by Simon Kearns
123 pages, Bloodbound Books
Review by Pat Black
Aside from a study in the 1980s (Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, Zeddemore et al), ghost stories and science don't tend to get along.
Usually, one has to destroy the other - with either vengeful spirits pulling the plug on recording equipment, prior to their all-important reveal, or scientists debunking the phantoms as hoaxes, delusions, unlikely coincidences or odd manifestations of natural phenomena.
Dark Waves by Simon Kearns is an attempt to equalise this natural tension between science and fantasy.
It sees John Stedman, something of a modern-day ghost hunter, travelling to the sites of notorious British hauntings. In his own way he is a debunker, but not in the sense of exposing fraud. He seeks to unravel the true environmental cause of supernatural experiences.
John is something of a superhero. After he nearly drowns as a child, he gains a strange ability to detect sound waves which exist below the range of human hearing, called infrasonics (anything below 20Hz). This follows a theory that these undetected sounds can influence humans' nervous systems and mood, prompting negative feelings and physical side-effects. In other words, what people go through when they get a "bad feeling" about a place - or if they think they've seen a ghost.
Being unusually sensitive to infrasound, John can "tune in" to its presence. Then, using computer equipment, he can isolate the source before sealing it off. Thus, the physical source of the "haunting" is gone forever. It's something of a secular exorcism.
As you might expect, things get complicated. John heads to a historic pub, The Dawlish Inn, reportedly haunted by several phantoms in the basement. No-one who works there enjoys going down those stairs. With a local newspaper reporter and a technician in tow, John carries out his investigations. It seems that the infrasonic disruption is far worse than usual in the basement - and the sounds don't seem to have any obvious source.
First things first: Dark Waves is unsettling. It sets the ground well for the type of modern ghost story British TV producers used to do very well - like Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, Stephen Volk's Ghostwatch or any number of episodes of anthology series like Out of the Unknown.
Things go bump in the dark, as you might expect, but what makes Dark Waves unusual, if not unique, is that it takes spooky experiences as a given. To begin with, the question isn't "is there a ghost there?" but "what's making these sounds?" Of course, as readers we are given to wonder, despite what John repeatedly tells asserts in the story.
Without showing too much of his hand, Kearns allows plenty of room for us to wonder if there's something truly inexplicable happening in that basement.
It also eschews a pet hate of mine in ghost stories: "Was there a ghost, or was the person in the story just a bit mad?" But that's not to say the people in the tale aren't worth examination or don't merit suspicion. Just enough is revealed about the principals as well as the bar owners and staff to allow us to wonder if there isn't some more earthly cause of the basement's sinister vibes.
With Dark Waves, Simon Kearns gives us a neat variation on Charles Dickens' assertion in "The Haunted House" - that the face of the ghost we fear might very well be our own, from the past.
There's also some very neat sleight-of-hand in the narrative, including one utterly audacious chapter which threw me for a spin.
So: ghost or not? I can't spoil that for you - it'd be a crime. It's scary, though, and that's all that matters.
Read the author interview here.