‘Is there an opposite of haunted?’ asks Steven Naremore, after he and his family move into the Hollow, an isolated, quirky house in the West Country. They’ve been noticing strange things happening, but not the traditional ghostly things. They aren’t being frightened. If anything, they’re being lightly amused and helped. ‘Un-haunted?’ ‘Blessed?’ ‘Charmed?’ The Naremores — father Steven (in investments), mother Kirsty (who has a few failed business attempts to her name, most recent of which was in antiques), daughter Jordan (a teenager who’s modelling herself after the Doris Day/Judy Garland era of film star), and young son Tim (for whom life is a military operation) — come to the Hollow looking for a new start in life, to get away from the city and some unspecified, narrowly averted familial collapse.
Initially, the Hollow seems ideal. Plenty of space for the family to live their own lives together, and plenty of character, too. The previous owner, Louise Magellan Teazle, was the author of several series of children’s books, including the adventures of Weezie and her ghostly friends (one of the stories, Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, forms a short part of Newman’s novel), and who obviously used the Hollow as an inspiration for her stories’ house, Hilltop Heights. All her belongings come with the house, and Kirsty, who read the Weezie books as a girl, recognises some of the items of furniture, including a magical chest of drawers:
“The top drawer always had the same thing in and the bottom drawer never had the same thing twice and the middle drawer was always a jumble of surprises.”
There’s a nicely done scene where Kirsty plays with the chest of drawers and is delighted to find that, yes indeed, the top drawer does always have the same thing in it (nothing), the middle drawer has a jumble of surprises (a load of coat-hangers, at first), and the bottom drawer seems to have a different thing in it every time it’s opened. At first, there’s a rational explanation: the thing she put in the top drawer fell down the back and into the bottom drawer. Then she thinks that the newspaper she finds lining the bottom drawer on opening it a second time was something she missed seeing the first time. But the next time she tries the bottom drawer, the magical chest of drawers proves undeniably magical. It’s like that scene in Poltergeist where the mother demonstrates how a chair always slides back to where it’s supposed to be: a moment of fun with the supernatural before the full-on horror begins.
Newman’s An English Ghost Story, though, isn’t your traditional haunted house story. Things don’t move so quickly into terror. There’s a long honeymoon period in which the family members discover their own way of playing with the magical presences of the Hollow — Tim incorporates them into his soldier-games, Steven receives the odd hint or warning via his computer screen-saver, Kirsty has her magical chest of drawers, and Jordan finds a wardrobe full of all the clothes she could ever want.
But things do go wrong. It’s not, though, that the ghosts turn nasty. Rather, it’s the family members’ own troubles that are amplified and enacted by the supernatural presences in the Hollow. Things take a decidedly downward turn when Jordan’s city boyfriend, Rick, fails to turn up on schedule, and her Doris Day ideal gets torn up in an apocalyptic tantrum. Suddenly, the family are at each other’s throats like they were in their old home in the city, only this time they’re surrounded by supernatural presences all too ready to turn the slightest dark whim into a very dangerous, nightmare reality.
“My original concept was to invert the formula of The Amityville Horror or The Shining (and many many others) — instead of a family being driven mad by a house, a house is driven mad by a family,” says Newman in this interview. And the novel is very much about family — how a family can collapse in on itself, into a kind of emotional black hole from which no one can escape, but also how, if they come through that, they can emerge stronger both individually and as a unit.
An English Ghost Story isn’t a straightforward horror, nor is it a creepy style of ghost story. Rather, it’s a sort of nightmarish black comedy, laying bare the murderous undercurrents in a typically atypical English family, told from the point of view of each of the four family members, in a world of ‘What you give… is what you get.’