by Andrew David Barker
David Allkins reviews Society Place, a novella by Andrew David Barker: ‘a great addition to English supernatural horror’.
When her husband Tony dies in a car crash, Heather Lowes is left a pregnant widow at the age of 24. It’s the summer of 1976, and she decides to move alone into their intended home: the pre-war terraced house of number 2 Society Place. Two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs and an outside toilet. Heather begins to settle in with the help of her brother Michael, who plays in a covers band called Candlestick Park. But a young boy tells her that he saw a face at her window, and Heather begins to sense the presence of something else in her house. Meanwhile, her neighbours hint at events and tenants from before Heather moved in – linked to things that took place in the house’s cellar.
Andrew David Barker spends time introducing Heather – and her sense of loss – before the supernatural events begin. It’s an effective and old-school writing style, giving us a careful establishing of the character and mood, instead of just telling us how scary everything is. The fact that she and her brother have lost their parents only increases their closeness; Heather is already haunted and vulnerable before the story begins. She is then faced with being alone in the house – or the disturbing possibility that she may not be.
Barker does not go into full nostalgic overload to convey the year of 1976. It’s done through small details, such as Wings playing on the radio, or how supermarket shopping used to be very different. The strongest pop-culture association of the time is through Michael’s band playing the music of Bowie, 10CC, Black Sabbath, and other 1970s rock, while he hopes to get them to play his own original material.
There’s also the background atmosphere of the heavy, hot summer of 1976, surrounding the area and causing an excess of ladybirds. While the 1976 setting may seem – at first glance – to link it with the famous case of the Enfield poltergeist, those events happened from 1977 to 1979, and this is a different type of haunting, starting off with glimpses and feelings before expanding in scope.
Another aspect of the period setting is the sense of things being hidden, or covered up, and people not wanting to deal with it. This comes across in slow reveal, as Heather finds the truth about her house’s history, but also comes to realise the attitude of the people living in the street to the prospect of attention and embarrassment.
It could be said that one reason for the choice of 1976 is that people (in retrospect) labelled that long summer as a foreshadowing of the changes in culture and society that would come after, like Punk and Thatcherism. Society Place, in fact, takes a different approach to the past, and it begins to flash forward to scenes in 2019 which deal with the aftermath of these events.
As the 2019 narrative progresses, it picks up on the survivors of 1976, with people facing how their own lives have turned out, and the sense of what could have been. In good ghost stories, the ghosts are never just ghosts. In Barker’s novella, they are not just repressed secrets that people avoid mentioning. They can also be events which impact the rest of people’s lives.
If this novella has a flaw, it may be the limited length of the format. With the details and depth of the characters, and the themes that Barker is working with, I suspect this could have easily been a longer work. There are certainly characters who could have been expanded on in a few places. But then, ending too soon is preferable to going on for too long, and the story does reach a satisfying climax, flashing between the two time periods of 1976 and 2019.
With Society Place, Barker manages to find his own voice for the tale of the haunted house and the classic English ghost story. It’s an effectively dark and scary story, but it also explores its characters by showing the losses that they have suffered. Hauntings should have a connection to the characters to make them disturbing, and Barker does this. This is a great addition to the field of English supernatural horror.
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