It's 1958, and teen Cora and her younger sister Mimi are sent their Aunt Ida's home in the village to be watched while their father is away on business. Their mother is sick, and she's unable to keep an eye on them (this is a thread in the story that won't be picked up much, but savvy readers will understand what mom's illness is and understand why she cannot care for her children). Despite knowing that bad things happen when children are under Ida's care, their father has little choice but to send them away. As soon as the girls arrive, they're greeted with strange things. There's a carving above the front door of Ida's house with a creepy face. They're not allowed to use that door, either. Always the back door.
It doesn't stop there, though. Cora keeps seeing things. Keeps seeing people, visions, hearing noises and voices. Aunt Ida keeps a scary photo of a long-dead relative above the bathroom door that not only creeps Cora out, but it is the reason Mimi will not use the bathroom at night. Ida refuses to take the picture down, and she is insistent on limiting the places in her home where the girls can go. All of the windows the house are sealed shut, too. It is sweltering inside all of the time. Of course, this only heightens the tension in the story. It's a haunted house. Or so we're led to believe.
Cora and her sister meet a local boy, Roger, and his younger brother, and they take the girls down to the church they're not supposed to be in. Weird things happen there, too. They think they hear voices. They think they see things. And then there's the carving "cave bestiam" they're seeing everywhere. Then there's the hole in the gate near the cemetery. Seems like it's a fairly unremarkable thing, but it plays a big role in the story. Oh, then there are the marshes near Ida's home. The ones that go in and out. The ones she fixates on.
I've failed to mention something: there's been a lot of death under Ida's watchful eye. Her son died when he was very young. There was also another death while someone was under her care. The details are a little sketchy. So to say that Cora is worried about being under Ida's care would be an understatement. But the feeling is mutual: Ida doesn't want to be responsible for more children. Doesn't want the blood on her hands,
Long Lankin offers up all of the pieces of a creepy story. There are the voices. The deaths. The haunted house. But never once is the tale handed over to us as readers. Instead, we're right there in Cora and Roger's heads as they work together to piece these things together. All the while, we're wondering if anything is really happening at all or if this is all in their heads. They're teenagers after all. And Aunt Ida has a secret past, one wrought with misfortune. Why doesn't she want people to go to the church? Why does she lock all of the windows? Why the heck won't she tell anyone what is going on?
The tension in this story builds upon itself, and the writing is incredibly atmospheric. There's no waiting period to fall into this book; it happens from page one. It reminded me a lot of how Susan Hill builds a world in The Woman in Black and there are a number of similarities between Hill's novel and Barraclough's, but never in a bad way. Long Lankin doesn't fall into the biggest trap of atmospheric writing though: never once does it get in the way of story telling. In fact, it's never even used as a slight of hand -- we're never led to believe one thing or another about the story via the writing. We're given every single piece to put together, but because the writing is so strong and begs the reader to be engaged, you never want to put them together. You want to let Barraclough do it. I found myself a little worried about the pay off in this story because I was enjoying the writing so much. About 300 pages in, I had a good grasp on where the book would end and who would come out ahead and who may not come out at all. And while many of my predictions came to fruition, I still found myself with chills through the last 100 pages of the story. Even in the end, I found myself creeped out and haunted by what had happened. That it ACTUALLY went there, rather than backing down when the option presented itself was huge.
The pacing in this book is noteworthy, especially as there are a few passages in the story that could have easily become information dumps and not in a good way. There are a lot of secondary characters, and many of them hold the keys to the back story of Ida, of her home, and of the town's history. All of these elements are crucial to the story, but because Barraclough is able to make her story fast-moving, these longer passages that fill Cora and the reader in do not drag or become overwhelming. Not everything that comes up in these passages is all that important, which is crucial to remember when reading through them. The important stuff will reappear. The rest is simply character development of those secondary characters (some who like to ramble and hear their own voices).
Barraclough's story is told through multiple voices: Roger's, Cora's, and Aunt Ida's. The bulk of it is through Cora and Roger, and their voices are unique and distinct. There's the outsider -- Cora -- and there's the insider -- Roger. Cora has never had these experiences and has no knowledge of this world, whereas Roger has grown up here and has a handle of what strange things happen. Ida, who offers her perspective much less than the other two (she is, of course, the adult and this is a teen novel), gives us even more insider information than Roger can, as she's been the victim of the haunts. She's been the victim of great loss, too.
Ida is, without doubt, my favorite character in the novel, too. She's broken and aching and miserable, and she's not afraid to BE that way, even if it means Cora and Mimi get treated kind of crummy. Ida's got every right to behave that way, and as the story unravels and we learn more about who Ida is, we understand this first hand. She blames herself for the terrible things that have happened to other people in her life. She's ready to blame herself for what would inevitably happen to the girls in her care, too. And when the world starts spinning out of control, when the dead are no longer resting because they just can't, she gets an incredibly satisfying payoff at the end. Here's a spoiler (skip down to the next paragraph if you don't want it): Ida will get to die in this story, but it is so what she deserves, and I don't mean that in a cruel way. She's so heavy with guilt and anxiety that the only way she can escape the misery is through death. The only way the family can end the haunting is through her death. The only way that Lankin can maybe rest is through her death. And she gets to be the hero who saves Mimi, too. Where she couldn't save her own son or the girls' aunt, she gets to save these two. While it seems obvious to me the spirit of Lankin will never die, despite being put back into the graveyard through the fence in the final scene, what Ida does at least saves this story. And that was the reward. It was the good enough. Because the thing is: I don't want a clean ending in my scary stories. I want the possibility to still be there lingering, even if these characters aren't the ones who will be touched again.
There are a couple of missteps in the book, but neither of them impact the plot. The first revolves around Aunt Ida: there are hints at her marriage and being married to a guy she wasn't necessarily interested in being married to. This leads to a flashback in her narrative, and I didn't think either the storyline about her relationship nor the flashback were necessary. They could have easily been taken out and the story would have been a little tighter. The other problem was that there were a lot of secondary characters, both those in the present and in the past, and they could be tough to keep track of. Fortunately, most of them do not matter to the story and instead are purposeful distractions. They aren't red herrings, but they sort of serve the purpose of throwing the reader a little bit of a loop so the story isn't completely predictable.
Long Lankin was one of those rare books I was able to read almost entirely in one sitting, despite being over 450 pages long. It captured my attention and kept it. Even when I could see what was coming, I did not care. And I didn't see ALL of it coming, either. Barraclough pulled enough punches and offered up enough clues to keep me questioning whether my thoughts were right or were going to be twisted. That it also scared me in the end was a huge pay off. I wanted to feel a little haunted and a little crooked, and I was. Though the bulk of this book has no gore because the chills rely on tension and on the spiritual haunts, there is a physical threat in this book and there are somewhat gruesome scenes, particularly in the end. Readers who like scary stories will absolutely want to read this one, as will fans of horror tales that work within the haunted house/haunted town/ghost realm. This IS creepy, rather than more humorous, so it's not for readers unwilling to let themselves be scared. These aren't paranormal creatures. These aren't the sorts of creeps you're expecting, and perhaps that's what makes it chilling. Fans of Hill's novel (not the movie) will love the atmospheric writing and the weaving of many similar elements into the tension building (especially the marshes! Oh the marshes!). Barraclough's book taps into the notion of death and life, of what it means to finally be at rest, and really, of what it means to be scared at all. Without doubt, this is a book that I am going to remember for a long time. It is an impressive debut and I am so looking forward to what Barraclough offers next.
Review copy received from the publisher. Long Lankin came out Tuesday!