Tuesday 3 October 2023

Haunted house horrors: a very cool Top 20

Welcome to October, everyone. The true beginning of what I suppose you could call the Haunting Season. Halloween is still a few weeks off, and Christmas even further, but with the darker evenings, longer nights and that sudden, distinctive nip in the air, you at last know that you’re into the waning of the year and your thoughts turn instinctively to all things eerie.

So, today, just for a lark, I’ll be selecting 20 classy haunted house books to talk about. In addition to that, on an only indirectly connected note, I’ll be offering a detailed review of Chris Ewan’s Halloween thriller, DARK TIDES.

If you’re only here for the Ewan review, you’ll find it as always in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel free to shoot on down there straight away. In the meantime, before any of that …

Podcast city

As summer came to an end, I was the grateful recipient of several invitations to participate in podcasts. The first of these was ROCK, PAPER, SWORDS, a regular series from top historical authors Matthew Harffy and Steven A McKay, which focusses on historical action fiction and rock music. 

That concept alone ticks a number of important boxes for me, especially as my most recent novel, USURPER, falls into the historical action-adventure category (as will the sequel, BATTLE LORD, out next January) so I was delighted to guest for them. You can find that one HERE.

In addition to that, composer and podcaster Ian Cleverdon invited me to join him on HALF HOUR MENTOR, an ongoing series featuring regular interviews with people who are deemed to be sources of inspiration within their chosen fields. I was particularly flattered to be asked onto this show, as you can imagine, especially as Ian deemed the final interview so worthwhile that he ran it to an hour rather than half an hour. So, if you’re interested, you can find this one in two parts, ONE and TWO on the same site next Saturday.

And now, as promised earlier, onto …

Houses of the unholy
(All you rock fans, see what I did there?)

Old scary house stories are always going to be something of a mixed bag. They aren’t always effective, mainly because there have now been so many of them, and yet the haunted house story seems to have a lasting appeal, which ranges right across a whole variety of genres.

To start with, they are meat and drink to the world of the crime thriller; take JB Priestley’s Benighted, also published as The Old Dark House (1927) or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and Hallowe’en Party (1969), all adapted as major Hollywood movies (the latter relocated from the English Home Counties to Venice by Kenneth Branagh). 

Evil old houses have also provided key focal points in science fiction: HP Lovecraft and August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908). Even the world of comedy has had fun with scary old houses. Take, for example, Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (1887) and Josephine Leslie’s fantasy rom-com, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1945), while from Hollywood there were two classic Bob Hope vehicles, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940). (Who could forget Hope’s immortal one-liner: ‘I’m familiar with big empty houses. I used to do vaudeville’).

But, understandably, it’s the world of horror fiction where the haunted house as a concept has most made its mark.

In fact, it’s now a sub-genre of supernatural fiction all on its own, and it never seems to get old. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I’d hazard a guess that a house is invariably someone’s home, and homes are supposed to be places of comfort and refuge, safety zones where the occupants should feel warm and secure, and from where they can easily repel the woes of the world. Subsequently, when these places are invaded, even by human adversaries, it has a horrible impact. So, imagine the impact when the incursion is by some malevolent nether-being, a ghost or demon. No wonder it preys on all our minds.

At the same time, of course, haunted houses don’t just exist in myth or fiction. They are actually supposed to be real. Even those of us who don’t go looking for ‘true’ ghost stories, have encountered hundreds of tales of houses that were ‘not quite right’ or were reputed to be troubled or disturbed. If you live here in the UK, near enough every neighbourhood boasts one, but there are some cases so celebrated that they make international news.

The so-called Enfield Poltergeist, an entity that supposedly terrorised a suburban house in North London (pictured right) in the mid-1970s, some of the manifestations captured on live news cameras, became the epicentre of an international paranormal enquiry. 

Likewise, the centuries-old haunting of Glamis Castle in central Scotland is reputed far and wide and allegedly has hit both occupants of the grand old estate and visitors to it with every type of terrifying phenomena.

I could list these examples endlessly, but the point is that we’re all familiar enough with the concept of the haunted house story to enjoy it thoroughly whenever one comes along, and there has been no shortage of writing on this very subject. Dark fiction specialists from the earliest days got in on the haunted house act: Edgar Allan Poe with The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), MR James with Lost Hearts (1895), Henry James with The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Algernon Blackwood with The Empty House (1906). But for today’s purposes, coming forward a little closer in time, I’ve selected 20 haunted house novels by some of the best writers on the more recent market.

The first ten I’ve already read and heartily endorse. The second ten I’ve yet to read, so in those cases I’ve simply offered the blurb from the back of the book. If nothing else, this second list will hopefully provide interest and temptation.

Very quickly though, before we get into that, this being my own blog and all, I hope it’s not too remiss of me to mention that I too have contributed to the canon, with two haunted house novellas of my own: 1) In The Killing Ground (2008), most recently included in my Christmas collection, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a man-and-wife private eye team are hired by a film star to investigate a possibility that the medieval spectre supposedly roaming the precincts of his new home on the Wales/Herefordshire border is responsible for the disappearance of several local children. 

2) In The Stain (2007), which most recently appeared in another Christmas collection of mine, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, a bunch of wannabe film-makers seek inspiration from a sprawling manor house in the New Forest, where an infamous horror movie of the 1960s was shot, the mere filming of which has allegedly invoked a demonic presence that was never there previously. (This one’s been optioned twice by different film companies, but – surprise, surprise – it’s never made it to development as yet).

And now, the plug over and done with, today’s main event:



1 The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)

The alleged true account of a terrifying haunting, which caused such sensation that it spawned numerous sequels and imitations, and a whole series of movies. Though there is huge doubt as to whether any of the events it reports happened, journalist Jay Anson hit gold when he recounted the story of the Lutz family, who claimed that a demonic presence had influenced the real-life mass murder that had occurred in their pleasant Long Island home in the early 1970s, and the subsequent horrific haunting that finally caused them to flee. Primarily, this was down to Anson’s spare, journalistic style (it all comes at us in diary form) and the absolute conviction of its tone. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s still one of the scariest reads on the market and a landmark in haunted house fiction.

2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

Made three times now for the screen, The Haunting of Hill House was inspired by a road-trip Shirley Jackson took to recce the most haunted houses in her native New England. It seems that she heard some very spooky stories en route, and yet with this masterpiece, trimmed her finished product down to the basics, relying on suggestion rather than
outright manifestation, leaving the group of paranormal investigators staying in isolated Hill House confused about whether they were genuinely in touch with dark forces or being duped by the psychological torment of one of their own number. The first movie version, The Haunting, filmed by Robert Wise in 1963, was by far the closest in spirit to this unforgettable original, but read the book too.

3 The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981)

The Southern Gothic slams head-on into haunted house horror of the first order. With an affluent Alabama family, handsome men, beautiful women and heated passions, we’re surely in Tennessee Williams territory here, and that’s how it feels, but that’s the late lamented Michael McDowell’s plan from the outset, as he plunges us into a supernatural nightmare. The haunted spit of land on which the family take their annual vacation, the mysterious unclaimed holiday home gradually sinking into the sand next door, and the obscene but unknowable entities reaching out from it, all make for a Deep South-flavoured devil’s brew, which starts slowly but builds to a fearsome climax. Poppy Z Brite didn’t call it ‘one of the most terrifying novels ever written’ for no reason.

4 The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

It’s probably more difficult to disassociate this novel from the film adaptation (three years later) than almost any other, but it’s vital to do so, as they are very different. Stanley Kubrick made his mark in horror cinema history with his movie of the same name, but it’s crucial to remember that though this was only Stephen King’s third published novel, it’s probably the one that most put his name on the map. It’s the same basic story as the film, a caretaker and his family marooned by snow in a secluded hotel in the Colorado Rockies, but in the novel, the hotel itself is the source of the evil rather than the many ghosts that walk its corridors, with Jack’s son, Danny, who takes the pivotal role, battling the intangible being through his telepathic powers. A classic.

5 Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973)

Most of the books in this list came before the movie versions, though in the case of this one it was almost the other way round, playwright Robert Marasco penning the screenplay first, even though the project wouldn’t appear on celluloid until three years after the novel was published, (and by then the original script had been dispensed with). If it sounds like a familiar story – a nice New York family moving out of town into a glorious residence that they just can’t believe they got for such a bargain price, only to discover increasingly disturbing oddities – I urge you to read it all the same, as the malignancy here is of a very unique and unexpected sort, and the slow build-up of tension as the family gradually succumb to it is disturbingly convincing. Very scary.

6 The House on Cold Hill by Peter James (2016)

In this age of ‘TV ghost hunters’ many may leap to the conclusion that the average haunted house will comprise creaky floorboards, orbs and maybe the odd door opening on its own. For most, that would be enough to keep them away, so how do you react if your new pad is found to contain hellish supernatural entities, mysterious unknown beings who are hell-bent not just on scaring you and your family, but on terrorising you all to death and beyond? Thriller writer Peter James throws everything but the kitchen sink at us in this non-stop assault by the dead upon the living, refusing to hold back on the horror, even turning the most modern hi-tech appliances to the cause of evil. A traditional ‘haunted houser’ given a very updated spin.

7 Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)

A parapsychology team is recruited by a dying millionaire to find proof that the afterlife exists, and so are despatched to the Belasco House on the coast of Maine, now closed up and shunned because it is reputedly the most haunted in the world … so haunted in fact that several previous attempts to investigate it have led to a number of unexplained fatalities. The four individuals assigned to the case all have different skills and strengths, but it is through their weaknesses that the undead intellect in the mansion begins to subtly influence them for the worse, slowly turning them against each other. It may sound like a recognisable concept now, the haunted house where the greatest threat lies within ourselves – but old hand Matheson does it excellently.

8 The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz (1974)

Often regarded as a key component of the 1970s Satanic horror cycle, The Sentinel, which was published only one year after The Exorcist, is undeniably a part of that sub-group, but it belongs in the world of the haunted house thriller too, with its story of a neurotic fashion model, who finds her new life in a venerable old New York apartment house increasingly disrupted by the eerie presence of a blind old priest on the top floor, hallucinations seemingly connected to nightmarish events in her childhood, and the unwelcome presence of nosy neighbours who she later learns don’t even exist. This is another one that is wonderfully frightening and, as you may have guessed, we’re not talking here about a simple case of ancestors who’ve returned. Far from it.

9 The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2010)

One of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read, though it’s actually a lot more than that. No-one could expect a stylish literary writer like Sarah Waters to pen a supernatural novel with no more intent than to frighten her readers. This detailed study of Britain’s landed gentry decaying away in postwar England, as viewed through the lens one particular family, and in the ambition of a local country doctor to marry into them, is deceptive in that the horror elements at first seem inconsequential – who cares if the family are cursed or if their dead daughter keeps returning, when their vast rural estate needs to be saved! – but they rapidly move to take centre-stage, terrifyingly so, and yet the main thrust of the novel, which is dark enough in itself, remains starkly present right to the end.

10 The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)

One of the true masterclasses in haunted house fiction. This story of a trainee lawyer, during whose weekend sojourn to the lonely coastal edifice that is Eel Marsh House, where he needs to sort out some papers, he faces constant and malicious harassment by the spirit of an embittered former resident, has to be read to be believed. Once again, subtlety is the key. There are few flashes and bangs in in this Gothic bone-chiller, but the sheer hostility of the main antagonist emanates from every page, while the sense of loneliness and isolation is unbelievably oppressive. Again, if you’ve already seen the stage or screen versions, I still urge you to read this book, which as well as being an extraordinarily frightening ghost story, is an intriguing mystery too.


(As blurbed by their publishers)

1 Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (2015)

After the tragic and mysterious death of one of their founding members, the young musicians in a British acid-folk band hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with its own dark secrets. There they record the classic album that will make their reputation but at a terrifying cost, when Julian Blake, their lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen again. Now, years later, each of the surviving musicians, their friends and lovers (including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager) meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell his or her own version of what happened during that summer, but whose story is the true one? And what really happened to Julian Blake? 

2 How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix (2023)

Every childhood home is haunted, and each of us are possessed by our parents.

When their parents are both killed in a car accident, Louise and Mark Joyner are devastated but nothing can prepare them for how bad things are about to get. The two siblings are almost totally estranged, and couldn’t be more different. Now, however, both with equally empty bank accounts, they don’t have a choice but to get along. Their one asset? Their childhood home. They need to get it on the market as soon as possible because they need the money. Yet the house has morphed into a hoarder’s paradise, and before they died their parents nailed shut the attic door ...

Sometimes we feel like puppets, controlled by our upbringing and our genes. Sometimes we feel like our parents treat us like toys, or playthings, or even dolls. The past can ground us, teach us, and keep us safe. It can also trap us, and bind us, and suffocate the life out of us. As disturbing events stack up in the house, Louise and Mark have to learn that sometimes the only way to break away from the past, sometimes the only way to sell a haunted house, is to burn it all down

3 A House with Good Bones by T Kingfisher (2023)

In this ordinary North Carolina suburb, family secrets are always in bloom.

Samantha Montgomery pulls into the driveway of her family home to find a massive black vulture perched on the mailbox, staring at the house.

Inside, everything has changed. Gone is the eclectic warmth Sam expects; instead the walls are a sterile white. Now, it’s very important to say grace before dinner, and her mother won’t hear a word against Sam’s long-dead and little-missed grandmother, who was the first to put down roots in this small southern town.

The longer Sam stays, the stranger things get. And every day, more vultures circle overhead …

4 The Night House by Jo Nesbo (2023)

In the wake of his parents’ tragic deaths fourteen-year-old Richard Elauved has been sent to live with his aunt and uncle in the remote town of Ballantyne.

Richard quickly earns a reputation as an outcast, and when a classmate named Tom goes missing, no one believes him when he says the telephone booth out by the edge of the woods sucked Tom into the receiver like something out of a horror movie.

No one, that is, except the enigmatic Karen, who encourages Richard to pursue clues the police refuse to investigate. He traces the number to an abandoned house in the woods. There he catches a glimpse of a terrifying face in the window. And then the voices start.

When another classmate disappears, Richard grapples with the dark magic that’s possessing Ballantyne to try and find them before its too late ...

5 The House of a Hundred Whispers by Graham Masterton (2021)

All Hallows Hall is a rambling Tudor mansion on the edge of the bleak and misty Dartmoor. It is not a place many would choose to live. Yet the former Governer of Dartmoor Prison did just that. Now he’s dead, and his children - long estranged - are set to inherit his estate.

But when the dead man’s family come to stay, the atmosphere of the moors seems to drift into every room. Floorboards creak, secret passageways echo, and wind whistles in the house’s famous priest hole. And then, on the same morning the family decide to leave All Hallows Hall and never come back, their young son Timmy disappears - from inside the house.

Does evil linger in the walls? Or is evil only ever found inside the minds of men?

6 The Spite House by Johnny Compton (2023)

Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money - it’s not easy to find steady, safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you. When he comes across the strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The Masson property, notorious for being one of the most haunted places in Texas, needs a caretaker of sorts. The owner is looking for proof of paranormal activity. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them. The job calls to Eric, not just because there’s a huge payout if they can make it through, but because he wants to explore the secrets of the spite house. If it is indeed haunted, maybe it’ll help him understand the uncanny power that clings to his family, driving them from town to town, making them afraid to stop running.

7 Slade House by David Mitchell (2016)

Turn down Slade Alley - narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you'll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and comes to its turbulent conclusion around Halloween, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs ...
8 Hare House by Sally Hinchcliffe (2022)

Hare House is not its real name, of course. I have, if you will forgive me, kept names to a minimum here, for reasons that will become understandable ...

In the first brisk days of autumn, a woman arrives in Scotland having left her job at an all-girls school in London in mysterious circumstances. Moving into a cottage on the remote estate of Hare House, she begins to explore her new home. But among the tiny roads, wild moorland, and scattered houses, something more sinister lurks: local tales of witchcraft, clay figures and young men sent mad.

Striking up a friendship with her landlord and his younger sister, she begins to suspect that all might not be quite as it seems at Hare House. And as autumn turns to winter, and a heavy snowfall traps the inhabitants of the estate within its walls, tensions rise to fever pitch.

9 Home Before Dark by Riley Sager (2021)

What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into a rambling Victorian estate called Baneberry Hall. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a memoir called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon.

Now, Maggie has inherited Baneberry Hall after her father’s death. She was too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist.

But when she returns to Baneberry Hall to prepare it for sale, her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the pages of her father’s book lurk in the shadows, and locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself - a place that hints of dark deeds and unexplained happenings.

As the days pass, Maggie begins to believe that what her father wrote was more fact than fiction. That, either way, someone - or something - doesn't want her here. And that she might be in danger all over again ...

10 The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons (2007)

Thirtysomething Colquitt and Walter Kennedy live in a charming, peaceful suburb of newly bustling Atlanta, Georgia. Life is made up of enjoyable work, long, lazy weekends, and the company of good neighbors. Then, to their shock, construction starts on the vacant lot next door, a wooded hillside they’d believed would always remain undeveloped. Disappointed by their diminished privacy, Colquitt and Walter soon realize something more is wrong with the house next door. Surely the house can’t be haunted, yet it seems to destroy the goodness of every person who comes to live in it, until the entire heart of this friendly neighborhood threatens to be torn apart.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Chris Ewan (2015)

In most of western culture, Halloween Night is the scariest night of the year. The time when the worlds of the living and the dead are closest, when the dividing lines between the universe of light and the universe of darkness are thinnest. On the Isle of Man, however, it’s all that and a little more.

Hop-tu Naa is the Manx Halloween, a time when, if the rumours are true, there are much eerier things going on here than anywhere else in the UK. It’s a time for divination and fortune-telling for example, even for the passing of hexes.

For young Claire Cooper, a Manx native, this is all par for the course. She loves the dressing up and the turnip jack-o-lanterns. Until the Hop-tu Naa of 1995, when she is only eight years old, and her mother inexplicably disappears.

Dark Tides is basically the story of what happens next, told over several decades.

It’s not a linear tale. We bounce back and forth from when Claire is a child, to her teenage days, and eventually to her adulthood as an Isle of Man police officer. But always it’s Hop-tu Naa, and always we are embroiled in this same complex and deeply worrying mystery.

As the years roll by, Claire is increasingly convinced that her mother’s disappearance was the work of Edward Caine, her wealthy and singularly unpleasant employer. Claire didn’t like Caine from the off, finding him a cold, sneery presence, though she never felt the same way about his sickly son, Morgan, who seems to be all the things his father is not.

Forced to grow up without a mother, in the care of a father who has never been the same since his wife vanished, Claire eventually falls in with a rough but exciting crowd. Callum, David, Mark and Scott are more than just the local bad boys. At least a couple of them, Mark and David, are fanciable, and they get up to all kinds of enjoyable antics. Claire is initially brought into their company as a timid little mouse, but her sponsor in this is Rachel, the coolest girl at school, and pretty soon the two lasses are at the very heart of a lively gang who, as much as it’s possible on the Isle of Man, live life on the edge.

One game they play happens each Hop-tu naa, and involves a different member naming a new and elaborate dare, which they all must participate in. Of course, each year the dares get riskier and scarier.

One year, when they’re all older teenagers, Mark, who is now sweet on Claire (even though she mainly has eyes for David), dares them to take action against Edward Caine. Claire herself isn’t happy with this. She still hates and suspects Caine but compared to the others she is increasingly a straight-player and is very aware that Caine’s responsibility for her mother’s disappearance has never been substantiated. Mark advises her that, though the dare will involve them breaking into Caine’s property, there’ll be no violence, but that Caine will be absolutely scared to death and that it might even flush him out as the abductor (and maybe the murderer) of Claire’s mother.

Claire finally goes along with it but inevitably it doesn’t go according to plan. The supposed non-violent scheme turns very violent indeed. Terrifyingly violent even.

Years later, as a serving cop on the island, Claire is still haunted by the memories of that night. No one died, but ghastly injuries were inflicted, she and most of her friends only getting away with it because they were masked at the time, and because Mark – who was caught – kept his mouth shut.

Now a detective, and working routine CID cases, she doesn’t expect that she’ll hear anything about the incident again (or at least this is what she hopes, even though Mark is still in jail). Until, to her horror, another Hop-tu naa comes along and one of the original group is killed in what looks like a nasty accident.

Though it only looks like that to Claire’s fellow police officers.

To her, it looks like something else.

Some carefully concealed evidence actually suggests that her friend was murdered, though only Claire sees this because it relates directly back to that awful Halloween night when they were teenagers. Obviously, she can’t bring this to her fellow investigators’ notice for fear that it will rebound on her. And she is faced by exactly the same problem when the next Hop-tu Naa comes along and another friend dies, and so on for year after year.

They are now being butchered one by one. And still she can’t say anything about it. Though her own time is coming, she feels. She too will become a victim of this unknown killer. Either that, or she comes clean to her bosses, and faces long years in prison. The one option left is to catch the killer herself …

The only real brickbat I have with Dark Tides concerns the many reviews of the book rather than the book itself. In the days leading up to reading it, I heard constantly how it draws on the unique customs and folklore of the Isle of Man. The fact that we were going to be talking about Hop-tu Naa rather than the standard Halloween seems to have impressed legions of reviewers, though to me, from my own reading at least, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two.

In addition, though the wild and woolly outcrops of the island are very nicely portrayed in this book, I never really felt as if Chris Ewan uses that remote hump of land in the middle of the Irish Sea to its best effect. The Isle of Man (or Mann, as is the correct name) is steeped in its own mythology. It’s a land of ghosts, faeries and bogey beasts, and though I wouldn’t expect any of that here – this is a crime novel after all, not a horror – there isn’t a strong hint of that esoteric flavour.

Though, as I say, this is more a criticism of the book’s many misleading reviews rather than of the book itself, because as murder mysteries go, this is a fine piece of work.

It veers a little towards the slasher end of the genre, which doesn’t bother me at all, in that the many killings are often depicted from the viewpoint of the killer – in movie terms it would be a POV camera with ‘heavy breathing’ soundtrack accompaniment – and nearly all are complex, gory and well-constructed set-pieces. It’s a bit ‘by the numbers’ in that we have a finite cast list who we realise from an early stage are going to get chopped one by one, and whatever protocols they take to protect themselves, we know the killer will continually be one step ahead and always able to find yet another ingenious and fiendish way to get to them. But that didn’t worry me either. It’s not exclusively a slasher trope anyway. Agatha Christie did the same thing with And Then There Were None back in 1939, and as in that original classic, Dark Tides provides convincing rhyme and reason for the mayhem, which we know will all be made clear in due course. It’s a traditional but timeless set-up for an absorbing thriller.

The characterisation is also interesting.

Chris Ewan set himself a difficult task here by jumping about between the decades and yet always dealing with the same bunch of people. That might be easily manageable if it was one or two, but here it’s six or seven, and yet he does it very effectively, keeping a tight rein on everyone. At no stage did I feel that any of the characters had veered off in an unbelievable direction, even though, as the years roll by, more and more slow-emerging facts add essential detail to their personalities and backgrounds.

Claire’s ongoing relationship with David in particular needed to be very deftly handled, not just because there’s a romance angle here, but because there’s a considerable degree of mystery too, and yet it completely satisfies.

Claire herself is a likeable heroine. In many ways a bit of an everywoman. A goodie two-shoes when she was a youngster and a police officer when older – so maybe that marks her out a little – but as a copper, not especially great at the job and not someone you feel is destined to go a long way in law enforcement. Which makes a nice change from the haggard, time-served detective who’s still able to run with the best.

This unremarkable nature is all the more compelling, of course, when you consider that, like her friends, Claire is harbouring a terrible guilt over a vicious act that she sleepwalked into and which was completely out of character for her, but which nevertheless had a serious outcome and at any time, even years and years later, could ruin her life. That would take some effort to deal with even for a more conventionally heroic lead, so the author has a lot of fun depicting Claire Cooper’s tortured struggles.

We don’t go immensely deeply into Claire’s other friends, but there is enough there, in all cases, to see them, to hear them, to believe in them.

That said, the book’s secondary characters provide a couple of bumps in the road. Claire’s police boss is a throwback to the ‘good old days’, a gruff wideboy who never plays by the rules and is, dare I say it, a little bit of a cliché. While Edward Caine, one of the main villains of the piece, is a cruel, creepy control-freak of a millionaire, who has no obvious redeeming features; another type that we’ve seen several times before (Mr Burns, anyone?). Again, though, they all fit neatly into the plot, and neither really grated on me.

Did it scare me, though?

Dark Tides was billed as ‘Truly chilling,’ by The Observer, as ‘A chilling read,’ by The Guardian, and as ‘a bone-chilling mystery’ by My Weekly.

Well … I’m afraid I can’t agree with those assessments, though there is one scene, which I won’t spoil for you, which I’d describe as a claustrophobe’s nightmare and personally found toe-curlingly horrific. But otherwise I suspect I’m immune to being scared by novels now, having read so much dark fiction.

Don’t be put off, however. Dark Tides packs enough pace and tension, and continues to ask such intriguing questions that it keeps you reading right through to its enjoyable climax, which you might just conceivably have seen coming, but which in my case at least was still a great way to wrap up a dark romp of a crime story.

Moreover, this one was a welcome change of scene for me. It was a relief to get way from the crime-ridden inner city or the bleak moorlands of Northern Britain. It was also refreshing that we weren’t seeing this series of murders through the eyes of an investigating copper, but from the perspective of a potential victim and someone so torn by their own nightmarish secrets that they are almost completely isolated. The sense of jeopardy was much higher as a result, and the overall experience infinitely more thrilling. An excellent autumn thriller all round.

You’ll be aware by now that I always like to end these book reviews with my own ‘just-for-fun’ casting session for those actors I envisage taking the lead roles, but today I’m making an exception. Most of the characters travel back and forth in time, from being young children to young adults, and visiting several stages in between. Even the most skilled and experienced casting director would find that a challenge, so imagine my pathetic chances.

(If anyone owns the scary house image at the top of this column, which I found floating around online, just give me a shout and I will happily post a credit, or will remove if that is required).