Reviewed by Dennis Hamley
From the very first page of this absorbing psychological, supernatural, highly atmospheric thriller I knew exactly the territory I was treading. I recognised the calm, reasonable narrative tone: the voice of an educated, thinking, rational person, bookish even, who was about to experience terror fit to shrivel the blood. The book starts with the narrator’s unambiguous statement of the sort of story he is about to tell. This is the style and technique of Edgar Allan Poe, MR James, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and in our own day, Susan Hill in The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror and The Small Hand: even Kate Mosse in such a book as The Summer Ghosts. And it is done extremely well – as well as Poe, the two Jameses and Hill: better, I have to say, than Mosse.
Lawrence Fairweather, an amateur botanist with a private income, lives with Julia, his wife, and their seven year-old daughter Hazel. They have returned from Europe to Lawrence’s family home on the Fens: a lonely house in the flat countryside beset by wind and rain straight from the Urals, lying under huge skies: the sort of fictional scene which attracts the supernatural. Only the housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, has entered it since they have been away. Julia seems unstable: Hazel has not uttered a word for months. Before they left for Europe their three year-old daughter Emily died. Their stay away had not helped Julia over her grief. Signs of Emily’s short life lie all over the house.
Soon, we know there are not merely bad memories but actual presences in the house. The rational and self-absorbed Fairweather will not allow the supernatural into his thoughts: nevertheless the unnamed menace grows. Dr Devonald is their only friend and offers what understanding and solace he can. But in a crucial episode at a dinner-party in Devonald’s house with his sister Sophie and a visiting medium, events occur which show there is something evil connected with but not altogether of the house because it directly affects Julia herself. What are we in the presence of? A real haunting or a psychosis? Or both?
The tragedy moves swiftly and even more effectively because it is mediated through Fairweather’s increasingly urgent, frightened. slightly unreliable voice as he realises that more self-awareness on his part might have prevented much of it. The conclusion is not a shock to us, there is something even inevitable about it, but it is none the less terrible.
Someone once said that the classic ghost story became obsolete after the invention of electric light. In a way, that’s right. Modern ghosts have to appear either on summer afternoons or inhabit machines. Yet Victorian stories of the supernatural were written when there was neither light pollution nor steady and dependable illumination. Thus they spent half their lives in darkness which could well be inhabited by ghosts. Faith was declining, scientific thought was superseding it and a post-religious spiritual yearning found its outlet by dabbling in the spirit world. So such stories keep their special significance because they exist in an imagined world we can still connect with. The modern examples, the best of which are far more than mere pastiche, still have the power to move us. The Quickening fits well into such company.