Book review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

In a small Essex village, an evil lurks and it’s so deadly that every window must stay firmly shut and every door securely locked.

Murder, witchcraft and revenge are abroad and no child is safe.

Lindsey Barraclough’s chilling and truly haunting debut novel takes a centuries-old folk song featuring the scary bogeyman Long Lankin and turns the bare bones of his story into one of this year’s best young adult novels.

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What could be a straightforward horror story is transformed by Barraclough’s elegant writing, its setting in a sheltered 1950s rural community, the multi-perspective narrative voice and her ability to conjure up an almost tangible sense of menace.

In legend, Long Lankin is a scarecrow figure who dwells in the wilds of the countryside and preys on the children of local villagers.

‘Let the doors be all bolted and the windows all pinned,

And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.

The doors were all bolted and the windows all pinned,

Except one little window where Long Lankin crept in.’

Here, he hovers around the graveyard of a decaying church in the village of Bryers Guerdon where young cockney sisters Cora and Mimi Drumm have been exiled while their mother recovers from a mental breakdown.

It’s a long way from home for the two girls who have been dispatched to their great aunt Ida’s tumbledown mansion, Guerdon Hall, with no explanation of their mother’s sudden disappearance and no warning of what to expect.

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Auntie Ida is less than welcoming and she has a long list of rules which includes keeping windows and doors shut at all times and never, ever visiting the old church near the marshes.

Not surprisingly, the sisters are soon desperate to go back to London but what they don’t know is that Auntie Ida’s life was devastated the last time two young girls were at the hall and now the new arrivals have reawakened an old evil.

Elder sister Cora is haunted by a voice singing softly in an empty room, a strange, scarred man lurking in the forbidden graveyard and a mysterious Latin warning scrawled on the walls of the abandoned church.

Along with Roger and Peter Jotman, two young village boys, Cora must uncover the horrifying truth that has held Bryers Guerdon in its dark grip for centuries – before it is too late for little Mimi.

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Barraclough’s terrifying tale unfolds through the voices of Cora, Roger and Ida, allowing us to witness the mounting tension as experienced by both the children and an adult.

This device also provides added impetus to the story and a fascinating overview of life in the 1950s whether it’s the innocent rough and tumble of the Jotman household, the religious and folk superstition that still abounded, the legacy of wartime or the bewilderment of the two sisters denied access to the truth.

Atmospheric, creepy and riveting, Long Lankin is a real tour-de-force from a promising new author.

(Bodley Head, hardback, £10.99)

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