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Books

Ghosts tingle spines in chiller

Do ghosts exist, and if they do, can you kill them? It's a centuries-old question that religions, mystics and mystery writers have tried to answer, never successfully.

Irish novelist John Boyne offers his take on how to deal with the undead in a spine-tingling ode to the classic Victorian-era chiller, just in time for Halloween.

Eliza Caine, a schoolteacher in 1867 London, has her life turned upside down when her father dies suddenly. Bereft of other family and in grief, Eliza makes the impulsive decision to leave London, responding to a strangely-worded advertisement for a governess in rural Norfolk.

But Eliza is the sixth nanny in only a year at the eerie house, Gaudlin Hall. The children she is hired to educate are odd, older than their years. They're keeping a secret, as is everyone else in the house and the small town nearby, a secret they won't share.

Even stranger, the children's parents seem to exert a continual influence over them, yet they are nowhere to be found. When unseen forces nearly kill Eliza, she sets out to unravel the mystery.

Eliza's sheltered upbringing leaves her unprepared for the challenges she faces. She sees the children are damaged and need to be rescued from the evil bedeviling them.

But she is buffeted by the unbridled sexism that was a trademark of Victorian society, where a woman's intelligence was ignored or mocked by supposedly enlightened, scientific men.

The hypocrisy of the institutional church, which can't tolerate the possibility of any interpretation of the world it hasn't invented, angers her and steels her determination to carry on.

Best known for his books exploring major historical events -- among his eight novels are Mutiny on the Bounty, The Absolutist and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas -- Boyne recreates the Gothic novel brilliantly.

In The House Is Haunted he echoes the voice of such 19th-century classics as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

Boyle is a master chameleon, taking on a Dickensian voice (Charles Dickens also makes an appearance) to give the story authenticity.

Maids literally disappear around corners, chunks of stone fall inexplicably from the eaves, an invisible force chokes Eliza nearly to death.

The decrepit house, with its dark corridors, hidden passages and sealed windows, is as much a nemesis to Eliza as the invisible spirit.

While Eliza struggles to guard her sanity and save her life, she also has endearing moments with the children and experiences the glimmer of hope she might find love in this rustic backwater.

Boyne imitates an antique style, but this is a very contemporary, relevant tale. His characters reveal unsettling, real-life issues that haunt the tortured souls, alive and dead.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1

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