The Ghosts of Candleford by Mike Jefferies
(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 249 pages, paperback; published 19 July 1999.)
The Ghosts of Candleford begins with a photograph, taken in an East Anglian pub during World War II, and showing an American airman with two English friends. The airman's grandson, Hollis Calvin, finds the photograph amongst his late father's possessions. To the grandson's surprise, he finds both himself and his father in the photograph too, though his father progressively fades away. The photograph both frightens Calvin, and invites him to investigate the mystery. Why is he there, when Hollis never saw his grandfather, who went missing during the war, over fifty years ago?
From such an intriguing beginning, Hollis Calvin travels to Britain to find the village depicted in the photograph, and to investigate the mystery of his grandfather's disappearance. Almost as soon as he lands in Britain, he begins to have strange dreams of drowning in fenland, and three mysterious apparitions begin to haunt him, so that Hollis cannot turn away from his quest.
There is an art to the successful ghost story. It has to have a pace to it that draws the reader inexorably into the story, almost despite themselves. The best of the breed builds slowly, feeding the reader increasing amounts of shock value, and then ends in a gratifying and cathartic denouement, solving the puzzle and restoring the balance between life (represented usually by the heroes) and death (the ghost or ghosts).
On the last point, at least, Mike Jefferies' The Ghosts of Candleford complies. At the end of his story, the balance is restored, a wrong has been righted and an ancient evil removed from the scene. I am not that convinced by what has gone before, however. The pacing of the story seems wrong, building too quickly to a plateau, then evening out for too long a time before the next 'happening'.
And the climax of the story happens at a remove from the heroes - they watch, but do not participate. The reader's involvement in the story is strained by this confounding of convention, for the ghost story is such a traditional form, that a reader has expectations from the beginning. Confounding those expectations is all very well, but the author must deliver something special in return. Mike Jefferies fails in that, delivering instead something that stumbles and falls.
Interesting in places, with some nice touches, but ultimately a disappointment.
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© John D Owen 4 September 1999