I finished this on Halloween – highly appropriately, as I don’t think it will be writing a spoiler to say that this is a real ghost story – and there is more than one ghost.
But, as ever, Mari Biella’s style is subtle. No crowd of phantoms jumping out of cupboards here – and as ever, the psychological and the psychic are expertly blended.
She has also done a fine job in creating a sympathetic heroine out of Angela Martin – a has been pop star of less than outstanding talent, who becoming a drunk and squandering the money and fame that has so easily come to her, is caught by alcoholic poisioning.
But, at least – unlike ‘reality celebrities’ – she has some talent; and she also has a redeeming sense of irony. This is what she thinks as she fades out of consciousness in her bathroom:
‘ The papers are going to go wild over this, the voice in my head continued, in its arch, you-silly-thing way. Another faded has-been going out with a whimper, drowning in booze. Never mind alcohol poisoning, you ought to die of sheer bloody embarrassment.’
She also speaks of the delusions of fame:
‘You suddenly find that you have no shortage of friends, all of whom appear to offer you unconditional loyalty and affection. They laugh at your feeble jokes and applaud even your smallest achievements. They put up with you when you behave like a jerk, which you frequently do, because nobody dares to challenge you. What you don’t realize is that, through it all, those same friends are quietly keeping score. And when the money and fame dry up, which they invariably do, so too does their devotion.’
I took to Angela after that.
During her period of unconsciousness, she is haunted by an odd dream which she remembers, of a substantial Victorian house, of being hunted, of being chased by an evil pursuer across a moor.
It might not seem surprising that Angela would have a nightmare about pursuit, as she has been stalked for some time by an obsessive fan, who at first inclined to worship her, is now disgusted with her. His letters have become abusive.
Angela is short of money, and options. Again showing her ability to view herself with detachment, she says to her former manager of her group:
‘All I know about is singing reasonably well, dancing a bit and having my photograph taken.’
He feels to some extent responsible for her emotional collapse, having plunged her thoughtlessly into the cut throat pop world as a young girl. Now he offers to help her get a job as a caretaker in one of the houses owned by the owner of her old recording company. Angie is eager to get away from London – especially the stalker.
After a cursory interview, Angie gets the job at Fell House in Northumberland, situated by a sinister moor, which is rumoured to be cursed.
But what worries Angela more is that this is literally the house of her dreams. This is the place she visited when in a coma.
From the start, she knows that someone else is in the house. The question is, is this person living or dead?
Yet, she feels that she cannot give up this opportunity. Besides, it is a lovely old house set in wonderful countryside,and she relishes this new existence.
…There is also another attraction. Ethan Haar, the architect who is designing some work on the house in line with the rules pertaining to a listed building. Angela is attracted to him at once. In fact, with him, she forgets to feel jaded.
As she begins to learn about the tragic history of Fell House, and to uncover the secret of Ethan Haar’s past, Angela finds herself increasingly drawn to solve its mystery, and to help him lay his own ghosts besides.
But there is more danger lurking about the house for Angela than a possible haunting…
Written with the smooth flow, striking word pictures and introducing the vivid characters we have come to expect from Mari Biella, this is an absorbing, sometimes spine chilling, read.
It also includes the extra pleasure of a tender love story.
As ever, I am hard put to it to narrow down my choice of quotes, but here are two:
‘I thought of the years in which we must both have lived in London, he and I, walking the same streets, falling asleep beneath the same grimy sky. We might have passed each other on a crowded pavement, or ridden in the same taxi, or gone to the same shops and bars, but we’d never met. Now we’d been brought together in this obscure little place, two travellers looking for a better tomorrow.’
‘I had the sudden sense that Fell House existed in its own time zone, quite separate from that of the rest of the world. It was a zone, perhaps, where past, present and future lost their meaning. Maybe that was why I’d dreamed of the place before I’d ever set eyes on it.’
‘Stray sheep, startled by my approach, darted away from the path. Pausing to tie my shoelace, I realized that I could hear nothing apart from their occasional, plaintive bleating, and birdsong, and the low whine of the breeze. A few clouds sailed across the sky, throwing fleeting shadows over the rough grass and bracken.’