A House of Ghosts by W.C Ryan - book review
When a strange list of house guests assemble for a sÃ©ance at a remote island mansion in Devon in the winter of 1917, the shadows that engulf them come from more than just the spirit world.
William Ryan – author of the gripping Captain Korolev series, set amidst the menace of 1930s Moscow, and more recently the brilliant end-of-war thriller The Constant Soldier – returns in a new guise as a master of the dark arts in a wickedly clever ghost story that is best read in the glow of a roaring fire.
Blending genres like a literary magician, Ryan conjures up the perfect winter’s tale… a page-turning and atmospheric ‘big house’ mystery absorbed from some of the finest classics but laced with black humour, a large helping of supernatural, a dash of romance, and a deep sense of melancholy that derives from the brutal, haunting backdrop of the First World War.
As the winter solstice of 1917 draws near, homes across England are reeling from the devastation of the Great War. Everyone is seeking answers to the terrible loss of their loved ones, no more so than Lord and Lady Highmount of Blackwater Abbey, a centuries-old haunted house on an island off the Devon coast.
The bereaved couple have arranged a spiritualist gathering to try to contact their two sons, Reginald and Algernon, who both went missing in action on the Somme. But Lord Highmount is also the owner of a munitions company which has been infiltrated by a spy, and two of the guests are there to sniff out the traitor.
Intelligence operators Kate Cartwright, a bright, young codebreaker with personal connections to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, posing as a manservant, must keep a close watch but even these two have secrets they would prefer to keep hidden.
Donovan, a man of ‘remorseless momentum,’ immediately feels uneasy in the strange atmosphere at the house and Kate, who has a special gift, can see the house’s spirits of centuries past and present… medieval clerics, Georgian gentlemen, Victorian ladies and the recent dead.
Into this house, ‘where sound and light seem to stretch and bend,’ come the bizarre mediums, Madame Feda and Russian Count Orlov, the troubled Private Albert Simms, whose shell-shock has enabled him to see ghosts, and Kate’s ex-fiancé, a man with an agenda of his own.
Soon the guests find themselves trapped after a storm cuts them off from the mainland and when one of the party dies, Kate becomes increasingly convinced that she should never have come to this island of lost souls…
Perfectly pitched for the dark nights, A House of Ghosts is a multi-layered, gothic masterpiece that moves at breakneck speed through a claustrophobic miasma of ghostly goings-on, deadly subterfuge, dangerous espionage, and a climax that chills to the bone.
Each colourful character is exquisitely drawn and each has secrets that unfold as the tension mounts, the shadows lengthen, and the legacy of a cruel and destructive war is found to run deeper than any of the unsuspecting guests had imagined.
Expect creaking floorboards, howling gales, flashes of lightning, hidden passageways, and a house full of restless spirits who have just as much a part to play in this extraordinarily atmospheric story as the cast of damaged, haunted humans.
Entertaining, thought-provoking and utterly captivating, this is William Ryan at his intelligent, storytelling best. Don’t miss it!
(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)