Monday, 26 July 2021

Too Near The Dead by Helen Grant

Too Near the Dead by Helen Grant reviewed by Rob McInroy

For much of the 2000s and 2010s I read pretty much exclusively American literature, that being my PhD subject. Since then, I’ve been returning to our own British literature and at the moment I’m in a particularly Scottish phase. Therefore, when I discovered it’s set in Crieff, my home town, I couldn’t not read Helen Grant’s Too Near The Dead.

Helen describes the book as Perthshire Gothic, which sounds just fine to me. I read a lot of gothic/horror at one time, people like Joe Donnelly and Peter James before he started his crime series, and I always admired the skill involved in being able to manage the tension of describing a series of uncanny events. How do you keep it feeling real?

I suspect that’s something Helen has thought about, too. In a recent interview, she said:

All my books have a lot of gothic elements in them. Folklore, abandoned places, stuff like that. They do have ghostly stuff too but, up until I wrote Too Near The Dead, most of my books had what one reader called a ‘Scooby Doo ending’ – it would turn out that whatever apparently supernatural stuff was going on was actually being carried out by a serial killer.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this is not the case in Too Near The Dead.

Fen Munro and her fiance James have bought a house on the outskirts of an unnamed town – based on Crieff – and are planning their wedding. The house is new, but it is built on the site of an old, now demolished building. Gradually – and this really is where the skill of gothic writers comes to the fore – things begin to happen which are at first odd, then mildly frightening, then utterly terrifying. Helen Grant paces this brilliantly. She weaves into the present-day narrative memories of Fen’s past and her troubled relationship with her ultra-strict parents and this will come to have a significance at the end. She has terrifying dreams, dreams which seem utterly real, to the extent she wakes up in a downstairs room. Was she sleepwalking? Or something else?

The tension is ratcheted up throughout. There is a malevolence about the setting in which the story takes place – the house, the countryside in which it sits, the dead who may still be lurking there – which forces you to see things through Fen’s fearful eyes. Helen is right about those ‘Scooby Doo’ moments in many books of this genre. So often, a brilliant set-up is spoiled by its ending, by an attempt to rationalise what the author has spent the entire book trying to persuade us is irrational, or uncanny, or perhaps evil. It feels like a cheat.

The ending of Too Near The Dead does not seek to explain. And it is all the better for that.

This is a tremendous book, exciting and gripping. It pulls you in from page one and doesn’t let go.

And it even describes my two favourite libraries, the AK Bell in Perth and the Strathearn Campus in Crieff. I’ve spent plenty time myself in those libraries doing research. Not, I’m glad to say for the desperate reasons that Fen has to in this novel. Too Near The Dead is definitely worth reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment