TOUCHED, by Joanna Briscoe; book review


Joanna Briscoe is the latest novelist to be approached by Hammer to write a novella on the theme of the supernatural; an apt choice, since she distills such intense feelings of disquiet in her regular work. She revisits themes of female madness, the insecurities of adolescence and sexual obsession in Touched; but a straightforward ghost story it is not.

An unknown person voices the prologue, many years after the main events of the novel: "I have seen Pollard again, I'm sure I have, or was it an illusion?" Appearances and disappearances are the hallmarks of the ghost story, and even the half-seen can have a profound effect: "I vomited shortly after I arrived home."

We fade back to 1963, and the arrival of a large, young family, the Crales, at No 3 The Farings in the biscuit-tin Home Counties village of Crowsley Beck. Of Rowena and Douglas's five children, Evangeline is seemingly the one who's "touched": odd, cantankerous, off to the special school nearby in a few months' time. Unlike her attractive older twin sisters, she is "a grubby, transparent girl", who dresses in Victorian clothing and has "rain for hair".

The fusty clothes that Evangeline insists on wearing belonged to her beloved grandmother, who, it transpires, has been ousted from her own home. Eva watches in outrage as her mother and father plan the renovation of the ancient cottage, expunging - they hope - all trace of its former owner.

Briscoe deploys a whole range of ghostly tropes with glee: mysterious stains, inexplicable wafts of perfume ("Je Reviens"); faces at the window, an imaginary friend who becomes tangible, unaccounted-for spaces deep within the walls, and the toddler who talks fretfully about the people he can hear moving around in the night.

As well as being driven mad by dozy builders, Douglas and Rowena are having marriage problems. There's a sexy lord-of-the-manor type hanging around, and most corrosive of all is Evangeline's jealousy of her stunning older sister Jennifer. When Evangeline begins to suspect that her only friend (apart from imaginary Freddie) is really after Jennifer, her rage is intense.

In an afterword, Briscoe relates how she grew up in the Hertfordshire village where the classic horror Village of the Damned was filmed. This oblique novella may reflect elements of the author's Sixties childhood, but in its portrayal of evil and those who collude in it, she has drawn on more modern bogeymen to chilling effect.