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Review: The Dead Summer by Helen Moorhouse

IF a ghost story can be measured by its ability to scare the daylights out of its readers then The Dead Summer is very good indeed.

The debut novel of Laois-born Helen Moorhouse, it opens innocuously enough with a gaggle of giggling city girls raising champagne flutes to erstwhile colleague Martha, a single mum who has chucked her job in a London advertising agency to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming a children's novelist. To this end Martha has taken a six-month lease on Hawthorn Cottage, a whitewashed idyll in deepest Norfolk where she plans to move with her baby daughter. So far, so wonderful. Until she moves, and the noises start -- the ghostly footsteps, the inexplicable scraping, the unearthly wails.

Then there's Rob Mountford, Martha's landlord, whose moneyed family has owned the surrounding land for generations. What is it about this big, blundering but seemingly harmless young rustic that makes Martha so uneasy? Why are the locals so reluctant to discuss the history of Hawthorn Cottage? And who is the crone who hangs around the local pub muttering darkly about previous occupants of Eyrie Farm -- as Hawthorn Cottage was once known?

As events unfold we learn something of the cottage's dark past via a series of letters penned by Dublin-born Lily in the Fifties. When Lily's sister Marion gets pregnant out of wedlock, the pair are dispatched to Norfolk by their scandalised parents, where their father's wealthy old friend Mountford has agreed to put them up, rent free, in Eyrie Farm.

Tasked with minding her wayward, unpredictable and often violent sister, while keeping her delicate condition under wraps, Lily keeps herself sane by committing her thoughts to paper in a series of letters written to her old school friend Caroline, now a nun in a Dublin convent.

Starting in March 1953, the letters detail the trials and tribulations of life in Norfolk. Lily writes of the bone-chilling cold, of her sister's increasingly erratic behaviour, and of her own fears for the future. These fears are soon realised with the sudden death of the girls' mother; following which their father, demented with grief, severs all contact with his daughters.

The arrival of Marion's son Henry shortly afterwards serves only to complicate matters further. Having somehow managed to catch the eye of a highly respected local man, Marion, realising that her marriage prospects are stymied if word of her child gets out, resolves to keep him hidden from the outside world. But as he grows from baby to toddler, how far is little Henry's increasingly unhinged mother prepared to go to keep his existence secret?

Meanwhile, in the same cottage more than half a century later, Martha is struggling to write frothy works of fiction while surrounded by malevolent forces that conspire to drive her, if not completely mad, then certainly back from whence she came? Enter parapsychology student Will, who, with spirit medium Gabriel, arrives to investigate ghostly goings on. He discovers a lot more than he bargained for ...

In the introduction, Moorhouse admits to being fascinated by the notion of ghosts while simultaneously being terrified by the prospect of ever meeting one. Certainly the prospect of meeting any of those conjured from the grisly depths of her imagination would be terrifying indeed. Not for the faint-hearted.

Sunday Indo Living