Library Director’s Notebook
It’s hard to write ghost stories. While ghost stories, many of fine literary quality, thrived in the Victorian and Edwardian period, modern ghost stories don’t seem to have gained as much traction with the public in modern times. Perhaps because so many of us have become jaded with the blood and gore of today’s horror books and movies, the idea of ghosts who may or may not have evil on their minds, doesn’t necessarily raise the hair on the back of our heads!
To write a convincing ghost story it is important not to scare your reader out of her wits, but to keep her on tenterhooks as to what might happen next. The best ghost stories have an element of the quotidian about them; it is important to make even non-believers believe in the possibility of ghostly visitations, with or without the dark and stormy night.
The first part of The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones is absolutely unrelated to anyone’s idea of a ghost story. In fact, the beginning chapters of the The Uninvited Guest read more like a lost episode of Downton Abbey than The Ghost and Mrs. Muir! The story whirls around the messy but very upper class lives of the Torrington Family who find themselves at a tough place economically and in danger of losing Sterne, their beautiful home. It is Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday, and as a proper young lady in 1912 she finds her life carefully circumscribed by the expectation that she will marry well.
Then there is news of a train disaster, and little by little the well-ordered lives of the Torringtons begin to unravel. Who are these mysterious train wreck survivors who force their ungainly way into Sterne, demanding to have their needs attended? Who is the charming but dangerous stranger who sets the heart of pampered Mrs. Torrington pounding, not with love but with terror? And how does Smudge, the youngest Torrington, and her eccentric love for her pony contribute to the mounting chaos that interrupts Emerald’s carefully planned birthday party?
All of these incidents crash together in a very satisfying and astonishing way, but more sinister, I believe, is the subtext of this unusual novel. The callous indifference of the Torringtons to the plight of their weary, wounded visitors, who after all, were only passengers in third class; the expectation of the Torringtons that their servants exist only to clean up after their mindless messes; and the unspoken understanding of the reader, that the entire world of the Torringtons will soon come crashing down in the unimaginable bloodbath of World War I, a mere two years away, adds an element of unexpected gravitas to this otherwise vastly entertaining novel.