Unlike an opinion piece in a newspaper, a good novel should give its reader an escape from reality by creating an alternate world they can believe in while the book is open. In Night after Night, however, Phil Rickman reduces the unexplained phenomena haunting an old country house to mere pawns in an argument, meaning the only real tension in the novel lies between believers in the paranormal and non-believers.
In fairness, I’m what Rickman likes to call a "sceptic", as I doubt that ghosts exist; that said, there's nothing I enjoy quite like a good tale. Like magic or inconceivable technology, ghosts are as good a literary device as any, and I can happily suspend my disbelief and dive into an engaging story. Reading Night after Night, I never felt fully absorbed by its narrative, as its line between the novel’s world and our own is too thin.
Night after Night is a ghost story that follows the formula of so many recent novels (The Hunger Games or Christopher Brookmyre’s A Snowball in Hell, for example): take a reality TV setting and add something dark—zombies, a serial killer, or perhaps ghosts—for instant zeitgeist. This provides easy opportunities to throw together contrasting personalities and exploit inherent tensions, many of which Night after Night takes gleefully.
Rickman was first published in 1991 and has written a couple of dozen well-received paranormal fiction novels since. In Night after Night, meanwhile, he uses the structure of the detective story to frame a historical whodunit—or rather a who-haunts-it. TV executive Leo Defford has acquired use of Knap Hall, a grand house in rural England with a chequered past. As part of his broadcasting plans for the old pile, Defford has given his researcher, Grayle Underhill, the task of digging the dirt on the house's history, and the novel's most compelling narrative thrusts emerge from her efforts and revelations.
Alongside the mystery of the house's secrets, Night after Night also features a cunningly named reality TV show set in Knap Hall, featuring a selection of celebrity guests with wildly opposing views on the supernatural. Luckily, there's far more going on here than just commentary on celebrity culture: Rickman explores the nature of faith and the supernatural itself, as well as the tension between non-believers and the credulous. These themes come to dominate the novel so absolutely, however, that they derail the narrative and leave its momentum hamstrung.
Full disclosure: the novel is set in Gloucestershire, in South-West England, which also happens to be where I call home. Rickman paints the area adroitly, describing the landscape especially well: several of his descriptions of familiar locations indicate that he's spent some time in them and walked the local trails. His depiction of local history comes with an understanding that suggests a genuine personal interest. Nonetheless, the Gloucestershire he depicts still feels mostly unfamiliar to me, as the recognisable setting is mixed with alien components such as the supernatural and, more alien still, exclusive celebrity scenes and parties.
The novel’s characters range from the complex to the frustratingly one-dimensional. For the most part, only those who believe in the supernatural (or are at least very open-minded towards it) feel fully formed. Defford himself, for instance, is a stock cynical businessman, doing whatever it takes to make sure the ratings are high, although guessing exactly what he has planned keeps the reader occupied.
Knap Hall’s celebrity guests, meanwhile, have naturally been chosen to represent both ends of the belief spectrum: Helen, a former news correspondent; Roger, a maverick ex-politician; and a slightly unhinged singer/actress named Eloise make up Team Credulous. Ozzy, Rhys, and Ashley are our thinly painted sceptics, all of whom naturally get varying degrees of comeuppance.
Helen and Roger are sympathetically portrayed as open-minded and reasonable characters who want to believe in something higher, and are roundly mocked by society for their beliefs. Eloise, however, exists mostly as a victim and outsider, more harshly punished for her unusual views by social exclusion.
On the other side, Ashley is a coldly logical psychologist who delights in disproving and explaining away people’s profound experiences. Of course, her lack of faith is shaken by Knap Hall, but for the most part she represents Rickman’s view of sceptics, delighting in patronisingly putting down believers: "Well, of course, I would consider them to be either extremely stupid or in need of psychiatric counselling" (p. 259).
Ozzy and Rhys are even more malevolent, coming into the house with ulterior motives and a massive disdain for the supernatural. Rhys especially is incredibly one dimensional, a staunch believer's perfect villain: a selfish, rude, drug-addled member of the establishment who loves to shout down reasonable arguments.
The most convincing characters are Grayle, the TV show’s American researcher, and Cindy, who walks the line between celebrity guest and insider. Grayle is a likeable protagonist, driving the story forward with her determined efforts to find out the house’s history and keep the TV show from hitting a paranormal iceberg. She’s rounded out with a new severe haircut, references to a traumatic past, and a father she can’t ever seem to impress, as shown in flashbacks and an overly direct dream sequence.
Cindy is a far more flamboyant character, a Welsh former TV presenter and ventriloquist who occasionally wields a sinister bird puppet called Kelvyn Kite. Cindy is a transvestite of sorts who practices dowsing and has fallen on hard times; however, Rickman manages to avoid "othering" Cindy better than most writers would. Instead, Cindy’s transvestitism, outcast status, and blurred role inside Knap Hall are metaphors for his having a foot in both camps: the spirit and the material worlds. This gives Cindy a shamanistic role, as he explains himself:
"A foot in both camps, isn't it? About living on the cusp of worlds and on the fringe of society. In the old days, the shaman was, if not exactly an outcast, then certainly someone on the periphery of the tribe, respected but regarded with suspicion and often feared. And would dress accordingly . . . On the, uh, cusp of the sexes." (p. 255).
Rickman writes the characters’ voices especially well, which can make them feel more authentic—even when they are otherwise unrealistic. Even Rhys Sebold feels real at times, as Rickman manages to capture the voice of an agenda-pushing radio presenter perfectly (even if his motives and demeanour feel less genuine). Similarly, Grayle’s Americanisms are understated rather than showily overdone, as is Cindy’s Welsh burr, even if it does make him sound like Yoda at times: "Feels terrible, he does" (p. 14).
Despite all this work, there is a problem. Well-rounded characters need to have world-views of their own, but opinions are inserted so clumsily into Night after Night that it’s hard to ignore the presence of Rickman himself; he steps all over the novel, using it as a soapbox to rage against his own pet hates. In one of the novel’s climactic scenes, for example, a character internally debates the morals of celebrities looking to punish the journalists who hacked their phones—while she’s cornered by an unhinged attacker!
This is only the most painful example of Rickman inserting an irrelevant opinion at a moment that should have instead been focused on the character’s own reactions. This tendency turns reading the novel into a kind of middle-aged-Englishman’s-bugbear bingo. By the end, I’d ticked off: the National Health Service, Islam, listed buildings officials and political correctness, as well as multiple mentions for Richard Dawkins and the BBC’s supposed agenda: "No God, no ghosts—not if you want to work for the BBC" (p. 274).
The narrative becomes mired in a constantly raging debate between believers and sceptics. This drags the story back into the mundanity of real life, making ghosts a mere subject matter rather than a terrifying force that might drive the plot forward. Indeed, once the contestants are in Knap Hall, it’s hard to take any danger they face especially seriously; the book had by then hammered itself so firmly into the bickering of the material world that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for long enough to feel any sense of threat.
This is a shame, because despite focusing too much on the belief/non-belief debate, Rickman has plenty of intriguing ideas about the supernatural itself. His illustrations of what "haunted" can mean are especially interesting: although Grayle’s mentor, Marcus, warns that you can be followed by "someone who you've picked up" (p. 193), Night after Night looks for deeper explanations than the traditional idea of a ghost representing an individual person whose spirit is yet to move on.
Rickman has previously mentioned an interest in the idea that a place is deeply moulded by what has already happened there—by its psycho-geography. Grayle seems to sense life in Knap Hall when she sees it at night, noting "a slow shifting and resettling of the whole building. Like respiration. But that's what dusk does" (p. 144). This suggests that ghosts are more a lingering expression of the energy and emotions expended in a place. This energy can be absorbed and then later released, affecting those who inhabit a building; in Night after Night, fear, violence, and anger can all be transmitted across the ages. Other characters, too, express this idea: Cindy sees haunted places as "a seedbed for emotions or even evil to prosper and grow" (p. 455), whereas Helen thinks Knap Hall simply "opens up doors into your subconscious mind" (p. 346).
This makes Night after Night an unusual sort of ghost story. Rickman has said that he doesn’t want his work to be seen as a schlock-horror novel; instead he creates a sense of menace indirectly, with occasional glimpses that let the imagination take over instead of relying on a numbing, violent slog. However, in other ways the novel is old-fashioned and pulpy: almost every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger—generally with a character saying something enigmatic. The idea, one assumes, is that the reader doesn’t understand the implications and so needs to read on; but at times this technique slows the novel’s momentum too much, as Rickman usually switches characters in the next chapter and takes too long to pick up the previous thread.
This also makes it feel like most chapters’ climaxes happen "off screen", and that we catch up with what’s happened afterwards. Even on an occasion when there’s some straight-up action, it’s shown to us from Grayle’s perspective through a blurry camera with distorted sound, like some seedy Bigfoot or UFO footage. Similarly, the novel alludes to previous events and water under the bridge between the characters so much that it almost feels like a sequel—although the way the backstory slowly forms a coherent picture is eventually satisfying.
Despite these shortcomings, I did want to know what would happen next and cared about Grayle and Cindy. Rickman also expresses plenty of interesting ideas about society’s outsiders and our relationship with the idea of ghosts. For me, however, the novel’s entrenched anti-sceptic ideology and contempt for non-believers mean that it feels like the only thing Night after Night is haunted by is its own self-righteousness, at the expense of any sense of danger or awe.
In short, Night afterNight is a decent mystery story buried too far under an avalanche of Rickman’s rhetoric. The novel has most of the elements of a really good, unashamed ghost tale, but focusing it so firmly on the material world makes it hard to relax into and enjoy; at its worst it feels like a story about people arguing about ghosts in the dark.
Clearly I’m not the book’s target audience, as characters with similar opinions to me are cast as smug, nasty, and self-righteous. But many people do enjoy Rickman’s novels, so perhaps they’re most suitable for those that share his views and enjoy reading something that reinforces what they already think.
You must log in to post a comment.