Tuesday, 11 November 2014

'Untitled Ghost Story' by S.J. Moore

Note: this is a review of an ebook, which is available for Kindle here. It can also be found at Kobo and iTunes/Books.

The scene is the Ben Lomond - a pub in Jarrow, a former industrial town on the south bank of the Tyne. The time is just after closing. The characters are Gav, the assistant manager, and Steve, a postgraduate student working part-time as a barman. The plot ingredients are drink, drugs, class conflict, and strange phenomena rooted in local history and/or folklore. And, if you're not from the North East, you might struggle a bit with some of the terms. Hence this book's 'Glossary of dialect words, phonetic spellings, local usage and historical persons'. If you want to know about Jarrow, its Geordie inhabitants, or the ingredients of the wondrous cheese savoury sandwich filling, it's all there.

There's a venerable tradition of the vernacular ghost story - tales couched in non-standard English, if not always in a given dialect. There are obvious examples in Kipling, Buchan, and of course Le Fanu. But there is also a long-standing convention whereby upper- or middle-class authors tone down the language of the working class, often using it as comic relief - M.R. James is an obvious example. This is certainly not the case here. The first few pages are larded with language your auntie would not approve of, unless your auntie is a bit sweary of course.

For someone who - like me - grew up in the North East the language used here offers the pleasure of recognition, but some may find it hard to penetrate, at first. And the initial barrage of what some term effin' and jeffin' could be seen as a strategic error - after all, when people check out an ebook it's the first few pages they tend to look at. But it is justified because we see events from the perspective of Gav, to whom use of the F-word is as natural as breathing. Gav is not easy to like, but he has his moments of wit and insight. And, we come to realise, he's a man with problems above and beyond locking up the boozer.

Among Gav's problems is a student with a lot of ideas. Steve is a talkative young man who is working on a dissertation ('me diss') entitled 'Untitled Ghost Story: The Working Class as Demon in English Weird Literature'. He also happens to know that the picture at the top of the stairs (the stairs that lead to the seldom-used upstairs room) is of the last man ever hanged in chains. Oh, and there's the story about the pub's cellars connecting with mysterious tunnels under the old town. None of this impresses Gav, to whom Steve is 'the twat' and 'intell-fucking-ectual'.

While the pair are closing up the pub Gav gets so fed up with Steve going on about all and sundry that, in addition to a little free beer, he hands over a couple of pills (Glossary: 'Ex - in drug contexts Ecstasy, MDMA'.) When left alone for a minute Steve apparently goes berserk, leaving Gav a lot of broken glass and spilled booze to clear up. That, at least, is the rational explanation. But we have already been provided with a few hints about the pub, and this is a ghost story...

After Gav tells Steve to go home and sleep it off, things quickly become unnerving. As in a horror movie, once a character is alone the weirdness picks up the pace. But unlike the protagonists of most horror films (or 'fillums', in the glossary) Gav's behaviour remains fairly rational, He becomes convinced that there is someone - or several people - lurking somewhere in the pub, concludes they're criminals after the takings, and sensibly offers  to help them get the money and go.

We know it won't be that simple. Something is going on, and it's linked to the portrait of William Jobling. But is the pub haunted by the ghost of an executed criminal, or something less easily defined? Suffice to say that, as Gav's pragmatism turns to outright aggression, things begin to unravel for him rather quickly. There is definitely something in the cellar, and it can't be bought off.

In a neat move, Moore manages to reveal just enough of Gav's fate to convince and disturb the reader, but doesn't offer a clunking rationalisation for what has gone before. Instead we get a coda in which Steve's fascination with the history of his home town fails to provide him with the slightest clue as what happened the night before. An encounter with Gav's girlfriend offers a hint as to what might have triggered the night's events. I don't think we're meant to reach any definite conclusions - or maybe I'm a bit slow on the uptake. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with a bit of ambiguity!

'Untitled Ghost Story' is a fine addition to the tradition of the longer supernatural tale. S.J. Moore's genre debut makes an interesting comparison with the work of Robert Westall, who hailed from Tynemouth (a mile or so down the river and on the other side from 'Jarra'). Like Westall, Moore has an obvious love for his home turf and this gives his writing a grounded, robust quality that seems lacking in a lot of modern ghostly fiction. This is a fine debut, and I hope Moore - who's other work is in the Arthurian fantasy genre - feels emboldened to tackle modern supernatural fiction again.

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