Chaz Brenchley, House of Bells, ISBN: 9780727881564, Severn House, March 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Reviewer’s disclaimer: this reviewer considers herself on terms of friendly acquaintanceship with the author.
Chaz Brenchley is a veteran of the fantasy, horror, and crime genres. With more than twenty novels behind him under his own name, one recent high fantasy trilogy completed as Daniel Fox, and an urban fantasy series in progress as Ben Macallan, his vigour and range as a writer can’t be questioned. House of Bells is Brenchley’s second novel out of Severn House, after 2011’s House of Doors, and the second novel to feature the disturbing country house D’Esperance. But House of Bells is not a sequel: although it shares a setting, twenty years have passed, and our protagonist is an entirely different woman.
It’s the 1960s, and Grace Harley is miserable in London. A professional party girl, her life’s hardly been worth living since scandal overtook her. So when newspaper editor – and former lover – Tony offers her both job and means of escape, she accepts. Her task is to report on the commune that’s been established at D’Esperance, and to find out what’s become of the journalist first sent to investigate who hasn’t yet returned. Grace dons the identity of Georgie Hale easily enough, but all of her own ghosts follow her. D’Esperance isn’t a good place to bring metaphorical ghosts: they have an unhappy knack of turning distressingly literal.
At D’Esperance, Grace finds herself experiencing strange and increasingly dangerous things. When bells ring, an old scar re-opens and bleeds. A dark shadow follows her, pregnant with menace. Hands reaches out from flame and warm wax to burn and strangle. The commune is exactly as it appears – and not. The journalist she was sent to find has become a mad charcoal-burner. And the commune’s charismatic second-in-command is in the process of inventing a language he believes will change the world.
I didn’t expect to like House of Bells half so much as I do: I’ve no taste for horror, and this novel is gothic, horror-esque – although it doesn’t descend to the macabre. Brenchley has a masterly touch with cold creeping horror, and a turn of phrase that can cut glass with its precision. Where House of Bells really shines, though, is in the internal world of Grace Harley, that brittle, defiant, painfully sympathetic character, and the persona of Georgie Hale which she creates for herself – a shier, less worldly, quieter persona, a persona which at times almost seems to partake of a kind of disassociative doubling. Brenchley extends the whole of his empathy to her, and carries you with him: it’s an exquisitely sketched, painfully affecting psychological portrait.
House of Bells shines, too, in the details of atmosphere: this is a 1960s England vivid, lived-in, unromanticised and worn at the edges. Its very mundanity makes the disturbing supra-mundane episodes at D’Esperance all the more immediate: in the best tradition of haunted house stories, a certain suspicion of dread remains even when you’ve finished reading.
Its flaws, in my assessment, are few: Brenchley is not an author who holds a reader’s hand and lays a card out plain on the table without pressing cause, and some readers may find this belief in their ability to hit the ground running (and keep up) a touch on the off-putting side. But in terms of pace, House of Bells lingers, atmospherically louche – a choice that works well for the enclosed narrative of a haunting, and while D’Esperance itself may not be haunted, Grace Harley certainly is.
The conclusion is unexpectedly eucatastrophic, for a book with such pronounced overtones of dread. There’s hope after pain, it says, and possible happiness – which means I can’t call House of Bells horror at all.
That’s all to the good, because I can recommend it wholeheartedly for what it is.