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The Quickening, By Julie Myerson. Hammer, £9.99

 

Julie Myerson's haunted story – the latest instalment in the Hammer series of short novels – is set in sunny climes. No sooner has Rachel's media boyfriend, Dan, proposed to her, that they have a quickie wedding and she is whisked away to Antigua for an impromptu honeymoon. Yet despite their passion and the Caribbean temperature, the pregnant Rachel feels a growing chill.

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The title refers to the "quickening" of a pregnancy when a mother feels her baby flutter inside her. This stirring of life is mirrored by the awakening of another, more diabolic spirit-world. A pale-faced apparition, premonitions of doom and poltergeist-like objects flying through the air warn Rachel of a dark corner of Dan's past. Myerson takes us into her rising levels of panic, right up to the final plot-twist.

Crucially, we see the story from Rachel's perspective alone, never Dan's. In this, it echoes the wifely doubt distilled in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, in which Joan Fontaine suspects Cary Grant of wrongdoing, calculating whether her husband is capable of murder – though Myerson's fiction has a very different outcome.

The "second sight" Rachel receives on the island is in fact, Myerson's deeper metaphor. For this story, stripped of its hauntings, is a tale of a relationship going wrong after one person loses trust in the other. The ghostly being that stalks her on holiday sparks an internal audit of the relationship in Rachel's mind. Much of the fear is psychological, and crisp language describes an outer landscape that reflects Rachel's threatened inner state: a silvery moon that "slices" its beams down into the water, and a morbid sky, "dull and blueish and drained of light".

Myerson writes with a fluidity that quickly absorbs the reader, though the novel never fully realises itself as horror. The ghostly spectre appears a little too repeatedly and the horror is lessened by Rachel's histrionics. Ironically, the strongest aspect of the novel is not the haunting but the slowly unravelling marriage. Myerson captures the dysfunctions in this relationship, though in a more baroque style than we have seen from her until now.

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