How could I resist a publication with such an ironic title? You’re right: I couldn’t. In fact, I purchased this a few weeks ago (it’s been available for a couple of months now), but have only now got round to reading it. On starting it last night, I finished it in one breathless session.
Untitled Ghost Story is a short novella by S. J. Moore, published by Salt in its Modern Dreams line. This is Moore’s first foray into supernatural fiction from what I can gather; he already has a series of well-regarded Arthurian fantasy novels behind him, the Children of the May series, although I suspect the writing here covers some very different territory to those books.
The Modern Dreams series is an ebook-only range focused on ‘gripping urban drama’. I confess that wouldn’t normally be the first thing I would reach for, but Moore combines the after-hours grit of a working-class pub and some salt-of-the-earth characters, with a real sense of the weird and a disturbing undercurrent that reaches its apogee in a very convincing and distressing denouement to the book.
Our story centres around Gav and Steve, both working to close up the Ben Lomond pub in Jarrow, a (now) post-industrial town in the north east of England.
Jarrow was of course a focus of the shipbuilding industry in the north east, and the book is threaded with the emotional baggage attached to that: pride in the hard work and hardship endured when shipbuilding was at its peak, and the sadness and anger at its decline and eventual disappearance, as well as the politics behind all of that.
It takes a few minutes to get into the swing of the dialogue, and indeed some of the narrative, which is in the Geordie dialect. Once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it works well. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for those who are really struggling with it, but I don’t think you will if you give this a chance. And interestingly, in this context, it’s not used for comic effect as it can be in M.R. James and the like. Make no mistake: these two men are not dusty antiquarians, nor the tugging-of-the-forelock yokels those antiquarians frequently encounter.
Untitled Ghost Story also has the accolade of having the most swearing I’ve ever read in a piece of supernatural fiction (and in many other contexts, probably, writers like Irvine Welsh aside…) – but it works in context. Yes, Gav is crude and foul-mouthed, but it serves to make him more credible and to bring his insecurities and prejudices to life for the reader. Would a working-class man, an assistant manager in a down-at-heel pub in a distressed town, talk any other way than Gav does in the book? I don’t think so. At the start, he is difficult to like. By the end of this short work, I cared about him, and I cared about Steve, the pseudo-intellectual student who’s working in the pub to pay his way through his degree and the writing of his dissertation, ‘Unknown Ghost Story: The Working Class as Demon in English Weird Literature’. Steve, naturally, thinks he has uncovered a previously untested angle in his research; Gav, naturally, couldn’t care less.
There’s a veritable sense of place in this novella: the Ben Lomond is a real pub in Jarrow and it obviously has considerable history. Perhaps you could go there and experience the events of the later part of the book; but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone… What follows the closing up of the pub at the start of the book is a heady cocktail (quite literally, in places) of hesitant and guarded reminiscences of school days (Gav and Steve were, it seems, peers), drink and drugs, relationships and the inevitable problems with relationships, acute cultural differences, politics, Marxism and much else. Spurred on by drink and Ecstasy donated by Gav, Steve becomes a walking, swaying, encyclopaedia of the historical and the theoretical, unburdening himself to his fellow worker with impunity. It’s only a matter of minutes into the book when you realise he and Gav are very different.
Ultimately, Steve can’t handle the combination of booze and drugs and has to leave, but not before there’s an odd accident with the bottle fridges behind the bar. Gav is furious; Steve is confused to be blamed. The former eventually sends the latter away and starts to clear up the mess on his own: there and then, Gav seals his fate and is assailed by a presence we never quite get to see. I found this final sequence of the book truly terrifying and the timing and narrative flow is striking: the pages turn and turn at a fair speed. I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would genuinely spoil it.
I thoroughly enjoyed Untitled Ghost Story for its keenly-wrought sense of pace, the very black humour, the realism of the awkward dynamic between Gav and Steve and for the unseen and unwritten horror of its conclusion. This last is expertly handled by Moore. He understands that too great a revelation can ruin a piece like this, and the bare hints the reader is presented with leave an altogether more chilling picture. This book is a rare thing: properly a work of folk horror, I think, but contextualised not in the commonplace rural setting but in the heart of a depressed area of high unemployment and low morale, and with a real historical basis at the core of its horror. I enjoyed this ‘gripping urban drama’ immensely.