The Greatcoat, By Helen Dunmore

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The Independent Culture

The terror in Helen Dunmore's ghost story lurks in its title. An old serge RAF coat that a newly-wed doctor's wife finds at the back of a cupboard holds a talismanic significance. It is the object - the monkey's paw - that brings lost or trapped spirits back to life and breathes life into this post-war story of illicit desire, possession, and the guilty secrets of war.

Recently arrived in a Yorkshire town in the early 1950s, with her handsome husband Philip who is mostly absent, Isabel finds herself stifled by the pressure-cooker isolation of their shabby rented flat, with the sullen, ever-watchful landlady upstairs. Anyone familiar with the rules of the genre will guess that the minute she finds this old coat that smells of "summer fields", she has unwittingly unleashed a demon. Its discovery leads to her bewitching.

The creepiness builds when she hears a knock at the window and sees an RAF officer waving to be let in. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of Cathy's ghostly knocks on Lockwood's window in Wuthering Heights, and it carries a similar back-story of illegitimate love and morbid desire. Isabel, it becomes apparent, is channelling a love story, and its memories, that are not quite her own. This element – of spiritual, maybe even demonic, possession – is this novella's most original feature. It cresendos at the close, which is more of a "to be continued in your imagination" than a conclusive ending.

As we know, the ghost in a ghost story does not always represent a fear but the desire that we fear. In Isabel's case, this fear/desire dynamic revolves around sexual infidelity and erotic longing. As a newlywed, she is in the first throes of sexual discovery within her marriage, yet she seems unsure that Philip's passion can satisfy her.

The Greatcoat is among a new series of stories published under the revived Hammer imprint. While it does not always send the pulse racing – we see some of its starts and jumps coming – it builds pace and complexity as it hurtles towards its end. Where Dunmore truly excels is in her description of a nation still clenching its teeth from the trauma of war. Rationing has not ended, coal is hard to come by, and the population is still quietly reeling from the loss of loved ones. The real restless spirit here is that of a wounded, mournful Britain, its scars red raw and its dead still stalking the living.

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