Treat yourself to a subtly chilling read this weekend . . . The Murder Room’s editorial manager, Jenny Page, reviews two of the best: Trick or Treat by Lesley Glaister and Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always.
The Blair Witch Project is, for me, the best of the films that sometimes get shown on telly at Hallowe’en. There is no blood, no creepy music, no spooky man pulling the strings. Yet it ratchets up the fear factor relentlessly with its docu-drama, hand-held feel; its odd little shapes made of sticks appearing as strange rustlings begin and the final resting place of that camera looms into view, the remaining characters having given up trying to find a way back out of the woods.
But that’s what a real thriller is all about, isn’t it? Suggestion . . . hints at something, you’re not sure what, that might be out of place.
Lesley Glaister’s Trick or Treat (1991) centres around a collection of neighbours in a suburban street in the north of England. There’s Olive and Arthur, once lefty activists, now managing Olive’s obesity and other age-related ills, and Arthur’s pristine allotment, whose soil is perfect for the beans he plants at full moon.
One down from Olive and Arthur lives Nell, once a childhood friend of Olive’s, whose late husband Jim chats to her from his photograph on her dressing table. She will have nothing to do with either Olive or Arthur. She is obsessed with cleaning, and her son Rodney, in his fifties, has just come out of prison for unmentionable crimes. Hearing him speak about himself in the third person tells us all we need to know, and that this damaged, dangerous man will never fit anywhere except back in his old bedroom at home.
As the story unspools, we become aware that it is Nell who seems to have had all the bad luck. Her father warmed not to her but to Olive, with her dark good looks, her playful manner and sense of freedom, the old man giving her all the praise, smiles and twinkling eyes Nell so desperately craved. Later on, Nell’s husband Jim was seduced by Olive, unmarried Olive. Not such a big deal for freethinking Olive, but it cleaved Nell’s world in two.
After a bonfire-night party, Nell decides to let bygones be bygones, to restore a stolen school prize cup to Olive that lies buried under Arthur’s allotment. But disaster strikes as she uncovers a lot more than she bargained for.
A ghostly pall of cold hangs over the story, so much larger than the everydayness of the lives drawn in cosy detail, and clings like damp long after you’ve turned the last page.
In Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (2012), Frances Thorpe lives and works in north London: ordinary, decent, intelligent, realistic about her prospects. She’s in her thirties, a subeditor at a literary paper teetering constantly on the brink of failure. Her world lies alongside the well-connected, polished lives of those who run and write for the Questioner.
Then a trip back from her parents’ village one Sunday evening finds her kneeling in the road beside an overturned Audi, talking its sole occupant, Alys Kyte, through what turn out to be her last moments.
Shocked and troubled by nightmares, Frances agrees to meet the family, something the Family Liaison Officer tells her will bring both parties some ‘closure’. Unwilling at first, Frances suddenly changes her mind when she realises that Alys’ husband, Laurence, is a renowned and wealthy novelist who moves in the world she knows so well . . . from the outside.
Carefully at first, and then with growing, chilling confidence, Frances moves through the lives and homes of Laurence and his children, watched from a discreet distance by his faintly suspicious friends and colleagues. Gradually, he comes to rely on Frances, as of course she knows he must, and the very best outcome looks eventually to be within her reach. Everything around her starts to change; there is promotion at the office, gossipy rumours, surprised acceptance from her family.
Her family: her anxious mother, with her wastepaper-basket emptying, food-freezing and hair-spraying; her silent father and her married sister, busy with young children. No one seems to have bothered much with Frances, so she is making up for lost time by inventing a new life for herself, thanks to the opportunity that presented itself that fateful evening.
Here is her chance to step into the spotlight, staying silent or dispensing information as needed, in order to paint the best picture to the grieving husband and children. At times the story could go one way or the other; his children could keep hating him on discovering his new relationship with Frances, or she could effect a reconciliation; it’s all to play for.
These novels are not full-frontal shockers, like the films you might catch at Hallowe’en. They brush up to you close: you’ve walked down those streets, met those neighbours; you’ve smelled those cakes, those scented candles, shivered around those bonfires. There are laugh-out-loud moments, pulses of recognition, wry smiles at familiar messes. There are no monsters lurking behind doors with knives. But there are telling lines – ‘An insect knocks itself against the fanlight, trying to get out’ . . . ‘The gradual panicky scream of the kettle’ – that hint at the inevitable.