This review first appeared in Horrified magazine, 2021
Freelance copywriter Fen and thriller-writer fiancé James have moved from a tiny flat in London to a new house in the open countryside of Highland Perthshire. James is busy promoting a new book, while Fen prepares for their wedding and sets up home. It should be a dream start for their lives together.
Right from the start, though, little things – tiny, insignificant things – begin to cast a shadow over their new home. Fen has terrifying lucid dreams of being buried alive, or occupying someone else’s paralysed body, in a house which is clearly on the site of their home, but in a style far older than their new-build. When her friend Belle has a similarly vivid and disturbing dream, Fen dismisses it. None of it means anything, after all, does it? But then she discovers further things: glimpses of a figure dressed in lavender in the countryside around their lonely cottage; the locals’ intense superstition surrounding the colour lavender; and the appearance – and disappearance – of various items. How much of what is going on can she rationalise?
Slowly we discover that there are secrets in James’s life, and that Fen’s own headspace may have been formed by both a difficult adolescence in an oppressive family environment, and more recent trauma. Furthermore, this couple’s new dream home turns out to have been abandoned by the couple who originally built it, and it stands on the site of an older house. Is this the site of Fen’s waking dreams? The past, it seems, can’t simply be escaped by packing boxes and driving north: it will return, it will make its presence felt, and it will demand reconciliation, or revenge.
There are echoes of The Owl Service (Alan Garner, 1967) here. In both books, a piece of legend or folklore is reactivated when the constituent parts are once again brought together in the specific landscape to which that legend belongs. I was reminded, too (although it can’t really be classed as a ghost story) of Andrew Greig’s haunting When They Lay Bare (1999): again, a local legend is re-enacted, and there’s a similar fetishisation of common household objects.
A key element in the book is the way in which Grant has Fen tell her story: using the innately unstable first-person present tense. This creates an immediacy to events, but crucially it also means we have an unreliable narrator: our only view on events is Fen’s. ‘What happened’, therefore, is potentially ambiguous, and as the story reaches its climax we have only her word for it. As a professional copy editor, she is (of course) well-trained in knowing how to suggest different ways a story might be told…
My one criticism of this enjoyable Gothic novel is that the locals’ aversion to lavender – to the extent that a visiting band of musicians, playing one evening in a local pub, are forced to stop playing the song ‘Lavender Lady’ because of the hostility they face – doesn’t seem entirely justified by what seems to have been a one-off event which happened a century and a half before, the details of which Fen has to do some pretty deep library research to uncover. We aren’t on Summerisle (The Wicker Man, UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) where occult practices are a key part of everyday life, and despite the initial suggestion of some deep-rooted atavistic aversion to lavender, Too Near the Dead isn’t folk horror.
One of the reasons this book appealed to me is that the setting is near where I grew up, and when you’re from somewhere that isn’t often represented in fiction, it prompts a spark of recognition. I’m not entirely certain which Perthshire town Helen Grant bases hers on, but she captures the layout and atmosphere of such places well. In plain, understated language, she also manages to make the countryside feel alternately welcoming and threatening.
Grant’s prose is very readable, and I was struck by how far I’d got through the book with very little in the way of horrific events actually happening, so easily do the pages turn. But the tension mounts, and so fragile is Fen and James’s situation that we begin to dread some coming cataclysm. And if that isn’t quite how the story ends, it doesn’t make Too Near the Dead any the poorer. I enjoyed it and would recommend it particularly to fans of the ‘quiet’ ghost story.