Swinging with a ghost writer

Lucy O'Brien enjoys a horror spoof

Stiff Lips by Ann Billson, Macmillan, pounds 14.99

Sophie has everything - blonde hair, good looks, a charming rotter of a boyfriend, and a flat in Notting Hill. Her best friend Clare covets Sophie's lifestyle. Exiled on the "wrong" side of town in unglamorous Hackney, Clare would do anything to get to West Eleven and hang out with media celebs in Portobello Road bars and, if possible, with Sophie's boyfriend as well. Sophie, however, seems to be keeping strange company with the man upstairs, a writer, who, it turns out, is dead.

"The best man is a dead man," Clare says laconically. Plain and bespectacled, she is one of Anne Billson's most memorable creations, a ruthless, detached, self-deprecating heroine who draws puddings for a living and religiously studies the "in-crowd" in an effort to become a member. Even though it is rumoured that a man killed himself in the top flat of Sophie's house, Clare moves in at the earliest opportunity, and is subjected to the Curse of Hampshire Place.

As in her first novel, the vampire tome, Suckers, Billson creates a satirical, misanthropic world with sharply delineated characters. There is Graham the feminist with his plimsolls and handknitted tank tops; dopeheads Lemmy and Dirk who decorate houses, Walter Cheeseman, the soft-porn director who lives in the basement, and Marsha, the do-gooder on the ground floor.

The greatest crime in Billson's Stiff Lips world is to be nice. Clare, Sophie and Sophie's insufferable friends are studies in bitchiness, scoring points off each other with stinging, schoolgirlish repartee. Female friendship may be held up for ridicule, but men don't come off too well either. They are misogynistic, vain and dim, and it is not surprising that when Clare takes up with Robert, the invisible ghost writer, she concludes that it is advantageous to date a man she can't see.

As in Suckers, one of the main characters of the novel is London itself, From Hackney to Ladbroke Grove, Billson depicts the city's peculiar social stratification, divided not so much by class as by job and dress sense. The other star character is the house in Hampshire Place. In this modern Gothic novel, Sophie's house becomes the focus of murder and mayhem, the place where the serial killer, the Butcher of Balham, lived, and where The Drunken Boats, a very bad 60s band, partied and played. Every member of the group has since died in mysterious circumstances and the thump of their music still haunts the house.

Billson has plotted her horror story with pace, timing and graphic imagery. She makes an event of mundane detail - "the small-scale model of one of the Klingons from Star Trek" that Lemmy loses in a room he has been decorating, or an accidental kiss with Graham that leaves Clare's Poppy Red lipstick "radiating from my mouth like an exploding nebula".

She also delights in the grotesque, describing every angle of the man in the mirror slitting his throat, the domestic argument that ends with a woman's eye being gouged out by a fork, and the female party-goer who ends up impaled on the railings outside Hampshire Place.

The only drawback to the tale is the way it is structured as a flashback, with Clare recounting events to her friends. Though a familiar Edgar Allan Poe-ish device, it detracts from the immediacy of the story. And Sophie, a gloriously well-observed character, seems to disappear halfway through the narrative, reappearing at the end almost as an afterthought.

Her re-entry coincides with the house's Halloween party, a macabre event packed with local drinkers, ghosts and media types. It is here that the book reaches its caustic, comic climax.

With Stiff Lips Billson overturns the cliches of the horror genre, establishing, in their stead, her own original voice.

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices