A few years ago Random House began publishing novellas under the Hammer imprint. They’re all either horror or ghost stories – hardly a surprise given the connotations of the name – but what is surprising are some of the authors they’ve commissioned to write for them. I’ve already read Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, a subtle, beautifully written ghost story set in the early ‘50s close to an aerodrome used in the War, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate about the Pendle witches which was a little too blood-and-guts for me with its descriptions of torture and violence, although I should have known what I was letting myself in for. I also have Julie Myerson’s The Quickening in my TBR pile. It’s not a genre to which I’m drawn but writers like these catch my eye and as I’m a great fan of Joanna Briscoe’s elegant thriller Sleep with Me, Touched, their latest offering, seemed right up my alley.
Set in the early ’60s in Crowsley Beck ‘twenty miles from Piccadilly Circus’ much like Letchmore Heath, the location for the film of John Wyndam’s horror The Midwich Cuckoos, where Briscoe spent her first few years, Touched is about the Crales who have just moved into the village. Rowena and Douglas are renovating his mother’s cottage next door to their own having packed her off to live with her god-daughter in Scotland. They’ve engaged Pollard, a local builder, for the job of knocking down the wall between the two cottages but the wall’s proving recalcitrant, refusing to budge. Soon the whole building seems to have gained a life of its own, oozing putrefaction and smelling of an unholy mix of cat pee and Je Reviens. Meanwhile, the Crale children run a little wild – the otherworldly Evangeline roams around the village in her Grandmama’s Victorian garb, missing for longer and longer periods of time; Jennifer of the astonishing beauty but empty head is taken up by the creepy Pollards; Bob hears people muttering and murmuring, and Evangeline’s imaginary friend Freddie becomes more real every day. As the family is increasingly disrupted by the strange goings-on, so Rowena’s guilt at turfing out her mother-in-law grows.
Perhaps it’s the frequent mentions of Elstree but Touched seemed to have more than a whiff of the cinematic about it. It feels as if it’s been dipped in Technicolor – Briscoe’s writing is vivid and at times a little hectic. Some times it feels like a ghost story, at others verging more on horror or even a straightforward madwoman-in-the-attic tale but what’s really clever about it is the way in which reality proves to be far more chilling than the supernatural. To say more would be to give the game away – suffice to say that having led us up the conventional ghostly path, Briscoe turns her story on its head while still leaving her readers with a nice little frisson of horror. Looking forward to who Hammer come up with next.