The Book Whisperers’ Blog the other day. I remembered that I had a collection of her short stories (in German Träum süss, kleine Schwester). They  don’t exist in this combination in English but that does not matter as I think there are only two very goods ones in it and those are available as Audio Book. However That’s the Ticket does not classify for an entry in R.I.P. as it is neither fish nor fowl. No ghost story, no mystery, but it is OK.

Voices in the Coalbin is also in The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories (Danielle from A Work In Progress has reviewed some of them and will go on reviewing more for R.I.P.) as it is really an eery story, something  I did not expect from Mary Higgins Clark. It has all we like in her writing, great descriptions, detail, atmosphere. And it is spooky. It tells the story of a young couple, Mike and Laurie, who drive to a weekend house in the country that belonged to Mike’s grandmother. The trip is meant to help Laurie to recover from nightmares, depression and phobias. She has been seeing a psychiatrist who warned the husband to be very careful as she is fragile. She seems to be on the brink of remembering things that are linked to her own grandmother who mistreated and abused her emotionally as a child.  When they arrive at the holiday house  nothing is like he remembered it. It’s rather bleak and sad. When something happens that reminds Laurie of her childhood, she panics and then disappears. I am not revealing anything more. I already said it, it is not a mystery, it is really a ghost story and the end was creepy.

I loved to read it, cuddled up in bed, both cats close by and sipping a cup of tea. It is already quite cool over here, crows are sitting in the trees in front of the window and their cries sound already much more eery and lonelier than in summer…