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Book Review: The Feast of All Souls by Simon Bestwick

“We can happily say that Simon Bestwick sticks the knife smoothly into his readers before he starts twisting it around.”

In his latest novel, Simon Bestwick has taken what appears on the surface to be a traditional haunted house ghost story, and twisted it into something altogether stranger and unique. Something that in no way can be called traditional, blending genres and playing them off each other to form a new, unexpected whole. A book of loss, of cruelty, and of the unsettled spirits of the past.

The story is a slow burn, pulling a reader into it, and telling us from the very beginning that there are two narratives, both centered around a suburb of the English city of Manchester, both involving interesting women struggling to find out how they fit in with their realities. Our lead is Alice Collier, a scientist who has retreated to her new home at 378 Collarmill Road, a fixer-upper, perhaps too large for her alone, but necessary for her to roam the rooms at night when she is restless. She’s battling demons of her recent past, the loss of a child, the collapse of her marriage, and she’s desperate to rebuild some sort of life out of the ruins.

“A dead child tore a piece of you away. The wound might heal, but something would always be missing, something hard and dead left in its place.”

Alice’s story is paired with the confession of Mary Carson, who recounts the spring of 1837, when she was a young secretary who came to Crawbeck to work in Springcross House for the wealthy mill owner, Arodias Thorne. It soon becomes apparent that Miss Carson is in over her head.

As tensions rise in both stories, Bestwick starts to tease the readers with voices in the dark, and moving shadows. The hills of Collarmill Road are most definitely haunted, but what seems a straight-forward horror movie scenario deviates radically when the doors of the house are opened, and the world outside is drastically and dramatically changed. Alice is left shocked and scared, worried that her anti-depressives are creating all-too-real hallucinations. The ground rumbles, the trees crack, and the Beast of Browton emerges, and hallucination or not, Alice is left running for her life.

Mary returns and is caught up in a Gothic romance as she tries to puzzle out Thorne and his interest in her. She too sees the ghosts of the hill, but dismisses them as nerves. Without going into spoilers, we can happily say that Simon Bestwick sticks the knife smoothly into his readers before he starts twisting it around.

Bestwick uses every tool he has in this novel. Horror and history, fantasy and even science fiction, all play a part. The house at 378 Collarmill Road is not a Shirley Jackson pile or an Overlook Hotel, but has more in common with the House in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. At times, the shifting elements and tones of the novel—or how Alice’s priorities and motivations slip into the more mundane territory of relationships—work against the story and slowed the pace, leaving a reader to ponder certain choices or how everything could possibly fit together. Luckily, every squirming new reveal in The Feast of All Souls pushes us toward a bloody, collapsing climax, where all of the puzzling components are brought together into an epic crescendo, reminding a reader that their in the hands of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, and how he wants a reader to feel.

Bestwick’s use of language and character, as well as the concrete foundation of his setting, pulled The Feast of All Souls back into a story that’s worth the ride and helps to solidify Ramsey Campbell’s statement that Simon Bestwick is “among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.”

JAKE MARLEY

 

Publisher: Solaris
Paperback (382 pp)
Release Date: 6 December 2016

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