TWINS Tim and Abi Smith have always been a bit odd: precociously intelligent, slightly antisocial, and obsessed with esoteric subjects such as folklore, ghosts and the macabre, in an effort to try and make their humdrum, Seventies suburbia existence as exciting as possible.
One day, they decide to fake a ghost photograph to see if they can get someone to believe in it.
The rather cruel prank works a little too well, and Tim and Abi may have to face the possibility that they may have inadvertently unleashed something real.
Will Maclean is already an award-winning screenwriter, and The Apparition Phase shows that he’s a great novelist too. Appropriately, it reads like a like a forgotten Seventies folk-horror classic, or a supernatural drama of the period along the lines of The Stone Tape (which gets a mention) or Children of the Stones, and I can easily see it being adapted for the screen in that style. (Of course, having not been around in the Seventies myself, there may be some little inaccuracies I didn’t pick up on, but it definitely feels as if it has captured the essence of that era.)
The story looks at the nature of haunting: is it a real phenomenon, capable of being documented, or is it purely psychological? And what if the lines between the two are blurred?
This means that the style of horror in The Apparition Phase is ambiguous, events that could easily just be coincidences with rational explanations, something that an impressionable mind be receptive to – which is at the heart of the experiment in the book’s second half. Or could there be something supernatural at work (or maybe a bit of both), heavily reliant on atmosphere and deeply rooted in both the mundane (suburbia) and the gothic (a Suffolk manor)? Dare I say it, a particularly English brand of horror.
The cover quote from actress Alice Lowe (Garth Mahrengi’s Dark Place & Prevenge) sums it up succinctly: “a carapace of cosy nostalgia wrapped round a solid thread of dread.”
And, by the novel’s end, that carapace is thoroughly cracked.
Along with this more psychological approach, the novel looks at the relationship between horror and grief, how the latter can give birth to the former, and how it influences the form the ‘scares’ take. But if you think this makes it all sound dry, don’t worry; the atmosphere is brilliantly claustrophobic, events accumulating and weighing down on you like damp mist until you’re saturated, chilled to the bone and, like Tim, unsure of what’s real and what isn’t. Tim also makes for an interesting narrator: an intellectually precocious teenager with esoteric interests, he moves believably between arch and sceptical and vulnerable, navigating the hinterland between child and adult (though recounting from a point in the future). Underneath it all, he still seems to want to believe in something like magic.
Like a lot of good ghost stories, The Apparition Phase is also a story of coming of age and innocence lost.
Like the programmes that get a namecheck, The Apparition Phase is a classic-style ghost story, and a perfect Halloween or Christmas read.
A chilling sting in the tail that assures, like the lingering feeling of phantom fingers at the nape of your neck, that it will stay with the reader for a long, long while afterward.
The Apparition Phase by Will Macclean is available in hardback from William Heinemann and in paperback from Windmill Books from October 2021.
Reviewer Carolyn Percy is a librarian whose qualifications include a master’s in Creative Writing. She contributes reviews to a number of publications including Horla.