Reviewing: The Haunting of Henderson Close by Catherine Cavendish

TW for: Gore, sexual assault, mentions of abuse, suicide

“A final tear tracked its way down Miss Carmichael’s face as the darkness enveloped her for the last time.

In the shadows, a well-dressed young man moved, unnoticed by the crowd gathered over the dead woman. A smile creased his lips as he walked away.”

The Haunting of Henderson Close has a good, solid premise: the site of historical ‘ghost tour’ type walks about turns out to actually be haunted, and the people who work there find out that something terrible had been unleashed. Sounds good, right up my alley (I’m a sucker for a real ghost/found footage/historical tour sort of scenario) but Henderson close and its various Scottish ghosts let me down a bit. Why? Well allow me to explain.

“You’re getting used to the atmosphere down there. It can be really daunting at first. We had one young chap who lasted one tour. I heard screaming, not far from Miss Carmichael’s corner. When I got down there, all hell had let loose. He was shaking, white as a corpse and pointing at something it seemed he could see but no one else could. He was babbling incoherently and his eyes.… Well, I’ve never seen anything like it. Needless to say the visitors were well and truly spooked. One lady fainted in my arms and had to be carried out. As for him, he took to his heels and we never saw him again.”“What had he seen? Or thought he’d seen?” Ailsa shrugged. “No idea. He never told us. Wouldn’t answer our phone calls and sent his elder brother to collect his P45.”

At first this book was doing a good job. Henderson Close was suitably creepy, and the idea that there might actually be ghosts in the old streets of Edinburgh wasn’t so far-fetched that you had to suspend your disbelief in order to read about it. Hannah, following a recent divorce, has decided to move away and find a new job as an actress and tour guide in the close, it seems like her ideal job, and her co-workers seem lovely, it’s all looking up – until she sees a woman who shouldn’t be there wandering about in Henderson Close and calls out to her in front of a group of people. Dismissed as a trick of the light, or the outcome of a creepy place and an active imagination, Hannah is ready to let it go until she sees her again. As the mysteries of the Close start piling up, and one of her new friends goes missing, Hannah is more and more convinced that there’s something down there beyond shadows and old newspapers – something evil, and it’s coming for them all.

“More ghost stories?” she asked. Mairead shuddered. “More ghoulish really. George was referring to the old legend that Farquhars Close was some sort of gateway to hell. It was one of the first Closes to go and was sealed very quickly. The story goes that a devil was walled up there and if he should ever be let loose, Edinburgh would burn.”

Now when it comes to horror, I am of the mind that too much exposure to the ‘scary thing’ – monster, ghost, curse – can ruin the atmosphere. I find it creepier to have an unseen thing slowly but surely become more and more undeniably real than have furniture floating around a room and ghosts in clanking chains predicting the end of days on every page. When done well, that direct exposure can be fantastic – but I felt that the moment certain elements of the hauntings reared their head, Henderson Close lost a little of its psychological spookiness. Certain bits of it were very well done, the early events – apparitions and disappearances, Hannah’s realisation that she might be seeing things – were great, and then the author introduced time slips and my attention began to flag. At one point, a paranormal investigative team pops in for a visit, and as opposed to doing the clever thing and laying low, the ghosts of Henderson Close ramp up the spook factor and put on a show.

“Bloody hell, I’ve really got something.”

At the entrance to the shop, a mist swirled and weaved around itself, as if it were trying to form into something solid. A shape. Human, maybe.

“What are you seeing with the camera?”Dave asked. “Are you getting any more detail?”

Rory peered hard, looked away, blinked and peered again.

“It’s a child. A young girl. There’s something…not right. Oh fuck.”He lowered the camera.

“Don’t do that,”Kate yelled. “You’ll lose the footage. This is the first time—”

“She has no face, Kate.”

“What?”

“The little girl in the mist. She has no face.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this sort of activity might convince people that Hannah isn’t mad/lying/looking for better ticket sales? Nope. Still, nobody believes her. Except her two work friends, one of whom keeps spontaneously disappearing. All this being said, pulling out every haunting trick in the book isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Have you ever read The Haunting of Hill House? The haunting in that book is hardly subtle, it’s definitely there, but it’s fab. So I was willing to stick with it and see where it was going – after all, who the ghostly killer of the Close actually was did take me by surprise and made a lot of sense in hindsight. Then there was a graphic scene of sexual assault and murder that felt entirely out of place in the book as a whole – and that was the point at which I just wanted to finish. Up until that point, the book had been fairly young-reader-friendly in most respects. That scene was hard to read, and there was nothing of the same tone before or after. I like horror, I can read some upsetting things, there is a proper way to deal with them to make them relevant and readable – to me, this was neither. Even reading the quotes I highlighted to remind myself of the plot later on (on kindle, fear not dear readers) made me deeply uncomfortable to revisit. (Don’t worry, I’m not including any of those!)

“Who’s there?” she called, her voice echoing all around her.

Silence. It came again. Closer now. Indistinct. Chatter.

“Who is that? Who’s down here?”

Silence. Giggling. More angry than scared , Hannah’s anger rose from the pit of her stomach . “This isn’t funny. No one is supposed to be down here. Show yourself. This instant.”

“I don’t think you’d like that.”

Overall, this was for me a book with a very promising set up and a thoroughly disappointing end result. I really enjoyed some parts of it, but the parts I didn’t enjoy managed to overshadow and swallow them by the end of the book. Haunted house horror – or haunted street in this instance – is hard to pull off, and perhaps I’m just outside the target readership. I enjoy more psychological forms of horror, and this book very much hinged on the fact that this was all real, visible and almost undeniable (unless you are Hannah’s boss), and it lost its mystery along the way.

Overall Rating 2 books out of 5

A copy of this book was provided by netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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