Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring

Not to be confused with Deborah Blum’s non-fiction Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, the strapline on the cover of Neil Spring’s novel is somewhat misleading: ‘Terror awaited me at Borley Rectory, the Most Haunted House in England.’  ‘The most haunted house in England’ is taken from the title of a book by Harry Price, one of Britain’s best-known psychical researchers, The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory, which was published in 1940.  The reader might reasonably expect the novel to be primarily about that ill-fated building but much of The Ghost Hunters does not directly concern Borley, and the main character is not Harry Price, nor the Rectory, but Price’s fictional secretary, Sarah Grey, through whose eyes we witness events.  Sarah and her mother attend the opening of Price’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research in 1926.  Sarah’s father had been killed in the Great War, and like many of the bereaved her mother had become immersed in Spiritualism and the search for life after death.  One thing leads to another and Sarah finds herself Price’s secretary.  The story charts the ups and downs of her relationship with Price and the sacrifices she has to make as she assists him in his various psychical researches, of which there are others besides that at Borley.  Through her we get an image of Price’s complexities and his shifting attitudes to the phenomena he investigates.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, there’s a lot to enjoy, but some careless writing mars the book.  As examples: an afternoon in October is mysteriously the end of an academic term rather than the start, and the religious revival Spring has in mind was in 1904-5, not 1903.  One would be unlikely to see copies of the Daily Worker on sale in London in 1926 as the Communist Party’s paper of that name only began publication in 1930.  The church at Borley does not have a spire but a tower (a surprising error as Spring says in his author’s note that he has been to Borley).  There are in addition occasional jarring anachronisms for the 1920s, such as ‘put my life on hold’, ‘video camera’, ‘glamour model’ and ‘lockdown’, that damage the creation of atmosphere; and typos, most notably the Austrian medium Rudi Schneider being called an Australian.  It is a mystery why the Society for Psychical Research is always clumsily referred to as The Society for Psychical Research in conversation when anybody knowing it would have simply called it ‘the SPR’ or perhaps ‘the psychical society’.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes a brief appearance but Spring garbles the famous line from The Sign of Four – ‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’ – substituting ‘probable’ for ‘impossible’, which makes no sense.  It may be a subtle comment on Sir Arthur in his declining years, but it seems more likely to be a simple transcription error on Spring’s part.  There is a frame to the narrative which has a problem with its timescale.  It is set in October 1977, when Sarah Grey’s manuscript, which forms the bulk of the novel, is given to another character.  The recipient (living in Oxford but who for some reason signs his introduction with ‘London, 1977’ as his location), says ‘I have kept this manuscript secret until now’, suggesting that he has had it for some time, despite having only just received it.  Such problems should have been picked up by a good editor.  A more serious structural flaw, the reveals at the end are heavily signposted and come as little surprise.

Even with these blemishes it is an entertaining, if sprawling, read.  It is particularly nice to find that stalwart curator of the Harry Price Library for so many years, Alan Wesencraft, immortalised as the thinly-fictionalised ‘John Wesley’.  There is plenty of narrative drive, and, anachronisms apart, Spring has done a decent amount of research into Price’s life and times.  It may suit better readers with no prior knowledge of Price and Borley, as those who have some may find that they constantly compare fiction with the record, distracting them from immersion in the narrative.  For anybody already aware of Price’s reputation, the image of him subordinating the ‘Search for Truth’, as he called his 1942 autobiography, to the advancement of his career by unethical means is all too familiar.

There is a tension in the novel between the possibility of life after death and faking of the phenomena that appear to support it.  In conditions of uncertainty it is hard to reach a verdict with confidence, and for most of the novel Sarah Grey stands for anyone drawn to such deeply contested matters who attempts to arrive at some sort of conclusion which does justice to the evidence (she gets her proof in the end).  In that sense it is an interesting portrayal of Price, who casts a long shadow over psychical research to this day.  As a novel, though, The Ghost Hunters does not generate a sense of unease in the way that, say, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining or The Woman in Black do, despite sharing generic similarities with them.  It is still a creditable first novel, one that should stimulate even greater interest in the historical Price and the Borley phenomena than exists already.

Update 14 July 2015

ITV has commissioned an adaptation of the book as a one-off two-hour film, to be called Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, from the independent production company Bentley Productions.  The telepic has been written by Jack Lothian.  ITV’s press release (13 July 2015) promises ‘a thrilling, spine chilling mix of real history, fiction and the famous legend of Harry Price.’  Somewhat surprisingly it also says of Price that:

‘our story begins as Harry has fallen on hard times in recent years, professionally and ethically losing his way.  He’s resorted to making his living as a fake medium and fraudulent ghost hunter, conducting séances for unsuspecting families who think their lives have been made a misery by ghostly mischief making.’

The phrase ‘making his living as a fake medium’ is startling, but it may be the product of an over-enthusiastic publicist’s imagination.  But this is no slip of the word-processor:

‘Harry also calls on the services of his old friend, Albert, during the investigation. An African pharmacist with a sideline in voodoo con-artistry, Albert has a keen interest in medical and scientific discoveries, which Harry exploits to the maximum.’

Who?  While we have Albert the voodoo pharmacist though, what we don’t have is a reference to Borley.  Spine-chilling the production may be, but possibly not containing any terror awaiting at Borley Rectory, as the book’s cover proclaims (that was rather over-sold admittedly but Borley is definitely foregrounded).  Certainly the drama includes ‘cynical and hard-bitten’ – of course he is – journalist Vernon Wall, and Wall was a real character, a staff reporter on the Daily Mirror who wrote a series of articles on Borley and is in the novel; but the focus of the television drama is a supposed haunting at the house of an MP so it is unlikely that Wall’s presence indicates a Borley connection.

Possibly the producers are soft-pedalling on Borley to save the put-upon residents of that village from having their nerves frayed still further with inconsiderate Priceophiles overstimulated by the programme, but if that is the case it will have diverged markedly from the novel.  Judging by the plot details that have been released it sounds as if there is more of Jack Lothian than Neil Spring in all this.  It is entirely possible that Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is intended as the first in a series featuring Harry and his sidekicks Sarah, Albert and Vernon, if it goes down well; unfortunately, for all the relationship it bears to The Ghost Hunters or the historic Harry Price if the synopsis is to be believed, it might just as well be called Fred Bloggs: Ghost Hunter.

Casting takes place in the next few weeks, and it will be fascinating to learn who is chosen to play Price.  Filming is scheduled for September/October.  Meanwhile it looks like Spring’s career is flourishing as he has left his job at John Lewis and is now Director of Communications for NBCUniversal International Studios, and with another novel due out shortly.

Update 30 August 2015

The answer to the question of who is to play Harry Price has been revealed in the latest ITV press release on the subject (27 August 2015).  The Spall family are cornering the market in iconic psychical researchers because after Timothy played Maurice Grosse in The Enfield Haunting, the recent adaptation of Guy Lyon Playfairs’s This House is Haunted, son Rafe has been cast as Price in Harry Price: Ghost Hunter.

The names of the various actors who have been cast alongside Spall are also included but the synopsis is largely unchanged from July’s press release.  One small alteration has been to the name of the MP whose house Price investigates: in the 13 July release it is Edward Curtis, but now it is Edward Goodwin.  Filming has been brought forward from September/October to August/September, so they should be hard at it as I write.

Spall is an interesting choice (one might say brave) because the image we have of Price from his photographs is someone to whom time had not been kind, which does not accord with Rafe Spall’s smooth features.  Whether Spall will be made up in to imitate Price’s leatheriness (doubtful) or whether he will be more Spall than Price remains to be seen.  For the present Spall has merely expressed the usual enthusiasm:

‘Rafe Spall said: “I’m delighted to be portraying Harry Price for ITV.  It’s a fantastic piece of history that has mass appeal and I can’t wait to start filming”.’ 

We can’t wait to see it, Rafe, but on the evidence so far we aren’t expecting there to be much history in it.  Perhaps I shall be proved wrong, but my prediction is that the finished product will not find favour among those who value the history of psychical research, whatever the programme’s mass appeal.

I was right in my suggestion back in July that this might be the first in a series.  Neil Spring has posted a number of comments in a Facebook forum, ‘Borley The Scientific Investigations’ (28 August).  To the charge that the synopsis seemed to depart from the historical record, particularly that no Member of Parliament lived at Borley, a faux pas by the researchers, Spring responded that there had not been a mistake because the programme was not a documentary but a drama:

‘…to that end they are focussing on a fictional investigation [i.e. the MP’s house] which is INSPIRED by what happened in the Rectory. They also have a full series ready to go – if the film is a success: a different investigation each week.’

He confirmed the suspicion that Borley was not involved, despite Vernon Wall being in it:

‘It's a film about Harry, and his life and one of his many investigations [though actually it isn’t, by Spring’s own admission, it’s fictional]. It is not a film about the Rectory – that will come later if there is a full series.’

Wall will be a recurring character if a series is commissioned, he added.

I think I go back to my point in July that this is not actually a film about Harry Price, despite Spring’s claim.  It may be inspired loosely by him, but it is about a fictional character in a setting that is drifting even further away from the historical figure than did the book.  The use of Harry Price’s name frankly seems a cynical manoeuvre to capture interest, but as a marketing strategy it will probably be successful.

Update 3 December 2015

ITV have produced another press release (27 November 2015), an extensive press pack (containing interviews with screenwriter Jack Lothian, Neil Spring and the major actors), plus a trailer.  The two-hour show will be broadcast in a prime slot, at 8.30 on 27 December.  The publicity shows Spall, as predicted, to have avoided the historical Harry Price’s careworn non-photogenic features; in fact he looks quite stylish in his fedora.  One suspects that in this timeline he will be unmarried, the better to generate some romantic tension with Sarah, with whom he is shown standing in a photograph at the start of the press pack.

Further details of the plot are available: Edward Goodwin, MP for Finchley, lives with his wife Grace in a converted workhouse, and Price is called in by a Sir Charles Harwood after she is found naked in the street.  At one point Harry takes samples from the cellar and has these tested by his friend Albert Ogoro to see if there is an explanation for Grace’s mental state.  Please let the mystery not revolve around skeletons buried beneath the cellar floor.  This isn’t Borley, you know.

An even bigger question than why a 1920s MP would live in a converted workhouse is why someone (a knight of the realm to boot) would want to hire a ‘con artist’, as Price is now labelled, to investigate the mystery of Grace’s public nudity; the connection between her ordeal and Price’s area of expertise is unclear.  Should Price be unable to find a solution the only remaining option is to commit Grace to an asylum, because of course what else can you do?  If Price is the loose cannon that the plot outline suggests, it seems far-fetched that upper-crust types would entrust him with such a delicate mission.

Hopefully all questions will be satisfactorily resolved on 27 December – my money is already on Goodwin as the villain.  From the photographs the programme’s tones look smoky-grey and suitably period, which should appeal to the Ripper Street/Peaky Blinders crowd, though at the moment the plot, especially the bit about Price taking photographs at night in the Goodwins’ home, puts me in mind of The Awakening (2011).  Harry Price: Ghost Hunter will have to go some to reach that film’s level of sophistication.

Update 15 January 2016

On 13 January 2016 Quercus, Neil Spring’s publisher, announced that they would be releasing a sequel to The Ghost Hunters in the autumn of 2017, having secured the UK and Commonwealth rights via Spring’s agent William Morris Endeavor.  A few details were included in Quercus’s press release: Harry’s collaborator Sarah Grey has left his employment after their Borley investigation and the follow-up is ‘set in the most haunted village in England.’  That honour is often given to Pluckley in Kent, but as ‘the story explores the lengths to which an entire community – and one man – will go to protect their darkest secrets,’ it is likely that the village in the novel will be a fictional one.

There will be an enthusiastic response to the announcement from Spring’s fan base because an enormous interest in Harry Price exists (even if the character given that name in Spring’s fiction is a long way from the historical figure).  As an indication of that interest, the ITV spin-off programme Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (which borrowed a couple of characters, though none of the plot, from The Ghost Hunters) seems to have been well received.

Spring is quoted in the latest release as saying: ‘I’m thrilled to be writing another book in the Harry Price: Ghost Hunter series’, so it looks like he intends to write further sequels.  It is noteworthy that he refers to it as the ‘Harry Price: Ghost Hunter’ series, referencing the television programme.  That show effectively exists in a different timeline to The Ghost Hunters, so it will be interesting to see how the discrepancies between the two narratives are dealt with in the second novel, which cannot be faithful simultaneously to both.

Even more intriguingly Spring continues: ‘I can’t wait to see what he [Price] and Sarah uncover next in this, the story of Harry’s greatest investigation. And his greatest secret.’  As Borley was surely Harry Price’s greatest investigation, and was covered in The Ghost Hunters, it is puzzling what that investigation might be – perhaps we will be treated to Price’s equivalent of ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’, a tale from his files for which the world was not ready until Spring decided to publish it; or maybe it is a further indication that Harry as envisioned by Spring bears no relationship to the real individual.

Kathryn Taussig, commissioning editor at Quercus, drums up her company’s acquisition by declaring: ‘Neil Spring's first novel The Ghost Hunters was the beginning of a memorable partnership between two delectably unique characters – Harry Price and Sarah Grey. Readers have been writing in ever since, desperate to know what happened next…and now they have their wish! Neil Spring's upcoming sequel is just as finely crafted and chilling as its predecessor, with an ending that's guaranteed to make you shiver.’  Actually we do know what happens next, and it didn’t include the beginning of any kind of partnership.  Estranged from Harry, Sarah gives her baby by him up for adoption and goes to live with Vernon Wall in Wales.  Years later Harry dies suddenly at home, his body found by his wife.  The Ghost Hunters did not leave much room for a sequel featuring Harry and Sarah together, let alone a series.  Taussig’s words sound like someone who has seen Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, but not read The Ghost Hunters.

The 2017 publication date seems a long time even in the sluggish world of publishing, but it retains the two-year gaps in Spring’s output (The Ghost Hunters appeared in 2013 and The Watchers last year).  Perhaps that lengthy wait will allow a television series to be aired say at Christmas 2016, in turn building interest in the new novel, though that would mean the television version having to use separate plots.  Whatever the strategy, it looks like this fictional character known as ‘Harry Price’ has a lot of life in him yet, even if his appearances in print and on screen lack consistency.