The Apparition Phase
review by Dan Jones
Will Maclean’s hugely enjoyable debut is a love letter to 1970s British hauntology, stirring up the cultural memory with folkloric creepiness, paranormal oddities, hormonal teens, and a chilling prophecy that propels the novel toward a truly horrifying conclusion. Brimming with weird England references, from M.R. James to Aleister Crowley, The Apparition Phase will delight fans of the haunted house genre, and Maclean – a successful TV writer – makes sure the plot has more than enough ghostly goings-on to shake an electromagnetic field detector at.
From their suburban attic in the early 1970s, wonderfully haughty twins Tim and Abi Smith fake a ghost photograph and test it out on a tragic, simpleminded school friend. But the young siblings have underestimated their mark, and their trick sets off a series of unfortunate events that leave Abi missing and Tim horribly alone.
Abi’s disappearance almost destroys the family, and in the years that follow, Tim becomes increasingly paranoid that dark forces are at work. Determined to make him see sense, Tim’s counsellor takes him on an ill-judged field trip to meet Graham Shaw, a parapsychologist whose experiments and collection of analogue ghost-hunting gadgetry have failed to pick up any evidence of the afterlife. Not even a boo.
But Tim is fascinated and soon finds himself at the centre of Shaw’s latest experiment: a ghost hunt in a suitably creepy Shirley Jackson-like house in Suffolk, and it’s here the bulk of the book takes place.
There’s a satisfying nod to genre in Maclean’s haunted house crew, from the corduroy-wearing Shaw determined to make his mark on academia, to New Age assistant Sally (to whom Tim feels an immediate attraction), golden couple Seb and Juliet, brittle cardigan-wearing Polly, and jealous, grumpy Neil.
Cut off from the outside world, Shaw turns the screw, putting his subjects under intense pressure until he gets the results he needs. And then, it happens: a table judders, furniture apparently rearranges itself, and things invariably go bump in the night.
The subjects have increasingly vivid dreams, tempers flare; there’s illicit booze and teenage fumbles in the dark. When a planchette – that haunted house essential – scribbles out hellish messages, Tim and his friends almost lose their minds. And still, Shaw pushes; it’s an actual ghost sighting he’s after, the “apparition phase”, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.
Maclean’s clash of early 1970s pop culture references and geeky paranormalisms is hugely effective; genre fans will excite at his dogged namechecking, from Doctor Who and The Stone Tape to Aldous Huxley and the Rollright Stones – even the era’s ‘ancient aliens’ best-seller The Chariots of the Gods.
But it’s Maclean’s careful, melancholy exploration of grief, loneliness, and the teenage psyche that resounds. As Tim grows up without his beloved sister, his awkwardness is exposed. He’s inward-looking, self-obsessed, and nihilistic, and almost unable to feel empathy. He has more in common with the dead than those still alive.
Is much of this already well-trodden? Well, yes, but surely that’s the point. Maclean’s confident, straight-forward writing attempts to re-animate the genre, without sacrificing its existential why are we here? undertones. It pays off, not only in the novel’s thrilling finale but also the quiet, goose-bump epilogue that lingers long after the ghostly phase has passed.