The thrill of gothic horror cliches expertly retold

This House is Haunted
John Boyne
Doubleday, £12.99; Kindle, £8.54

The gothic ghost story has etched-in-stone dictates: a first-person narrator, usually from London and emerging from grief, is relocated for work reasons to a rural castle or manor house.

Sullen locals look on suspiciously, not letting on what they know, frightened into keeping secrets. From here, the usual: shapes in upper-floor windows, bumps in the night, weather anomalies such as sudden, inexplicable winds and ‘pea-soup’ fogs, and the drip-feed of some terrible local history that won’t stay buried.

Wrestling with such clichés is part of the thrill. When it’s done well, it is a joy, as in Susan Hill’s bestselling 1983 novella, The Woman in Black, recently revived with blockbusting adaptations for the stage and big screen.

John Boyne’s new novel doesn’t hit those stellar heights, and perhaps it is due to its bulk that the clichés feel more cumbrous, but in terms of storytelling it is a most pleasurable read.

This House is Haunted has a great start: “I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.” Eliza Caine is a young London schoolteacher of limited beauty. Despite ill-health, her father attends a public reading given by his favourite writer, Mr Dickens. Dickens enthrals, giving a terrifying reading of his wonderfully creepy short story, ‘The Signalman’, a nice, if less than subtle, foreshadowing. Her father is thrilled, but in the days after the reading he deteriorates and dies.

Destitute, and, at just 21, resigned to spinsterhood, Eliza answers a newspaper advertisement for the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall, in Norfolk, to look after two precocious and peculiar children, 12-year-old Isabella Westerley and her younger brother, Eustace. It’s an odd situation; the children live alone at the hall, with no sign of their parents. Questions are evaded, and the finances of the estate are handled by the local village solicitor, Mr Raisin. When Eliza feels hands gripping her ankles while she is lying in bed, or when the tarred-shut windows in her room swing impossibly open and an unseen force propels her towards them, she accepts what her mind is resisting, and investigates further. It transpires that she has been the sixth governess employed at the hall within the past year, and that apart from the last, Miss Bennet, who fled after placing the newspaper advertisement, the rest had died.

John Boyne, author of such past triumphs as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Absolutist, is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers. Impressively prolific in his output for adults and young readers, he has been translated into 46 languages and has topped bestsellers lists around the world.

With This House Is Haunted, his obvious gifts as a spinner of yarns are in evidence. The characterisation of Eliza is impressive, and if the dialogue feels, in places, somewhat forced or inauthentic, these are small stumbles and do not diminish a captivating tale, especially as the plot falls piece by piece into place and the pace builds toward a final, thrilling climax.


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