There are all kinds of phrases I want to use to review this book: relentless, unstoppable, outrageous. And I want to see them all under five stars on a billboard-sized movie poster because that is the kind of book this is. Incredibly enjoyable, the only caveat I can provide is that, perhaps like an action movie, while you are in the midst of it you are unable to step back and work out whether it is purely playing with your adrenaline and your heartstrings, or if it is reaching your mind too.
There are lots of shadows in Greyswick, the setting for this supernatural mystery-cum-whodunit by debut novelist Anita Frank. Mrs Henge seems to occupy most of them: she is the ominously-named, sexually predatory and grey-eyed (“I wondered what treacherous depths they concealed”) housekeeper to whom we are introduced early on. From the moment her character is established with the broadest of brushes, we know exactly where we are as readers.
Reviewing a book as erudite and as confident as this is in many ways a challenge, as Nicole Cushing’s ambitious work demands to be judged by the highest standards. A Sick Gray Laugh is very firmly in one of the oldest of the traditions of the novel. Playful, clever, at times spellbinding and always brave, the narrative is in the style mastered by Lawrence Sterne in the eighteenth century in his astonishing work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. We are, very early on, introduced to the character of “the writer”, Noelle Cashman. We are posed various questions and challenges from the very start, and we are firmly patronised, though always with wit and charm, when our frustration or fascination are anticipated: “These are entirely reasonable questions,” writes “Cashman”, “Be patient. All shall be revealed.”
There are, of course, innumerable claims that could be made to have been the first ghost story, or the first piece of Gothic horror in literature. This piece argues that Edward Young’s extraordinary poem Night Thoughts deserves a look-in as an early example of Gothic literature because of the extravagance of its Gothic imagery, and the depth of its argument that the ideas of the ghost and the tomb are central, rather than ornamental, to any proper discussions of existence or imagination.