Atmospheric tale featuring real life ghost hunter Harry Price

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

I am haunted by a man who told stories for a living. This cantankerous, ill-tempered and selfish man – the unlikely father of my lost child – is the reason I believe in the supernatural. I know now that death is not the end of life, and I know spirits walk the earth, because of Harry Price.

Many years ago, soldiers entered a remote English village called Imber and forced every inhabitant out. Each winter, on one night only, Imber’s former residents return to visit loved ones buried in the overgrown churchyard. But this year, something has gone wrong, and notorious ghost hunter Harry Price must reunite with his former assistant Sarah Grey to solve the mystery.

This is a sequel to Neil Spring’s first novel, The Ghost Hunters, and is based on true events. Harry Price was a real life ghost hunter, a man committed to debunking frauds, and Imber was a village taken from its residents to be used as a training ground for soldiers during World War I.

Where Spring succeeds is in taking these true stories and adding supernatural mystery that sends a shiver down the spine. He is adept at creating atmosphere; the village of Imber is masterfully rendered on the page, a ghost town riddled with bullet holes and haunted by its tragic past. One particular scene, describing a séance in an abandoned windmill, is particularly memorable.

However, where Spring falls down is his characters. An author can write the scariest haunting in the world but no reader is going to be truly involved in the story if they don’t care about the person being haunted. Ghost hunter Harry Price has great potential for a character; a man who spends his life debunking fraudsters and whose rational beliefs in science are frequently challenged by the things he sees, he nevertheless feels more like the author’s puppet than a character with any agency of his own.

Likewise with Sarah Grey, the book’s narrator, who has so little personality I’m struggling to think of anything to say about her. She doesn’t work out the answers through intelligence or skill, but rather through a series of random hallucinations that come to her at just the right moment. When the mystery was resolved and the curtain finally drawn back, I was surprised by the reveal, but because I didn’t care about any of the characters, I didn’t care about the outcome of the story.

I enjoyed this book’s mix of superstition and science, its creepy atmosphere and the mystery at its heart, but it should have ended 50 pages before it did. The twist feels unnecessary and tacked on at the last moment. I would have much preferred the book without it.

At its worst, The Lost Village is clumsy, nonsensical and dull. At its best, it reads like a Sherlock Holmes story, with a determined sleuth brought in to prove that the supernatural mystery actually has a rational explanation. There’s no doubt that Spring can write well; he just needs to spend more time on bringing his characters to life.

Many thanks to Quercus for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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