Friday, 19 June 2009

‘The House of Lost Souls’ – F.G. Cottam (Thomas Dunne Books)


I can read pretty much any horror novel with only the occasional raising of the eyebrows and a muttered ‘bloody hell, that’s got to hurt...’; ghost stories are a different deal though... If the horror is right up there in my face, where I can see it happening, then I’m fine but a steadily increasing dose of terror and haunting (that you can only just catch a glimpse of from the corner of your eye) is a little too much, even for me! It all goes back to when I was at primary school and I read a short story about a creature called The Eater of Souls... but that’s another story.
As a result you won’t normally catch me reading very many ghost stories but this blog is all about me trying out new stuff, and the blurb for ‘House of Lost Souls’ looked very interesting, so here we are!

Just weeks after crossing the threshold of the old Fischer house one student has committed suicide and the other three are slowly going insane. One of the students is Nick Mason’s sister and he is not prepared to let her go without a fight. In order to save her, Nick must join forces with Paul Seaton who ventured inside the Fischer house (a decade ago) and experienced similar things. Seaton is not prepared to risk losing an already tenuous grip on sanity by revisiting the ghosts of his past but Mason is desperate. Photographer Pandora Gibson-Hoare’s secret journal sheds light on the act of evil that took place in the Fischer House back in the 1920s and will provide the clues to what Seaton and Mason must do to fight the evil that still lurks there...

If you go back over some of my reviews you’ll see that, every now and then, I pick up a book (almost at random) and end up discovering a real gem. The bottom line is that this is exactly what happened with ‘The House of Lost Souls’; it’s a flawed diamond but a diamond nevertheless...

‘The House of Lost Souls’ begins with a mystery in a graveyard, a mystery that manifests itself in a very unsettling manner. Cottam’s description of what happened had my spine tingling in just the way that a decent ghost story should and that was only a precursor to what was to come...

Cottam is of the belief that if a character doesn’t know why an unplugged radio suddenly starts playing ragtime music then the reader shouldn’t know either, at least not until the time is right. What the reader gets, as a result, is a series of ghostly happenings that always come as a sinister and deeply unsettling surprise. If this wasn’t bad enough, Cottam doesn’t let you get into the habit of expecting these things to happen. Sometimes an occurrence will be easily explained, sometimes it won’t. You never know until you get there and this enhances the air of uncertainty and the ability of the book to make you jump when you least expect it...

The mystery behind the Fischer House is gradually revealed over the course of the book and the final picture you are given is not the one that you are expecting it to be. I liked the tangent the book went off on towards the end; I’m also a big fan of the ambiguous ending that will have you wondering what happened next... The mystery of the Fischer House is never anything less than intriguing and is drawn out in an expert manner that kept my interest throughout.
However, the manner in which the mystery is revealed is also the Achilles heel for ‘House of Lost Souls’ and a potentially brilliant book suffers as a result...

Three separate stories come together to make up ‘House of Lost Souls’ and all credit to Cottam for weaving these stories in such a way that everything ties together at the end. Nick Mason is the catalyst for events in the present day and sets the ball rolling at an urgent pace. Pandora Gibson-Hoare’s journal fills in the gaps and is a compelling story all by itself; Cottam had me really feeling for her as she got into events way over her head...
As the main character of the piece, Seaton’s tale had to include his previous visit to the Fischer House in order to give some credence to his behaviour in the present. His experience in the house was suitably terrifying but the build up to it... well, it didn’t put me off the book entirely but it was a real struggle to get through.
While the events, leading up to Seaton going into the house, all fit together and make sense (there’s also a real feeling of tragedy around them), Cottam’s portrayal of London in the early nineteen eighties came across to me as too heavily done with loads of descriptive prose drowning out the story itself. It certainly didn’t feel to me as if this was Seaton’s London, I wondered if Cottam himself was reminiscing about his life there...

This overindulgence made for heavy going reading, at just the wrong time, but is a minor quibble about a ‘more than just promising’ debut. ‘The House of Lost Souls’ is a gripping, intense and un-nerving read that I think will appeal to any fan of the supernatural. I hope that F.G. Cottam writes more books like this.

Nine out of Ten

P.S. Look out for 'The House of Lost Souls' at the beginning of July. If you fancy your chances at winning a copy then stop by here on Sunday... ;o)

4 comments:

The Doctor said...

Nice review! I've got this on my wishlist at the bookdepository, and you've got my finger that bit closer to the big "buy" button.

Re: "Cottam is of the belief that if a character doesn’t know why ... at least not until the time is right."

This is the best thing to do when writing a story you intend to be scary. So many horror authors, including ones that I'm a big fan of - such as Brian Keene - do an early reveal rather than letting the mystery and associated fear build. It's like a lost art, yet it shouldn't be.

Plinydogg said...

Sounds quite interesting!

Graeme Flory said...

The Doctor - I think that's the big difference between horror and ghost stories. Horror has to get in your face right from the beginning if it's going to be effective. Ghost stories have a little time to get under your skin and build up the level of fear...

Plinydogg - It is very interesting. A surefire contender for 'surprise find of the year'...

Rabid Fox said...

There is something about a ghost story that hooks me ... if it's told well. I love horror, but some of it is too abrasive and direct, while some of the best ghost stories deal with slowly ramping up the suspense. I'll be keeping an eye out for this one in the future.