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.
The period is late Edwardian, near the end of the First World War, and we are in the era of the decline of the country house: the downfall of Downton. The atmosphere of death and mourning is palpable: in fact, so many tragedies have happened in the first twenty pages that the only real mystery is which of them will return to haunt the protagonist, Stella Marcham. The book opens with Stella attending the funeral of a young lad killed in France, and we learn of her own loss of her fiancé Gerald, of her sister Lydia. Stella is soon despatched, with the mysterious maidservant Annie Burrows, to comfort her pregnant sister Madeleine who is suffering from anxiety, having previously lost a baby. It is Madeleine who is resident in Greyswick, the family home of her husband Hector, which ruled over by the unpleasant Lady Brightwell and her companion Miss Scott, in the perpetual shadow of Mrs Henge.
As you can probably tell, The Lost Ones is not a subtle book. That need not necessarily be a problem: there is a growing audience for a gothic-lite, haunted National Trust cosy supernaturalism, and I will happily confess that the prospect of curling up with something atmospheric on a rainy, cold November evening by the fire has its appeal. But given that the stated ambition of the publishers is to have The Lost Ones compared to The Woman in Black and some of the standout works from the recent resurgence of the popular supernatural thriller, it seems only reasonable to point out three areas where The Lost Ones might suffer from such comparison.
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The lack of suspense throughout is the novel’s most obvious shortcoming. Mrs Henge’s introduction is symptomatic of this: we know that she can only ever be the most villainous of villains or the main red herring. There is also very little suspense around what is usually a key question in a ghost story: do the ghosts which first Madeleine and then Annie and Stella seem to see, objectively exist for everyone in the world, or are they imagined or faked? Despite several characters expressing considerable doubt as to Stella’s state of mind throughout the narrative, the reader is very firmly encouraged to side with her. We are encouraged to see the opposing narrative – that she is a grief-stricken woman whose senses and testimony are suspect – as being solely the product of a misogynist society. The effect of this is to remove suspense from the question entirely because our sympathy is always with Stella: if she believes in ghosts, we do too. A switch from ghost story to whodunit is made when Stella changes her mind about the supernatural in an attempt to generate a sense of mystery, but by this point we are so far into the story that it is too late to build the requisite tension.
There are some effective, creepy moments, however, and a few good scares – the image of a single marble dropping down a wooden staircase is particularly memorable, and a full-on set-piece of poltergeist activity gets the pulse racing – but it too often feels like a horror movie whose director has resorted to special effects in the absence of a suspenseful narrative. The narrative of past sex crimes returning to haunt the present is powerful and provides a strong contemporary flavour, but it is not handled with care. Occasional attempts to misdirect the reader are not effective: there is an unfortunate vicar who is virtually dragged into the house, gets thoroughly criticised by the narrator for his untidy physical appearance, and then leaves in terror after having had a box of marbles thrown at him before vanishing from the narrative altogether. He is even the provider of a quote pulled out in the marketing material when he whispers to Stella, “I fear the Devil himself is in this house”.
A second issue linked to the first is that, expecting a ghost story, we spend half the novel being denied one by Stella’s resolute rationalism. Stella, we want to believe, is a completely sane and rational atheist whose grief is absolutely not causing her to become mentally unstable. Her love for her sister and desire to believe her reports of supernatural goings-on create a useful tension, and make this a potentially interesting set-up (one could imagine some form of response to the treatment of mental illness and the supernatural in The Haunting of Hill House for example). But instead it creates a problem that the author never fully solves: it becomes hard for the reader to experience that feeling of growing creepiness which is necessary for a book like this to hold the attention of a reader who has picked it up on the promise of a traditional ghost story in the grand tradition. It is, it turns out, peculiarly unsatisfying to have a protagonist who does not realise she is in a ghost story. It is “unfathomable” to Stella why Annie, the apparent focus of various incidents, is drawn to the staircase, despite a number of big gothic clues we are given as readers (an ominous portrait, the empty nursery whence the sounds of crying emanate at night). It makes for a strange reading experience. We want to be drawn into that feeling of haunting we have been promised by the cover and the blurb, even if we are also happy to be taken for fools by a twist towards the rational later in the story. But the instinctive avoidance of the supernatural by the main character pushes the reader away.
The third issue is that, although billed as a historical novel, there is little engagement with the well-documented popularity of spiritualism in the novel. In the second half, Sheers, a psychical researcher/medium debunking character is introduced, along with some pleasingly steampunk ghost-hunting equipment. But the world that is eventually revealed to us is neither the familiar one of ectoplasm and otherwise incorporeal spirits who need to be channelled by someone in order to interact with the world nor the rational atheist one in which all mediums are frauds. Instead we are shown a world in which the spirits of the dead can materialise and interact with the physical world entirely as if they were real people; and in which Stella is convinced of the reality of the haunting by feeling the hands of an apparition on her back: a curiously physical way to come to believe in ghosts.
And yet, there are some great ideas here that perhaps could be revisited in future novels. Rethinking the country house ghost story for the #metoo generation is a great idea which could be executed better; making one of your villainesses a predatory lesbian while the other is a rape victim is something that needs to be handled with great subtlety, not the broad brushstrokes we are given here; and creating a world in which the supernatural co-exists with the natural in a physical sense is an interesting idea but it needs to build up more gradually and suspensefully. Overall, The Lost Ones leaves us wondering whether a novel which refuses to indulge the reader’s desire to believe in ghosts is really a ghost story at all.
The Lost Ones by Anita Frank is published by HQ. Buy the book.