The Haunted Book, by Jeremy Dyson

Review published on February 20, 2013. Reviewed by Mark Dolphin

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

One method of criticism applied by Johnny Vaughn is to assess whether the piece of art in question succeeds within its own terms. A trashy B-Movie can still be a success if it ticks the right schlocky boxes, and I’ve found it a good maxim to work from. In the case of The Haunted Book though, what the author is trying to do is not immediately apparently, and even after much consideration I’m not sure if I wanted a different book to the one that was written.

The Haunted Book begins with Dyson’s recollections of the paranormal books he poured over as a child and longing to see a Hand of Glory (the mummified left hand of a hanged murderer with the obligatory powers from beyond the grave). This struck a chord with me straight away as one of my treasured belongings growing up was the Usbourne Book of UFOs, Monsters and Ghosts, and the initial conceit that this is a collection of contemporary ghost stories from around the UK twisted my spine into a position ripe for tickling.

Kitson from Nealon gets the chills off to a fine start. Dyson fictionalises and fleshes out characters and motivations, and spins a convincingly creepy yarn about messages passed through a long disconnected phone. The final twist was hokey, but I was encouraged to keep going. An imagining of the last days at sea of a doomed round-the-world sailor, and the hauntings of an abandoned recording studio kept me buoyed along, but it was here – belatedly – that I understood what Dyson was really trying to do.

It’s pretty much par for the course for any ghost tale to use the narrator as a device in itself (just as every ghost walk seems to end with the host saying “Of course some say there used to be another ghost walk around this town that finished where we are now, who mysteriously disappeared…”) and Dyson keeps to this fine tradition, narrating his own increasingly haunted travels to the destinations around the country. In the course of this though, he meets a man with a different book, which then becomes the narrative and Dyson’s journey is abruptly abandoned. And then in this book, another is discovered, and by the concluding chapter the book itself has become part of the medium of the tale, where the colour of the paper and the typeface itself become part of the story telling. (As an aside it should also be mentioned this is a lovingly presented book with great art design and incidental details – it took me a few pick-ups to notice the ghostly woman’s face starting right out from the centre of the cover).

My feeling is that Dyson has tried to create a work greater than the sum of its parts, but in doing so has become perhaps entangled in his own mythology and meta-narrative: pages are presented “torn” and overlaid, with fragments of text and the last tale ends in a rather self-congratulatory dialogue. While he is undoubtedly skilled at constructing a spooky narrative, and some of the tales are excellent stand along stories, the recounts sometimes feel like that: a writer’s exercise in constructing a different tale, characters, supernatural elements and adopting different narrative styles (his prose becoming more formal and prosaic as the stories regress in time).

So while Dyson’s terms became apparent half way through reading, what I wanted though was my Usbourne Book of UFOs, Monsters and Ghosts – the collection of modern “true-life” ghost stories promised at the start. I can still appreciate the scope and effort in the concept and construction of The Haunted Book, and the recurring themes (and the ones that will no doubt reveal themselves on subsequent reads) but on balance, I was left a little more cold than chilled.

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Wool, by Hugh Howey

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Dark World, edited by Timothy Parker Russell

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