The House on Cold Hill, by Peter James

House on Cold Hill cvr

Web designer Oliver Harcourt, his solicitor wife Caro and their twelve-year old daughter Jade, move from their comfortable family home in Hove to a large Georgian mansion standing in extensive grounds outside a Sussex village.  Dilapidated Cold Hill House is in need of extensive work and Ollie and Caro soon find it is consuming their funds at an alarming rate, with an-ever growing litany of structural problems needing to be sorted out immediately before it falls down around their ears.  Meanwhile they become aware of a presence which does not seem very friendly.

Visitors report seeing a mysterious old woman in an old-fashioned blue dress, but worse are the threatening messages Ollie receives on his phone.  He talks to a man on the road outside whom he later finds had drowned in the large pond in their grounds; and when he delves into the history of the house he uncovers a catalogue of tragedy and untimely death.  Unnervingly, owners rarely seem to live beyond the age of 40, and Ollie’s fortieth birthday is fast approaching.

The rumours that the place is cursed seem to have solid foundations; more solid than Cold Hill House’s it appears.  As if coping with the renovation isn’t enough, Ollie finds that the presence is sabotaging his business by sending offensive emails to his clients and copying them to the clients’ competitors.  When he and Caro try to call in outside help, the attempts are stymied in a brutal way as the story moves inexorably to its downbeat conclusion.  Peter James included extensive ‘Research Notes’ with my advance copy of the novel in which he traces elements in the novel to his personal experiences; fortunately they were more benign than the ordeals to which the Harcourts and their would-be helpers are subjected.

There are good things about the novel and a few that are not quite so good.  On the plus side, it is a fast read and it ratchets up the tension as Ols and Caro find their lives spiralling out of control in a very short space of time.  The increasing stress that Ollie, on whom the action focuses, is under is convincingly portrayed.  Anybody who has had extensive building work done will know the feeling that occurs when a builder says ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this but…’  It’s the horror (in more than one sense) trope where a couple sink all their money into a property and can’t afford to leave, whatever is thrown at them.  Trying to juggle management of the necessary repairs necessitated both by neglect and the activity of the malevolent force with his desperate efforts to mollify his irate customers, it is no wonder that Ollie’s health starts to suffer.

The use of technology shows that the ghost story can be up to date (it is set in 2015, the year of publication) and still be creepy.  There have been cases in the psychical research literature in which it is claimed entities have communicated through computers – Ken Webster’s 1989 book The Vertical Plane and the equally unconvincing ‘Spellchecker’ case investigated by the SPR and reported in its Journal in 2005 are notable examples.  James’s use of modern technology is part of an attempt to make the lives of the Harcourts believable in terms of the geography, their newspapers, the programmes on local BBC radio: this is a very real Sussex in 2015, and the effort pays off because the contrast between bright everyday ordinary reality and the ‘gothicness’ of Cold Hill House makes the story all the more unsettling.

Oliver and Caro are well portrayed as both successful yet with a streak of naivety.  When Oliver asks why a problem wasn’t noted in the surveyor’s report he is told by a builder that it was, but he had said not to worry about it.  In his desire for the property he had not bothered to examine fundamental issues and had woefully underestimated the extent and cost of the necessary work.  This is a privileged middle-class couple who, while strapped for cash, still talk about buying a pedigree dog for Jade and throwing a lavish birthday party for her, who pay for riding lessons for her, shop at Waitrose, buy an extensive range of local newspapers, and generally act as though the word ‘economise’ was omitted from their dictionary.  In fact they exemplify the whole network of associations conjured up by the names Oliver and Caroline (Jade seems a tad demotic however).  Were the names a nod, consciously or subconsciously, to the upper-class Oliver and Caroline Sterling in The Archers?

Less successfully, it does not feel that the story breaks new ground and there is the occasional cliché: approaching an old house and asking ‘who are those people looking out of the window at the top?’ is a hoary device, as is that glimpse of a moving shadow seen out of the corner of the eye.  More significantly, the force’s powers are incredibly wide-ranging.  It knows what is happening at a distance, it can apparently generate hallucinations, foretell the future, cause fatal accidents, and it is tech-savvy.  Oliver finds that the malicious emails have been sent from his computer.  Possibly he did it in a fugue state, but the money is on the spirit.  It is quite a sophisticated method for discrediting Ollie, and even if he did write the messages himself without being conscious of having done so, the implication is that his will was taken over.

It takes a lot before Caro finally cracks but James can only achieve this by having Ollie withhold large amounts of information from her.  Astonishingly he doesn’t confess about the interference with his clients and the fact that he won’t now be paid, thereby throwing their budget into chaos.  He even omits to mention there’s a skeleton bricked up in a hidden room because he thinks he might be able to resolve the situation before she finds out.  It’s all very well not wanting to worry your spouse, but this is a plot device designed to keep them in the house because if she had known the full extent of the evil ranged against them, Caro would have taken Jade back to her parents’ long before the finale.

The ending itself becomes fragmented, perhaps in keeping with Ollie’s disintegrating powers of perception.  In another story the finding of the skeleton, followed by a decent burial, would be enough to lay the spirit to rest.  Not here though.  As he is clearly dying, Ollie suddenly finds himself in 2018, a future that we learn in the final pages is an accurate one.  A premonition he had had concerning Caro and Jade comes to pass but he finds himself back with them in the house to which they have returned after dying in a fatal car crash, only briefly though before he is on his own again, an unseen presence.  How the ever-growing band of dead residents co-exist is not addressed, all that is certain is that the force will never be mollified or laid to rest, and will keep on absorbing its hapless victims, winnowing those foolish enough to buy Cold Hill House.

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