March 6, 2012


by Helen Dunmore
208 pages, Hammer

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

After reading Guy Adams' gloriously silly “Kronos”, I was more than a little bit keen to see what other treats Hammer books had in store. Their most recent publication is “The Greatcoat”, an original work by prize-winning Helen Dunmore.

The novel is set in Yorkshire in the early 1950s. The seismic effects of the second world war are still being felt – rationing is still in force, affordable housing is in short supply and the countryside is littered with abandoned airfields. It is against this bleak, austere backdrop that the story plays out and whilst it could hardly be called traditional Hammer horror territory (there's not a spooky castle or mouldering crypt in sight), the setting is surprisingly effective and adds to the grey, brooding atmosphere.

The story follows recently married Isabel Carey, a young intelligent woman whose role as a doctor's wife does not sit comfortably with her intellectual aspirations. Her husband works long hours, leaving Isabel alone in their cold, cramped flat. Whilst she tries to make the best of her new life, she takes little pleasure in cooking or household chores and feels increasingly isolated from the affairs of the village. A particularly cold night leads to her discovering an old RAF greatcoat hidden in a cupboard and she takes to using it as an extra blanket on their bed. However, her discovery of the greatcoat leads to supernatural visitations from a mysterious airman who taps at her window late at night when her husband is out on call. Although the man is a stranger, Isabel has a feeling she knows him and finds herself quickly drawn into a secretive and desperate relationship. Each time they meet, Isabel learns a little more about her ghostly lover and his tragic death.

Hammer books are clearly trying to shake off the “boobs and blood” reputation the studio gained in the 1970s. Commissioning Orange prize winner Helen Dunmore to write an original novel is a good place to start. Whilst not a lengthy novel, “The Greatcoat” is an effective little page-turner. The character of Isabel is utterly believable and very well rounded. She is sympathetic enough to make the reader care for her yet enigmatic enough to sustain our interest. A frustrated soul, Isabel's frustration with domestic life is at first delivered with a subtle touch but as the novel progresses so does the sense of claustrophobia and panic. Indeed, Isabel's relationship with the ghostly airman could be as a manifestation of her suppressed desire to escape the confines of her married life. Other characters are equally well created. Isabel's husband is a workaholic doctor who struggles to show affection to his new bride and utterly fails to notice (or pay attention to) her isolation and growing unhappiness.

As already mentioned, the world of 1950s Yorkshire is suitably dull and drab, both familiar and ordinary with an unsettling undercurrent of misery and depression. Dunmore conjures a very convincing domestic hell for her central character – complete with a snooping landlady whose sinister presence only serves to make both Isabel and the reader all the more uncomfortable. The stifling atmosphere of Isabel's flat and the miserable winter setting both help set the tone for the book. Unfortunately, where “The Greatcoat” falls flat is once the reader becomes accustomed to the dreary, somewhat discomforting setting, there's not a lot else to send chills up the spine. This is Dunmore's first ghost story... and it shows. The build-up to the first appearance of the spectral airman is very well done and Dunmore sweeps the reader along with the atmospheric scene-setting. However, once the ghost has shown himself and the relationship between him and Isabel begins to develop, the story loses any sense of momentum. Worse yet, it really isn't very scary at all. The last time I checked the list of things a ghost story should do, at the top of the list was “Give you the willies.” There aren't any willies in this book (although the ghostly airman's is mentioned one or two times, fnarr fnarr). Once the reader gets past the great atmosphere and sombre tone, all that is left is a pretty limp and predictable tale.

A short book, “The Greatcoat” is more of a novella than a full-length novel. It never overstays its welcome and is sufficiently well-written to ensure most readers will stick with it right to the somewhat disappointing ending. This is not a bad novel by any stretch of the imagination. It is well-written, heaps of atmosphere and an interesting central character. However, those looking for a decent scare are advised to look elsewhere. There's nothing here that wasn't done (and done better) by M.R. James over a hundred years ago.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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