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The Silence of Ghosts
by Jonathan Aycliffe
Night Shade Books, $26.99, 192pp
Published: February 2015

I own books by Denis MacEoin under both the pseudonyms he uses, but I'm not sure that I've read anything he's written until now. As Daniel Easterman, he writes thrillers including 'The Seventh Sanctuary,' 'The Judas Testament,' and 'Brotherhood of the Tomb.' As Jonathan Aycliffe, he writes ghost stories including 'Whispers in the Dark,' 'The Matrix' (no, not that one,) and 'The Talisman.' 'The Silence of Ghosts' is his ninth book as Aycliffe, though he was far more active under this name in the last century than this one. I found myself pleasantly impressed.

It has an interesting structure, an antiquated one that suits the material well. The book, as presented, constitutes the diaries of Dominic Lancaster of the Royal Navy; as written over six months during the Second World War, from November 1940 to May 1941, as he attempted to convalesce in the Lake District after losing his left leg below the knee in a battle off West Africa. He finds his way further back in time at points, as his experiences send him delving through the history of the Lancasters to find letters written by his ancestors. Yet it's all presented by Charles Lancaster, the grandson of Dominic, who provides an introduction and afterword.

The language is old-fashioned, of course, but appropriately so and I enjoyed the period setting immensely. Ghost stories are inherent commentaries on our present through reminders of our past, but contemporary tellings tend to bring back memories of 'Scooby-Doo,' which are easily banished by setting the yarn in prior times. Aycliffe accomplishes this by placing the bulk of his story during World War II, with earlier diversions still.

The hauntings surround a house, as is so often the case, one to which Lancaster travels to recover away from the horrors of London during the Blitz, to which dangers his overbearing father believes he's unable to appropriately respond due to his disability. Hallinhag House sits in the relative quiet of the Lake District, by Ullswater and the host of golden daffodils immortalised in verse by Wordsworth. However, Dominic finds it unusually oppressive and Octavia, his little sister, deemed equally unable to respond to Nazi bombings on account of her being deaf, finds a lot more. The observation that Dominic's favourite relative is the one without hearing is telling, but it's even more telling that Octavia still hears the ghosts.

I have to say that for over half of 'The Silence of Ghosts,' I didn't feel like Aycliffe was trying too hard. His prose is an immersive delight but what Lancaster finds at Hallinhag seemed overly familiar, as if the author had felt drawn not to tell a new story but just to revisit the genre. All the usual things happen, with only disability to spice up proceedings: Dominic trying to find self-worth without a left leg, function with a prosthetic device, and love with his nurse, Rose Sansom; along with the less explainable way in which Octavia's hearing seems to start to recover.

I was never bored, merely not challenged for a good while; but, as the book ran on, I found myself more and more engaged. Once the characters stopped simply reacting to the various ghostly encounters they experience in Hallinhag House and started to investigate them and what they mean instead, the story really kicked into gear. I have to say that I didn't foresee the end, even though it had been ably hinted at, or how brutal it would be; I'd assumed that the horrors hinted at in the introduction were exaggeration for effect, but I enjoyed how things wrapped up immensely.

One reason that the story became much more than it initially seemed is the way it anchored itself in history through the Lancaster family. When Dominic and Octavia move north to the Lakes, the family business run by Dominic's father is almost two hundred years old. They've been importing fine port from Portugal since 1730 and they supply places as prominent as the House of Lords. Of course, there's history to be explored in the company archives and I found Dominic's searches for a clue to what's going down at Hallinhag fascinating. The epistolary nature of these sections combined with the archaic language of such letters proved reminiscent of the dangerous explorations of those seekers of hidden knowledge who generally ended up happily insane in the stories of Lovecraft and his peers.

We know Dominic Lancaster doesn't go mad because young Charles tells us on page one of his introduction that he died at the ripe old age of 92 after a long and happy life with Rose. The question is, therefore, never about his surviving the ghosts of Hallinhag but who they are and why they're haunting the place. Also, discovering why merely opens up whole new possibilities.

What I found most surprising about 'The Silence of Ghosts' is how it takes an old medium and explores it in an old way, but manages to bring things completely up to date. The people who achieve in this book, whether for good or bad, do so because they're forward-looking. By comparison, those stuck in the past, almost like ghosts, don't do very well at all.

I appreciated that Dominic struggled with his new disability but found the way, through Rose, to do so; and that Octavia's own disability was handled with insight, not to mention tied into the supernatural story. I appreciated how Rose sees past her patient's disability from moment one, and how she, Octavia and other female characters are given substance and meaning even in a world three quarters of a century adrift from ours that was struggling during wartime to acknowledge what the 'fairer sex' could actually do. The contrasts don't stop at progressive vs regressive; they extend to simple things like urban vs rural, the differences between London and Ullswater being suitably overwhelming.

I also appreciated that the way Aycliffe wraps up the story constitutes not only bookends to the novel but bookends to the timeline covered. It reminds us that looking forward is nothing new, but there are ways to do things that, as any exploration of gothic fiction highlights, might not be quite so appropriate in the wrong timeline.

Based on this book, I'm still not raring at the bit to devour Daniel Easterman thrillers, but I believe I'll pull a couple of Jonathan Aycliffes down from my horror shelves to see how they compare to this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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