A House of Ghosts is a First World War espionage novel by Irish author W.C. Ryan. Most of the story takes place in a haunted house on a storm battered island off the coast of southwest England. Arms manufacturer Lord Highmount, owner of the house, has invited guests to a series of seances, organised to contact the war dead. Among the guests are an enemy spy, a Russian medium, an Irish officer, and Kate Cartwright – a civil servant who can see ghosts.
What follows is an action-packed story that goes to the heart of the British war effort. And, into the nether regions of the ancient house.
It took me a long time to finish reading A House of Ghosts. I’d bought it in paperback, in a shop, on the strength of the title and front cover, which shows an old house and the line “Will it ever be at rest?” Oh good, I thought, a haunted house story. I really wanted to read a tale of suspense about strange noises in the dark of night. Unfortunately, this isn’t that sort of novel. Hence, I didn’t feel too keen on it.
That aside. I do think A House of Ghosts is a good book. I wasn’t around in the First World War, but I believe this story is evocative of the period. It touches on the horrors of trench warfare, shell shock and the massive amounts of loss. Highmount’s guests are excited to attend the seance because they’ve all lost people to the War. Kate Cartwright herself is missing a brother.
A House of Ghosts feels very original. Possibly a lot more original than the cliched sort of haunted house story I’d been hoping to read. I like that Kate is embarrassed by her ability to see spirits and tends to keep quiet about it. It makes me want to know more about her power. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the spirit world as seen through her eyes.
Another interesting character is military man Donovan, who assists Kate in the hunt for the spy. He’s an officer in the British Army, but as an Irishman feels ambivalent about it. He’s also got a past. Kate sees that Donovan is haunted by a dead officer, who follows him everywhere. Who is the ghost? What does he want with Donovan?
There’s lots of colour in this book. The creepy house and its surroundings are well described. I could easily imagine the stormy weather outside and the darkly lit, old fashioned rooms within. All of the characters, major and minor, feel real too. My favourite secondary characters are the two female spirits who haunt Kate’s bedroom.
All in all, if you’re looking for an evocative house party slash spy novel set in 1917, you should definitely try A House of Ghosts. If you want a classic haunted house story, you might be better off searching elsewhere. To me, this tale seems far more human than supernatural.