THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL. (2015) BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL BY PETER JAMES. PUBLISHED IN 2015 BY MACMILLAN.
BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

They said the dead can’t hurt you. They were wrong…

Evil isn’t born, it’s built…

This book had such an American feel to it that I was shocked to find it was written by an English author called Peter James, best known for penning crime thrillers and police procedurals featuring his well-loved fictional character, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace.

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL, a haunted house book, is one of his stand-alone books. He’s obviously a big horror fan and a fan of horror movies in particular. He kills off an entire family, BURNT OFFERINGS-style, within the first few pages of the book, and before they even get a chance to move into the titular Cold Hill House, a run-down but still impressive Georgian mansion in the Sussex countryside.

BURNT OFFERINGS, as some of you will know, is a fantastic and really scary horror film from 1975, featuring Bette Davis, Oliver Reed and horror queen Karen Black. It scared me when I first saw it in 2014, and it’s scared me all the times I’ve watched it since. It’s scaring me now, just writing about it here! If you haven’t seen it, you really should try to find it and watch it. It was on YouTube, last time I checked.

Anyway, the real beginning of the book happens when the Harcourt family move into Cold Hill House, in the modern era of mobile phones, FaceTime and laptops in every home. Ollie is the dad, a web designer who works from home, and he’s really looking forward to the challenge of living in the countryside after being stuck in the city, Brighton and Hove to be precise.

Ollie doesn’t even mind that the house is what the estate agents euphemistically call a real fixer-upper, which in this case translates to a real fally-downy, and he’ll be lucky if the place doesn’t turn into a proper cash-guzzler. The 1986 film THE MONEY PIT, starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, is referenced in the book, and I’m sure Ollie can relate.

Ollie’s missus is Caro, a solicitor who’s going to commute to her office in Brighton every day now, and Jade is their teenage daughter, who cares about all the things you’d expect a teenage girl to care about: phoning her best friends from her old school whom she misses terribly, keeping in touch with a boy she likes, and pestering her father for ponies and puppies, now that they’re living in the countryside and have all the space in the world for four-legged friends.

The ghosts in the house make themselves known pretty damn quickly. I’ve read an awful lot of haunted house books over the years and, though I enjoyed this one very much, there wasn’t really a whole lot in it that was new and startling.

A ghostly old lady in an old-fashioned gown is seen gliding around the place by various members of the household, including a friend of Jade’s who sees the malevolent old woman standing behind Jade when they’re on FaceTime together.

The ghost can cause the temperatures to drop suddenly, or to make someone feel like there’s someone standing right behind them, when there’s really no-one there. Shadows abound in the house, there’s a strange man in Jade’s bedroom who looks like her father but isn’t, parts of the house are sopping wet one minute and dry the next, causing the family to have to sleep on couches in the living-room at times. Ollie feels the energy and vitality being drained out of him, something that happened in BURNT OFFERINGS as well.

There are some rather strange people floating around the village as well and there’s a distinct possibility that some of them may be late. As in, a late parrot. Deceased. Dead. Snuffed it. Clogs popped and buckets kicked good-style. You can only imagine what effect this has on an increasingly frazzled Ollie, who tries to shoulder the entire burden of the ghosts by himself in order to protect his wife and child, whom he loves dearly.

The rather grisly history of the house affords Ollie and Caro a partial explanation for the spectral goings-on, but unfortunately no comfort. When they turn to members of the clergy for this comfort and even some encouragement and help, the house reacts violently and makes its views known. And houses really shouldn’t have views on things, should they? They should mind their own business and leaves the opinions to their occupants. (I’m going to be haunted now for saying that, lol, aren’t I…?)

The ghosts have a disastrous effect on Ollie’s web design business too, for which they would have had to learn computer basics such as sending emails and rudimentary mobile phone use in order to be able to send out text messages. I found this to be funny, but also a bridge too far. When a poltergeist starts telling you its evil plans for you via computer or mobile phone, I think it’s time to throw in the towel and give up the ghost, if you’ll excuse the pun.

I think the author had also read/watched Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING (OF HILL HOUSE), the book and the film, and seen THE CHANGELING starring George C. Scott and been influenced by it, and maybe by any other films featuring little hidden or bricked-up rooms within the haunted house itself.

You know that thing where you stand outside your haunted house and you look up at the front of it and count the windows while mentally matching them up to the rooms you know they’re in? Then you discover that there’s an extra, unmatched window, or a little window up there near the top of the house that can’t be accounted for in your calculations?

Then you run upstairs with a mallet and start breaking down walls and you discover a hidden room, and it turns out that the ghosts were either trying to alert you to the presence of this room all along, because it holds the key to the entire haunting, or keep you away from it for the same reason? You do? You’re familiar with this trope? I won’t bother going into any more detail, so…!

The book is quite similar to one I read before Christmas, a haunted house book simply called HAUNTED, which was written by Bentley Little, but, as I said earlier, it’s quite hard to find new stuff to put into ghost stories or haunted house tales.

There are only so many tropes to go round, so that sooner or later you’ll almost certainly have to repeat yourself or even other writers. It’s not what you put in the book that matters, though, as much as how you handle it, and Peter James handles old material pretty serviceably in THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL.

Good luck to Ols, Caro and Jade Harcourt, the protagonists, anyway, in attempting to evade the grisly fates of their predecessors. If BURNT OFFERINGS has taught us anything, it’s that some houses really, truly don’t want to give up their occupants. Well, why would they, when living humans can give so much… energy… to a place…? Enjoy the book, but it might cost you a night or two of comfortable sleep…

   AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
 
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
https://www.amazon.com/Thirteen-Stops-Sandra-Harris-ebook/dp/B089DJMH64

LITTLE SISTER DEATH: THE ‘LOST’ HORROR NOVEL OF WILLIAM GAY REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©


LITTLE SISTER DEATH: THE ‘LOST’ HORROR NOVEL OF WILLIAM GAY. FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2015 BY DZANC BOOKS.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©


Walls rose plumb and sheer to a dizzying height. A staircase climbed into near-dark shadows. Arched doors opened left and right, shadowy furniture crouched shapeless in shroud-like draping.


Something old and evil had happened here, so evil that everything that had come after was just echoes, just spreading ripples in the water so intense that Beale and his family had ultimately abandoned the house and rebuilt in the place he (David Binder) was now moving into.


They ran out choking and retching into the night. The six of them silently aligned before the dark house. It set still and impassive as if it were watching them back.


This book was published after the death of its American author, William Gay, in 2012 of a heart attack. He’d left behind all his notes and drafts for the book, which was then published posthumously in 2015. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop about a year ago, and read it for the first time this week during the Great Covid-19 Lockdown of 2020.
I was wildly excited about the book when I read the blurb, which claimed the book was inspired by the true life Bell Witch haunting in nineteenth century Tennessee and, even though the book ultimately didn’t live up to my, admittedly, very high expectations, it’s still well worth a read by all the horror fans out there and, particularly, the fans of so-called ‘lost’ horror fiction.
The original Bell Witch haunting, now a prominent legend in Southern United States folklore, seems to have happened to a Tennesseean family in the early 1800s. An ordinary slave-owning farming family known as the Bells suddenly became plagued by this entity that physically attacked the father of the family and his favourite daughter, Betsey Bell, pulled the bedclothes off sleeping family members and generally caused havoc in the old Bell homestead.
Strange lights were seen bobbing about the place. Rats were heard gnawing like mad in the walls but no material traces of these rodents were ever found. The noises were so bad, however, that family members felt that their very beds were being gnawed to buggery by the rats and no-one in the house got any sleep, especially not once chains started to be heard dragging across the floors of the house and unseen dogs fought each other to the death.
The entity developed the power of speech, could discuss the Bible and religious texts and church sermons at great length and apparently delighted in telling dirty stories about the Bells and their neighbours.
Sight-seers and looky-loos from all over the county flocked to the Bells’ homestead to see the witch, although I personally would have stayed away.
There’s a line in William Gay’s novel that reads: ‘That thing has followed me home,’ he said…You get where I’m coming from, right?
The Bell witch’s main aims seem to have been bringing about the death of John Bell Senior, the paterfamilias of the Bell family, and the breaking off of young Betsey Bell’s engagement to her sweetheart and school-teacher, Joshua Gardner. In both of these instances, the witch seems to have been successful.
The legend has long outlived the Bell family, and, to this day, you can explore (for a small fee) places like the Bell Witch Cave, the place to which the entity is supposed to have fled after finally leaving the old Bell homestead.
Anyway, let’s move on now to the story, LITTLE SISTER DEATH, named for a line from the writings of William Faulkner, a favourite scribe of the writer in the book, David Binder’s, and presumably of William Gay’s too. As a writer myself, I adore reading books about writers, especially when they’re struggling. It makes me feel less alone on this long arduous journey we’re all taking…!
David Binder is the fictional writer in question. After working as a factory operative in Chicago for x number of years, the novel he’s been working on at night is an unexpected literary success. It doesn’t sell enough copies for David and his family to be able to retire on, but it is at least critically acclaimed.
David writes a second novel, but it’s lacking in the same ‘oomph’ possessed by the first one. Write a horror novel, something we can sell to the paperbacks, his agent tells him. It’ll pay a few bills, something to tide you over until you get your mojo back. Okay, says David, that sounds good to me. I’ll give it a go…
So David moves his family, his pregnant wife Corrie and their little daughter Stephie, to Beale Station in his native Tennessee, the site of the original Bell Witch hauntings of the nineteenth century. He’s fascinated by the legend and thinks it might make an interesting topic for a book. He doesn’t know the half of it…
The ‘ruined backwoods mansion’ to which David has relocated his little family, is as haunted as hell itself. Like in Stephen King’s THE SHINING, to which this book has been likened, it works its evil magic mainly on the father.
Why? Because, as a writer, he’s more imaginative and sensitive than most? Maybe. Maybe the fact that, by moving onto the old haunted homestead, he’s gone out of his way to invite the evil entity that still haunts the place into his life and into his home. As local old-timer Charlie Cagle puts it:
Listen, he said, somebody starts beatin’ on your door in the middle of the night, you don’t have to get up and open the door, do ye? Your telephone rings, you can let her ring, can’t ye? What I’m tellin’ you is you let stuff like that in. Me, let’s just say I heard somebody knockin.’ I left the door shut, though.
He saw with a kind of momentary and ice-cold clarity that the place had attracted them, had drawn them as a magnet draws iron filings, dangling its erotic past before already faulted vessels, biding its time during the tenancy of those it
could not use, waiting.
You let such as that in.
Interspersed throughout the book are the stories of some of the people who have lived on the haunted homestead since it was built. Owen Swaw’s tale from the ‘Thirties is particularly grim.
But spare a thought for David Binder and his little family, alone in the Overlook Hotel for the winter. (Haha.) Does he still deserve everything that’s coming, just because he pretty much deliberately chose to ‘let such as that in…?’ The reader can make up his or her own mind….

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:
sandrasandraharris@gmail.com


https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry


https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

THE UPSTAIRS ROOM: A GHOST STORY BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

upstairs room

THE UPSTAIRS ROOM. A NOVEL BY KATE MURRAY-BROWNE. PUBLISHED IN 2017 BY PICADOR, AN IMPRINT OF PAN MACMILLAN.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This is the first novel of a woman who worked in publishing for years before moving into freelance editing. She’s also a visual artist who shows her work in galleries. This ‘haunted house’ novel is exactly the kind of book I’d love to have written myself or would hope to write in the future. It kept me literally spellbound from beginning to end, and you honestly can’t hope for better than that.

Eleanor and Richard are a posh English couple in their thirties who have just moved into a new house in a nice area of London. When I say posh, I mean they’re the kind of folks who hold dinner parties for their posh friends and put the foetus’s name down for a fancy school place the minute Dad shouts, ‘I’m gonna come now, honey, okay…?!’ And when I say new house, I mean it’s new to them, but it’s an existing Victorian era house with a history all of its own…

Eleanor and Richard have been sweethearts since University and, though they won’t admit it to each other, they’re a teensy bit bored with married life, with themselves, each other and maybe even with being parents to two little girls, called Rosie and Isobel. Kids are a huge responsibility, after all.

It happens. I mean, one day you wake up married and you realise that that fact prohibits you from having sex with anyone new, ever again. You also realise that the face that’s seated opposite you at the breakfast table is the face that you’ll see opposite you at the breakfast table every day for the rest of your life, unless you break up with the person, which involves a lot of legal arse and division of property and custody battles and such-like, and that’s a really heavy scene, man.

They’re not happy with their respective careers, either. Eleanor works four days a week at a publishing house and takes one day a week to spend with her kids. Richard has also gone part-time from his job because he hopes to do a Master’s degree, upstairs in the study he’s created for himself at the top of the new house. Oh, the literary and deliciously creative things he’s hoping to achieve in those few blissfully free hours every week! Sitting for hours on end staring dissatisfied at a blank screen is certainly not one of them…

To help with the mortgage- they’ll need it if they keep taking all that time off work, lol- they’ve taken a lodger in to their basement room, a girl called Zoe who works in an art shop but who suffers from the same degree of career angst as her two landlords. She gave up an admin job in a charity to work in the art shop because it felt like a creative thing to do.

She has a vague idea that she wants to be a writer, but she never actually writes anything. Instead, she has lots of great innovative sex with Adam, an artist who is living Zoe’s dream, living and working in one of those converted warehousey loft spaces with a group of other artists. Unfortunately, you don’t get paid for having sex. Well, unless you’re, ahem, you know…

Adam’s cheating on Kathryn, his long-distance artistic girlfriend, to have sex with Zoe, but Zoe’s sure she has it all sussed. They’ll have all the brilliant sex in the world, have a great time together in other ways too and, if they’re ever so grown-up about it, no-one need ever get hurt and Kathryn need ever find out. Good luck with that, guys…!

In the meantime, Eleanor has discovered that her house makes her sick. Literally. The longer she spends cooped up in it, the worse she feels and the doctors can’t seem to put a medical diagnosis on it. It’s having a bad effect on her children too, it seems. Rosie has started to bite her Mummy, like, really sink her fangs into Eleanor and hurt her. All kids bite, honey, Richard maintains, and maybe, yes, they do, but not necessarily with such severity and deliberate intent to hurt.

Poor Eleanor doesn’t have a clue what to do about it all. She gets no support from Richard, who really, really needs to believe that their house is not haunted and making Eleanor ill because, if it is, they’ll have to move again, and they can’t afford to, as they’ve sunk everything they’ve got into The New House. They don’t currently even have the money to do the house up as they’d like, so as for moving, forget it!

The unhealthiness in the house seems to stem from the titular ‘upstairs room,’ up on the top floor of the house next door to Richard’s study. It’s an empty room that used to belong to a little girl called Emily, who has scribbled her name- among other things- all over the room.

When you try to enter the room, you encounter resistance. Sometimes you can hear noises and footsteps coming from the empty top floor. Who’s up there, in the silence and the gloom? Is it Emily? Is she alive or dead?

If dead, did she die in the house, and was it a violent death? Has she come back to seek revenge against her killers, or is she just a mischievous poltergeist, messing with the family’s heads because it’s fun, and you don’t get too much of that in the afterlife?

Who is the little girl dressed in black whom Eleanor sometimes sees standing across from the house, looking intently up at it? Is she real, or just a figment of poor exhausted Eleanor’s imagination? Rosie has a new ‘imaginary friend,’ whom she calls Girl or Little Girl. We all know what that means, don’t we, in a haunted house book or film…?

Zoe feels it too, the unhealthy miasma seeping down from the upstairs room. She starts sleepwalking upstairs to the room, waking up cold, frightened and disorientated, and she has night terrors and dreams in which a little girl is in the bedroom with her, looking down at her in the bed. She can’t do a thing about it, though, because she now suffers, for the first time ever in her life, from the very creepy sleep paralysis.

Zoe has a real intruder to contend with too, if she only knew about it, but she doesn’t. Someone very real- and corporeal- has been coming into her basement flat when she’s out to sniff her discarded knickers and poke about in her things, because they- the intruder- are jealous of Zoe’s seemingly bohemian, creative and artistic lifestyle, the one they themselves would have wished for but didn’t quite manage to attain. When a desperate Eleanor arranges an exorcism for the house, will Zoe support her, or quite rightfully flee in terror…?

I just loved the book, and the ending too. It’s the kind of book, like Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, where less is more, the haunting is very subtle and your imagination fills in any blanks. I love that in a book and hope to write one like it myself some day, when the gruesome inspiration finally strikes, lol. Read this one if you can. It’s a proper little belter.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor