From everything I’d heard about Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall prior to its US publication, this book sounded right up my alley. But I’ve seen a lot of variety between 5- and 3-star ratings, so I was curious to see which way this would go for me… and it did not disappoint!
About the book: Silvie’s dad has dragged teenaged Silvie and her mom to a summer re-enactment of Iron Age living in the woods of northern England. The three of them are accompanying an anthropology professor and a few of his students, but Silvie’s dad is the real Iron Age fanatic. Silvie is a few years younger than the students, but her dad has prepared her well for this experiment: all her life, she’s been camping and exploring and sitting through his history lessons and speculations. He is not technically in charge, but he is the most dedicated. He wants everyone to live exactly as the Iron Age men and women did… and it’s Silvie and her mother who will pay if he doesn’t get his way.
Ghost Wall is perfectly horrifying, without any hint of the supernatural. The prologue is a gut-wrenching brief two pages about a girl who is on the verge of being ritualistically murdered, and it certainly sets a tone for the rest of the story. Though things do slow down quite a bit after that introduction, there’s no denying that something is about to go horribly wrong with the re-enactment. Hints of danger are scattered throughout the book- rocks in the cookfire that could explode, foraged foods whose poison status is determined by a guidebook, and increasing violence on the campground. There are so many possibilities that it’s impossible to see exactly what disaster will strike until it is announced… at which point the reader is filled with terrible dread as the danger approaches.
“The whole of life, I thought, is doing harm, we live by killing, as if there were any being of which that is not the case.”
But the horror of this story is not achieved through quick scares or cheap plot twists; these are characters who could live down the street from you, and their plausibility gives Ghost Wall its chill- as does the prospect that humanity has perhaps not advanced as far as one might think since the end of the Iron Age.
Though the middle part of the story is the longest and slowest- perhaps some might even call it boring, though I didn’t feel that way- it is riddled with “evidence.” Every event and anecdote reveals a bit of backstory or personality that plays a vital role in the way things turn out. Alliances are formed, quarrels begun, a power hierarchy established. This is a book about an experiment gone wrong- allowed to go wrong. There are no ghosts in sight, despite the suggestion of the supernatural in the title. It’s a book about character, and about what can happen when a group of very different characters gather outside of the eye of a moralized civilization.
Silvie is a teenage girl learning for the first time that her perception of normalcy has been skewed by her parents’ behavior. Molly is only there to pass the class, and calls the experiment like she sees it: boys having fun in the woods and heaping work on the women. The professor wants a little vacation brimming with chances to show off his book-smarts. Silvie’s mom aims to please her husband. And Silvie’s dad revels in the ability to put all of his Iron Age fascination to practical use. There’s some wonderful modern commentary about gender roles and independence, but the themes introduced apply neatly to both the present experiment and the ancient peoples being studied.
“Does he ever even ask her what she thinks, Molly went on. No one asks her what she thinks, I thought, she thinks as little as possible, what to have for tea tomorrow and will the washing powder last another week, if you want thinking, my mother is the wrong person to ask.”
And to top it off, there’s a great historical component about things found in bogs, preserved from the Iron Age. The fact that this doomed modern experiment could have so much in common with real historical practices is the most compelling and haunting facet of the novel.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved this disturbing little book. I finished it all in one go, which was nice but also left me wanting a lot more of Sarah Moss’s writing in my life. I will absolutely be reading more of her novels.
- Shirley Jackson is a great writer to try if you love Ghost Wall. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which is nothing like the recent TV series by the same name) uses suggestions of the supernatural to weave a psychological story about a group assembled in a “haunted” house. Even Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a great macabre tale of the dark side of humanity, entwined with a horrifying ritual.
- And if psychological horror with a side of gore is your style, you should try Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs– a beautifully crafted book about an FBI agent trying to prove herself, working with an insane criminal (Hannibal Lecter) to catch one of the most terrifying serial killers who’s ever existed. It’s a classic (and the book is as worth reading as the movie is worth seeing).
I usually save horror reading for October, but I’m trying something new this year. What’s your favorite horror story?
The Literary Elephant