A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Hammer Horror people recently linked up with Random House to start an imprint of scary books, and the first to be published is The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. Now, I like a good ghost story, and I think they are much maligned by some who don’t consider them to be worthy literature. Helen Dunmore is certainly an author with literary clout, having been up for various prizes over the years, though not an author I have actually ever read anything by before. But, given that I’m always in the market for a spooky tale, I decided to give this a try. It also didn’t hurt that it’s pretty short.
In 1952, Yorkshire newly-weds Isabel and Philip Carey rent a small set of rooms from landlady Mrs Atkinson, who lives upstairs. The flat isn’t up to much, and we are told on the very first page that it is “crammed with furniture and it smelled of Brussels sprouts”, but until Philip can build up some money from his new job as a GP they don’t have any other option. The flat is also perpetually freezing, only adding to Isabel’s despondency. Happy as she is to be married to Philip, she is uncomfortable in her new role as GP’s wife. She is, we learn, an educated woman who has studied Milton and Molière, but is now instead poring over the book her aunt bought her, Early Days: An Introduction to Housekeeping for the Young Wife. She is not enjoying it. The nights don’t provide any respite either. Philip is often out on call, and the cold is bitter. One night Isabel starts hunting in cupboards for any blankets she may have missed. She doesn’t find any, but does come across a WWII RAF greatcoat folded up in a high cupboard. It is big, heavy, and lined with wool, so Isabel carts it back to the vast, lumpy bed and falls asleep under its weight. Soon, Isabel starts receiving visits from Alec, a Lancaster pilot who seems to know a great deal about Isabel. To her surprise, Isabel also seems to know a lot about Alec, which is when it all starts going a bit strange. And why does the landlady keep walking back and forth upstairs?
According to Helen Dunmore’s website, The Greatcoat is about the “power of the past to imprint itself on the present, and possess it.” This is a fine description, and it works on a number of levels. The past does force itself into the present, but that past is not Isabel’s. What it does do, though, is awake a need in Isabel to examine her own past and how her past has affected her present, in particular the death of her parents. It also encourages her to take control of her life, and by extension, her future. It is more than “just” a ghost story; it is an exploration of a young woman’s motivations, feelings, and fears concerning her place in the world. I actually found that element of the novel more interesting than the main ghost story.
Mrs Atkinson the landlady is a character I would like to have had more chance to explore. Saying that, though, her presence in the novel is hard to escape even though she does not physically appear terribly often. I don’t think it is coincidence that the two most interesting – and most fully realised – characters are the two women. Philip somewhat fades into the background, and even the mysterious Alec seems flat in comparison to Isabel and Mrs Atkinson. Through them we see the ways in which the War affected normal women in extraordinary ways, both at the time and across their lives.
Was it scary? Well, I didn’t find it to be so, particularly. What struck me instead was a vein of almost tangible sadness that was started with the horror of war and permeates into all the corners of life in the years afterwards. On second thoughts, perhaps the inescapability of that sadness is the most terrifying thing of all, scarier than any ghost.
Hammer. 2012. ISBN: 978-0099564942. 272pp.