The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

I love a good haunted house story, and I downloaded the audiobook of Alison Littlewood's The Unquiet House hoping it would provide some creepy chills during the dark autumn days. While it did keep me entertained, though, ultimately I felt it didn't quite deliver.

The book opens with Emma, a single woman whose parents have recently died, inheriting a large old house from a distant relative. Although her early intention is to sell it, she is immediately captivated by the mysterious property, moves in, and sets about carrying out renovations. However, a musty old suit hanging in a wardrobe, the arrival of Charlie - who, as the grandson of the house's owner, has effectively been disinherited - and a series of strange incidents soon make Emma realise that the house is not the dream home she imagined.

At this point, however, the story shifts back to the 1970s and a different set of characters altogether: this time, a group of boys full of childhood bravado dare each other to enter the house, infuriating its current owner. And when this lengthy section concludes, we step back once again, this time to the 1940s, where we see a series of tragedies unfold through the eyes of a local farmer's daughter seeking a position as a maid. Only after another long digression do we return to Emma and the present.

This sort of structure isn't new to the ghost story genre - think of the portmanteau horror films of the 60s and 70s, for example, or books of short stories with a framing narrative of friends telling ghost stories round a fire, or a mysterious stranger relating sinister tales to strangers in a railway carriage. Neither is there anything particularly problematic about the flashback parts of the story in themselves: the writing is otherwise strong, particularly in the 1940s section, which has the added poignancy of documenting a rural community disintegrating at the outbreak of war. However, the problem for me is that these sections continue for so long that by the time we returned to Emma and the present, I'd lost any sense of a bond with her, and found it much harder to care about her fate. I found it even harder to have any interest in Charlie, who is a posh, floppy-haired type who probably wears a rugby shirt and who generally just seems altogether too insipid for the role he's required to play in the story.

My other issue with The Unquiet House is that it's notably derivative - and unsubtly so. I have little problem with well-used ghost story tropes and motifs - they're well used for a reason, after all, which is because they're highly effective - but the 'twist' at the end of this one has been done to death (no pun intended) in horror cinema over the last decade or two and there are major elements of this story that are so similar to another, extremely famous, ghost story that I almost snorted a couple of times. If you've ever read The Woman In Black, there's an awful lot that you'll recognise here, and The Woman In Black (while brilliant) wasn't startlingly original in the first place, just exceptionally well-executed in a way that The Unquiet House sadly can't match.

That said, the time I spent listening to this book was certainly not even close to being time wasted, and while the 'twist' is a relatively well-worn one, it does give the book a gripping final section. The start of the novel is suitably unsettling, and the characters, at least in the flashback chapters, are strong and vivid, each possessing a plausible voice.

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