“And so the first thing my twin sister and I did, when we finally got access to a camera of our own, was fake a ghost photograph.” Maclean opens The Apparition Phase with Abigail and Tim – two precocious and insular siblings trapped in 1970s suburbia, obsessed with all things creepy and unexplained – faking an apparition and showing the resulting picture to a vulnerable schoolmate.
She faints, which scares them, but when they try to convince her it was a harmless prank, she delivers an unnerving prophecy: “you woke something up. You let it in… some things need a shape.” Shortly after, Abi goes mysteriously missing, and Tim – navigating his coming-of-age outside this claustrophobic kingdom of two – becomes embroiled in a controlled ghost-summoning experiment in a dilapidated Suffolk manor house. The novel deals in supernatural dread and the very real touch of evil and grief (with the abduction and murder of Abi). It asks us the question: “is it more terrifying to believe somewhere is haunted, or to believe nowhere is?”
Maclean immerses us in the twins’ claustrophobic, haunted world in the first few pages. Anyone who grew up fascinated by the Usborne’s World of the Unknown series will recognise their morbid obsessions, lovingly and lavishly portrayed – I particularly liked the description of the infamous Chinnery photograph, surely the scariest ghost-photograph ever produced – with just a hint of unease from the narrator as he observes there might be something wrong with anyone capable of carrying out this “prank”. A similar question-mark hovers over Abi – preternaturally self-possessed, cruel and ruthless, obviously the leader of the two – even before she is deftly skewered by their schoolmate: “you think you’re so bloody special… no wonder everyone at school hates you”.
Tim, on the other hand, is deeply relatable, a little neurotic, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny – for example, cleaning up their macabre attic to convince a visitor of its ordinariness, he muses on the appropriate hobbies for a teenager, noting: “I liked painting, but mostly enjoyed painting historical methods of execution.” I found Tim a charming but naϊve narrator, particularly in the latter half of the book; Maclean offers a painstaking portrayal of how the loss of Abi, and Tim’s consequent desperation to believe there’s something on the other side, has caused his arrested emotional development.
The summoning of the ghost in the photograph is pleasingly creepy and ritualistic – the reader gets a real sense this will go badly wrong – and the book, as a whole, addresses whether supernatural entities can be created. Some readers will recognise this idea’s roots in the 1972 Philip Experiment (perhaps best-known for inspiring the film The Quiet Ones), in which a group of parapsychologists invented a fictional ghost then attempted to make contact with it.
Maclean manages to imbue the whole concept with its rightful sense of dread and foreboding: it’s somehow worse to be the target of a malevolent entity which is entirely of your own invention. Even at the start, the twins recognise the potency of their favourite ghost-photographs (in a way which feels utterly true to how I treated them myself): “We both knew exactly which books… these nightmares were hidden in, and we always proceeded with caution when looking at them, as if the images themselves might leak into our world: into our house, our attic, our very lives.” And in the attic, looking at the ‘evidence’ that the photograph was faked, their schoolmate has a truly terrifying ‘possession’ moment, in which she tells them: “You did photograph a real ghost, despite everything. Or you will have done, soon.” It’s a prophecy that plays out with chilling effect, as Tim realises the last photograph he and Abi took on the ‘ghost film’ was of Abigail herself – and it’s that photograph which is given to the papers when she goes missing.
The Apparition Phase makes the absolute most of its 1970s setting, imbuing Tim and Abi’s suburbia with hauntings. There’s the delicious thrill of the Big Slide urban legend, told about a splatter of red paint on the playground, evoking the illogical myths of childhood. The twins listen from the attic to “a distant ice cream van… improbably plying its trade at night-fall, in February, and a demented, nerve-jangling rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ [hangs] in the air, like a manifestation of some psychotic illness.”
Maclean consistently finds the little details which render a mundane setting uncanny, like a house occupied by junkies in which the front garden is “a Sargasso Sea of chaotic green weeds” and the hallway inside is lit with one bare bulb, “lined with clammy orange anaglypta that looked, by this light, peculiarly organic.” The suburbs are brimming with ghosts, in part because Tim wants them to be: there’s a particularly heart-wrenching moment where, looking back, he’s able to see himself and Abi longing to transform “this crushing everyday into something magical” and realises that he cannot hold back the banality of this world on his own.
Maclean is equally skillful at evoking a sense of place around Yarlings – the manor where Tim’s investigation into “Tobias Salt” offers him an escape (or homecoming) into the world conjured up in his and Abi’s attic. Britain has a great tradition of the rural weird and ghostly, and it makes sense that Tim in particular would think of Suffolk as “the country where M.R. James had woven his ghosts from half-remembered childhood days and the horrors and heresies of… a hundred parish churches.” It’s this sense of intrigue about England’s haunted past that draws us into the novel’s second phase, one in which séances bring forth disjointed ‘automatic writing’, heavy objects hurl themselves to the floor, and the ghost-hunters are tormented by an entity which seems to know them.
The novel has moments of wonderful supernatural terror. Maclean knows all about pathetic fallacy – and so do his protagonists – but that doesn’t prevent weather being a deeply atmospheric and gloomy accompaniment to the goings-on at Yarlings, including the first séance set amidst “a distant growl of thunder, pacing heavily around the Suffolk sky like some vast animal”. There’s something dark, tall and thin that accompanies Tim, only ever seen obliquely by visionaries – utterly chilling – and the séances conjure up demented, dark, all-caps and disjointed automatic writing, eerily similar to the ravings of his schoolmate at the start of the novel.
However, Maclean has to walk a tightrope between the fear and unease of his teenage protagonists, and the outside perspective of the reader – who will have some pretty solid suspicions that the group leader is engaged in a Philip Experiment. It’s a difficult feat to balance the two, and I found that some of what happened at Yarlings failed to be truly frightening as a result, due to the temptation to ‘look for the strings’. Things fall into place, however, by the novel’s final phase – the Apparition Phase of the title – and there’s a truly creepy, nightmarish climax that offers as many questions as it answers.
Maclean’s debut novel is an extremely accomplished piece of writing, and his ability to conjure his settings – from grimy suburban housing estates to M.R. James country – is absolutely fantastic. The novel also deals personally and carefully with grief; the scenes in which Tim has to return to suburbia to deal with a family emergency are incredibly raw and uncomfortable, and the reader is able to appreciate from the start – even if Tim doesn’t – the true horror of what may have happened to Abi. This, however, goes unexplained, as does the precise nature of the hauntings experienced, and The Apparition Phase is all the better for it: something truly uncanny is conjured up from the explosive, haphazard communications which Tim receives, and there are fragments of text which I suspect will linger with me for quite a while.
Recommended further reading:
- Ghostland by Edward Parnell (on the English countryside and the ghost story)
- A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (on famous English hauntings)
- Hauntology by Merlin Coverley (on the haunted 1970s)
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean is published by William Heinemann.