Book Review: Closer Still by Richard Farren Barber

“Barber has created something marvelous here—a modern ghost story that manages to succeed as both supernatural chiller and high school drama.”

 

The small, independent presses have been killing it recently. While the bigger outfits may yet have a ways to go (though they too, have been impressing lately), smaller publishers have been absolutely spoiling fans of horror. One of the most popular types of release has been the novella, both for writers and readers. Perhaps it is the size; all the detail of a novel but without the need for that format’s investment. Or maybe it’s simply that sustained horror is easier over a shorter word-count. For sure, there are plenty of authors who are delivering the chills in longer works, but many more seem very comfortable with shorter narratives. One of those small presses taking advantage of this is Black Shuck Books, who, like many other publishers, have embarked on a signature series of novellas. To date, there are currently only four in this run, though they are impressive titles. Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins and Dead Leaves by Andrew David Barker (both reissues). And two originals; The Three Books by Paul StJohn Mackintosh (previously reviewed on This is Horror) and the subject of this review, Closer Still by Richard Farren Barber.

The story concerns a group of five teenage girls who all attend the same school. Up until recently, they were inseparable, best friends. But now there are only four because one of them is dead. Yet despite this, she is not yet gone. The ghost of Katie seemingly haunts one of the group, Rachel. Yet this is almost the least of Rachel’s worries. She has been ostracized from the gang by the other three, who now wage a quiet campaign of bullying against her. Led by Sarah, she, Francine and Joanna appear to have nothing but enmity towards Rachel. And so Barber refracts a story of high school bullying, friendships and rivalries, through the lens of a chilling ghost story.

It opens with a short chapter showing Rachel trying to remain oblivious as Katie appears in her bedroom. It’s clear as the story progresses that this has happened numerous times before, and we are months past Katie’s tragic, as of yet unknown, demise. Thereafter, Rachel engages Katie in conversation, and we see through the living girl’s eyes how quickly she has adjusted to the bizarre circumstances she has found herself in. Through use of Rachel’s inner voice we see that she is wary of Katie, but also preoccupied with the predicament she is in at school. It’s immediately apparent that Barber is in full command of his skills as a writer. The prose is crisp and clear, and also expressive and poetic when it needs to be. Barber tightly controls the pace and rhythm of the narrative, relating only what he wants to, and hinting at what he wants to hint at. He also walks a fine line—and walks it well—between progressing the story and giving the reader only enough information to tantalise. But he also holds enough back so there is no choice but to push on.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is how Barber convincingly renders the lives and actions of a group of teenaged girls. Though any good writer should be able to place themselves inside the mind of a life not their own, to do so authentically about this particular demographic surely must present its own trying challenges. So, it’s a testament to his abilities that at no point does the reader feel they are reading anything less than the inner-thoughts of young women navigating the perils and pitfalls of high school. And it’s compelling stuff, too. The fear and anxiety is palpable, presented with a knowing eye for detail. Barber places us right in the middle of all the uncertainty, the shifting loyalties, the pain of being singled out for being different. Or walking a path that deviates by even a hair’s breadth from that which is considered the “norm” by the social group consensus. If you’ve ever felt out of place or picked on at school, you’ll recognise the pain within these pages. Adding in a haunting—albeit one that doesn’t follow traditional ghost story narratives—is a master-stroke. It enhances the tension, increases the sense of dread. And of those there is plenty. Though we are not initially told the circumstances behind Katie’s death—that comes much later in the story—we can see it binds the girls in a complex web of blame and guilt, loyalty and power.

Rachel’s isolation grows and grows as Barber layers her ordeal with incident after incident. And Sarah, far from being a stereotypical “bad girl”, is complex and rounded, three-dimensional. Meanwhile, Katie’s obscure motives—as motivated as a ghost can be—are gradually given flesh (pardon the pun). Rachel’s increasing anxiety about what Katie can affect in the “real world” adds to her trials. And it all builds to a tense, dread-filled conclusion that is both inevitable and surprising; it informs what has preceded it, but also shifts reader assumptions.

Barber has created something marvelous here—a modern ghost story that manages to succeed as both supernatural chiller and high school drama. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully written and masterfully told. Barber gives us characters we feel as real people, who we can care about and feel afraid of and for. He places them in a situation that feels all too plausible—even with the supernatural elements—and which unfolds naturally. It is the perfect mix of showing and telling, giving us action appropriate to the story and inner-monologues as each character is affected by that action. And it is, as all great novellas should be, the perfect length. Though the reader would not be averse to more of this story, Barber says all he needs to with what he’s produced. There is certainly no padding here, and we are not short-changed when it comes to atmosphere, tension, and scares. It’s a fantastic story and deserves to be read far and wide. Impressive stuff, and a fine introduction to Barber’s work.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Paperback :128 (pps)
Release Date: 18 September 2018

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