|Chaz Brenchley: House of Doors
||[Jan. 11th, 2012|10:31 pm]
As I was saying, Chaz Brenchley has a fine track record of writing outstanding short stories, and that goes double for one particular class of short story, the ghost story. The set-up, the growing unease, the twist, the reveal - I simplify, I generalise, but still, these elements work brilliantly at short story length. But what happens when you try to sustain a ghost story at novel length?
Well, if you're lucky you get House of Doors.
This sequel (broadly speaking) to The Keys of D'Espérance might have been called The Doors of D'Espérance - it's about a house to which (the clue is in the name) people come when they are at the end of their tether, and about those people and what they find in that house. There are potentially any number of stories, visiting the house at different periods in history, and considering the various fates that might befall a large, remote, unbeautiful house (because Chaz Brenchley also writes well about houses).
House of Doors is set during the Second World War: D'Espérance is now RAF Morwood, a hospital for airmen with horrifying burns, and Ruth Taylor, recently widowed and looking for death, accepts a nursing post there. But before she can even enter the house, right at the door, she is met by - "of course" - the face of her dead husband.
Within the house she finds her patients, men whose injuries are - well, I used the word "horrifying" earlier, and I meant it. There is horror here, and though some of it is supernatural, more of it lies in the damage that the human body can sustain and still survive. These are the injuries that create the 'horribly disfigured' Phantom of the Opera horror, and I am, for reasons of my own, grateful for Chaz for not doing this, for making the reader aware of what his characters have suffered, of how they have been damaged by it and of the pioneering skills of those who treated them, but for pointing out too that after the initial shock, that 'horribly disfigured' face becomes just another familiar face.
I don't know whether a purist would accept House of Doors as a ghost story at novel length. It's a novel, certainly, an exciting, moving novel, and it has a ghost in it. But RAF Morwood has mysteries of its own, and these gradually reveal a story of war and how it is waged, heroism and what it costs. There's a wartime romance, which pulls off the trick of making sense to a modern reader while still making sense by the standards of the 1940s. What makes the ghost story central is an almost meta quality, the way the narrative takes the convention of the haunted house and turns it inside out, confronting the reader with questions about what it would mean to be haunted, how we might feel about ghosts if we thought of them as more than a thrilling fantasy. It invites you to be carried along by the story, but also to carry on thinking about what it means, long after you have reached the end.
Which I suppose makes it haunting at yet another level*.
More about D'Espérance.
*Sorry. You may groan.