S A Harris’s modern haunted house novel “Haverscroft” is a clever narrative published by SALT.
There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in writing about the supernatural recently – from the folk horror of Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley and Zoe Gilbert’s Folk to the Gothic extravaganzas of Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, readers are turning towards literature that gives them an escape from quotidian existence. Perhaps it’s because we live in unsettling times, but these dark stories seem to speak to us.
S A Harris’s debut novel Haverscroft, an attractive paperback published by Salt, takes a setting we’re all familiar with, the haunted house, and gives it a twenty-first-century spin. The protagonist, Kate Keeling, is reeling from the effects of a nervous breakdown. Once a happily married and capable lawyer, she is now seen as unreliable by her husband Mark. He has persuaded her to move from London with their twin children, Sophie and Tom, to Haverscroft House, a dilapidated country pile.
Mark thinks it will save their marriage, while she finds the house decidedly unwelcoming – a ‘creepy old place that makes my skin crawl’. No ghost story is complete without a cast of local characters and the story introduces a variety of them.
Kate learns from the unfriendly solicitor who sold them the house that Mrs Havers, the previous owner, has asked to meet them both. Mark has not told her about this, and Kate suspects he is keeping even more information from her. Mrs Havers also sends her a key to Haverscroft’s attic where Kate discovers cupboards full of children’s clothes from decades ago, and a mysterious locked box.
Kate takes on Mrs Havers’ cleaning lady Mrs Cooper, who reads fortunes in tea leaves, and gardener Richard Denning. Both seem to have a great deal of knowledge of the house and its inhabitants. Kate tries to understand more about the house’s previous owners while the house itself seems to become more and more threatening. Doors bang shut or lock unexpectedly, knocking sounds are heard in the attic and an old toy moves around the house by itself.
The story cleverly intertwines two narrative strands: Mark and Kate’s marital problems which cause her to distrust him, and the dark history of Haverscroft. Because Kate suffers from occasional fugue states, she isn’t sure at first if the supernatural activity going on around her, like the voices she hears in an empty bedroom, is real or in her imagination.
The atmosphere builds up beautifully as Kate investigates the locked box, which contains photographs and a diary, and finds out more about the tragic lives of the people who owned Haverscroft before Mrs Havers: a married couple, Edward and Helena Havers, and their child Freddie.
When she finally meets Mrs Havers, she discovers her relationship to Edward and Helena but doesn’t get all her questions answered. The violent history of the house becomes intertwined with the present, and Kate becomes fearful for her family’s safety.
The different narrative strands are well-handled, and the tension is maintained throughout until the story reaches its dramatic conclusion. Haverscroft is a well-plotted and very atmospheric novel which updates the ‘haunted house’ ghost story, giving the supernatural events a convincing domestic setting which increases their disturbing quality. This is a book to read with the lights on.
“Haverscroft” is available to buy from SALT publishing.