250pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson
I like Peter Benson’s writing. I loved his tender and evocative debut novel The Levels and so did many others. It won the 1987 Guardian Fiction Prize, and he went on to write more award-winning novels.
Twenty-five years on and his work has lost none of its power to create thick atmosphere and a palpable sense of place. In his latest novel, a young book-valuer, David Morris – thoughtlessly content with his life in Edwardian London – is sent to darkest Somerset to value the library of the deceased Lord Buff-Orpington, in a set-up that recalls the ghost stories of Susan Hill. The book collection is a revelation, but a growing feeling of dread pervades his task, particularly after Morris encounters the sinister figure of Professor Richard Hunt whilst out walking, and catches the awful sight of a woman imprisoned in his house, which resounds with her screams at an unknown agony.
It is hard to fault Benson’s ability to unwind the intrigue of a character, nor his talent for creating unease. With the moon ‘swollen’, the wood ‘a rash across the side of the hill’, and the tops of the trees ‘gashing the skyline’, Morris mounts a genuinely nail-biting rescue bid, only to uncover the inhuman scientific horror that has been wreaked upon the woman called Isabel.
Now for fear of spoiling I can’t reveal what this horror is, except to say that it should be skin-crawlingly foul; and its discovery a nauseating shock. It isn’t. It’s not that the atrocity is unconvincing in itself: the scientific explanation holds water, and we are left in little doubt that Isabel is in hideous pain from her transformation. This is no ghost story, and therefore plausibility shouldn’t be an issue. But it all feels faintly preposterous, particularly with a final plot twist that is bathetic rather than arresting. It’s as if, having so carefully crafted all the elements of a horror story – the cries of curlews, marshes, black trees, and a dark, castellated mansion – Benson couldn’t go through with the gothic. And for a writer of such long-standing talent, that’s a pity.