It’s not the first time that you’ve heard it; the sound of running water that appears to come from the bathroom opposite. For the last couple of nights you’ve heard it and at first you thought that it might have been coming from the room upstairs. In this old house the walls are thin and you figure that the woman upstairs just likes to take her bath late at night. But then she left and the sound kept coming; the sound of running water filling a bath tub. Then comes the frantic splashing. Then comes the silence. This particular night you’ve had enough. If someone is playing a practical joke on you it had better end now, tonight. You cross the corridor and sneak up to the bathroom door, listening as the water splashes about and then you throw open the door hoping to catch them in the act (or in the nude, but that’s a chance you’re willing to take). There is nothing there. The bath is bone dry. No water anywhere to be seen. Then a drip hits the top of your head. So it is from upstairs. But there is no one living up there. Thinking it must be a burst pipe you begin to worry that the water will cascade through into your room, so you leap up the stairs two at a time and enter the bathroom, grateful that no one here locks their doors. The sight that greets you takes you by surprise. The bath is full of water, but it isn’t still; it sloshes about, spilling over and onto the floor as if someone is in there thrashing, desperate to get out. What the hell…? You stand and watch horrified when suddenly it calms and stills. It is then that you notice the freezing temperature in the room, but despite this it is full of steam. It fills the room and covers the mirror above the sink. Then as you shiver and wonder what the hell is going on you hear a wet slapping sound. Looking down you see footprints appearing in the water on the bare wooden floorboards, they’re coming towards you. With your mouth going dry, despite the humidity in the room, you see that they turn away from you and move towards the mirror. With mounting terror you hear a wet squeaking noise as a clear path is drawn into the condensed steam with an unseen finger. As the steam starts to clear, and before your unbelieving, terrified eyes, you see the words that are slowly forming as someone, or something, is writing a….blurb:
Married couple Jack and Ali Gardiner move to a self-sufficient commune in the English Fens, desperate for fresh start. The local village is known for the witches who once resided there and Rosalind House, where the commune has been established, is a former psychiatric home, with a disturbing history
When Jack and Ali arrive, a chain of unexpected and unexplained events is set off, and it becomes clear that they are not all that they seem. As the residents become twitchy, and the villagers suspicious, events from the past come back to haunt them, and someone is seeking retribution…
At once an unnerving locked-room mystery, a chilling thriller and a dark and superbly wrought ghost story, The Lingering is an exceptionally plotted, terrifying and tantalisingly twisted novel by one of the most exciting authors in the genre.
lasting for a long time or slow to end.“there are still some lingering doubts in my mind”
synonyms: remaining, surviving, persisting, abiding, nagging, niggling, gnawing, lasting, residual
There are many things that linger.
The obvious one is smells. We all know how they can linger, both in the air around us and inside our noses. How many of us can tell a story of squeaking out a stealthy fart only for it to stubbornly refuse to diffuse away? Diffusal refusal is the enemy of the silent wind breaker. It laughs in the face, quite literally, of those who really have to let their wind go, but have nowhere to discreet to do so. Those crippling moments where you are in an enclosed space, or at a party, in a lift or at work, when you really have to do it: no question.
Take the party situation: you stand to one side, pretending to perhaps take stock of the flower arrangement so lovingly arranged on a window ledge away from others, or to inspect a particularly pleasant painting, or other piece of art, on the wall, again a discreet distance from other people.
The deed is done. You instantly feel so much better. The relief is palpable.
But then you notice that the odour is equally palpable. What you thought was going to be a gentle bit of bum breeze has turned into anal Armageddon as the smell from Hades itself creeps around you. In that moment of impending panic you move from where you were, hoping to catch the penetrating smell off guard and leave it where it is, baffled and confused. But no, the smell has other ideas and has cottoned on to your simple plan.
It comes with you. It lingers around you, refusing to move away; to disperse into the ether leaving the assembled throng to look at each other in equal suspicion as to who may have dealt the offending blow from their bottom.
But this lingering affront to the olfactory senses leaves no doubt as to the perpetrator. It surrounds you, it binds to you, it penetrates your clothing, your hair; oh yes, this is your fart and everyone is going to know it.
When it comes to smells the most lingering of all smells, the granddaddy of nefarious odours, the most clinging, stubborn, downright evil of nasty niffs has to be that of….cat poo.
What on this green earth is it inside of a cat’s guts that renders their faecal matter so utterly hideous? I mean, like, seriously? It is distilled evil, packaged in little brown parcels. You know, you just know, that that little bit of mud on your shoe after you come in from a walk across the field isn’t mud, but you need to be sure so you have a little, exploratory sniff and WHAM!, like a punch to the face you give yourself whiplash from the recoil of realisation.
Cats. Evil little fuckers, the lot of ’em.
When I were a nipper, back in the 70’s as a 5-6 year old, my old primary school had sandpit. It was your regular sandpit. Full of sand. It was hexagonal for some reason. I always remember that. I can’t remember when I need to be somewhere and at what time, but I do recall the shape of my primary school sandpit from 41 years ago. Huh. Anyway, I digress: Aside from the lovely soft sand and the odd bucket and spade, there were also these little sand covered lumps. I knew not of the true nature of these little buried nuggets, but I soon learnt. The hard way. I swear I can still smell it.
And that brings me to the other thing that lingers the most: memories.
The memories that tend to linger the most are often the bad ones. Take my cat shit sandpit for instance. Of all the memories I could have of my innocent childhood primary school days, that’s the one that persists? Bloody cats again. *grumbles*
I can also remember, during the end of one term at the same infant class, when we could all bring our toys in, playing with the Lee Majors Six Million Dollar Man action doll. Now, I really wanted this, but I didn’t have one. So I ended up playing with the box that another kid had brought his action doll in.
The box. I can still remember trying to act like it was the real deal and not to feel embarrassed and silly.
I did eventually get the doll for Xmas some time later, but at that point I had to make do with the box you see above whilst my friend, who clearly had better off parents than myself, lorded it over me.
Another bad memory lingering on like the aforementioned fart and stink of cat jobby.
It isn’t just us, or animals in general, for which memories can linger; buildings and places can hold them too. For me this is what the true essence of a ghost is. It isn’t the soul of some long departed human wandering around going “OooOooooOOOooooOOOOOooooOOO” with a sheet over their head and putting the willies up people like a desperate rent boy with an urgent bill to pay, no, it is the essence of a place; the memory that lingers within its walls, its inhabitants past and present, or within the its ground, in the trees, passed down by those who inhabit it, pass through it or those who just like a bit of an old scare.
Back when I was a teenager, aged 17½, I left school after my lower 6th year to train as a Registered Mental Nurse (RMN) at the local psychiatric hospital that was pretty much next door to my house. The place was called Napsbury Hospital, and it was an old Victorian asylum.
It was a huge place, very grand in its architecture with long, long corridors, the many wards branching from it at intervals.
I worked there previous to my nurse training as a domestic assistant after school, but long before that the place had a presence in my life. Many of our parents were unenlightened to the mentally ill at the time, so in order to scare us off from playing in the grounds they would tell us stories, often if not entirely untrue, about the patients within. They used to warn us of the “kiddie fiddlers” – their words not mine – locked away in the wards, of the murderers and child abductors prowling its corridors and what would happen to us if we went in there (not in any details of course, but our imaginations were enough to fill in the rest). All of this was utter bullshit, but as young kids who hung on the every word of their parents, we believed them and kept out of the way, often running when some poor sod came rambling past, oblivious to the lies being told about them to the kids. It was quite horrendous really. As I got older and less influenced by these tall tales I used to venture in to go conker gathering, but the only scary encounters we had were with the security guards who used to chase us off Beano stylee, probably calling us “bloody kids” and going “Grrrrrrrr” whilst shaking their fists at us.
It wasn’t until I went to work there as a domestic in the mid 80’s that I actually met a lot of these people who I had feared only to discover that they were, for the most part, lovely. Most had been interred there for no other reason than to keep them out of the way. Some women had been there for decades just because they had had a child out of wedlock and over the ensuing years had become institutionalised to the point of never being fit to leave. Others had medically justifiable reasons for being admitted back in the day, but the understanding of mental health issues and the care given to them was less progressive than it is now and they simply became “patients” who lived their entire lives within its walls and grounds. I’ve no doubt that there were some undesirables there – I had more than my share of men coming at me with their willies out looking for a ‘bunk up’ in exchange for a cigarette – but all in all they were a mixed bag and on the whole harmless.
But the stories and memories of that place lingered long in the minds of all those who lived near to, worked in, or came across others who knew Napsbury (and of the other institutions that were near by. There were two others within a couple of miles). It coloured and preempted people’s views of the mentally ill. It was no wonder they were treated as pariahs for the most part.
I never completed my training and quit after 2 years (the training was for 3). I couldn’t handle the environment and I still feel now that as a then 20 year old I hadn’t had the life experience to deal with the variety of people and conditions that presented there. I did learn a lot though and the experience has stayed with me ever since, for good and for bad.
So why am I prattling on about this? Well, Susi J Holliday’s book The Lingering is also set in an old Victorian asylum. The parallels of some of the stories that permeate the walls of the fictitious Rosalind House definitely resonated with me as I read it. For instance, one of the treatments mentioned was ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), something I once witnessed. It wasn’t as bad as it is often made out to be; no worse than seeing someone receive a shock from a defibrillator for instance, there was no wild flailing of limbs or foaming of the mouth. I have no recollection of whether it was successful or not, but controversy still surrounded that kind of treatment and its worth was questionable (this was in 1989, so not that long ago as the crow flies. I have no idea if it is still in use, but back then it was used only in the most extreme of cases).
The memories that linger in such old, evocative institutions and buildings such as Napsbury are the very essence of ghost stories. I don’t believe in actual ghosts at all, but I do believe in the power of that lingering memory, the stories that are passed down from person to person, year to year, generation to generation, from the memory of a place and the things that may, or may not, have occurred inside. It is this for me at least, that creates the ghosts, not the physical souls of the dead. For me it is no coincidence that most, if not all, stories of the supernatural occur in old buildings or places associated with a rich and varied history. You rarely hear about the ghostly child, dressed in a Captain America costume who kicks his football against the brand new house on a recently built estate, who then pokes his tongue out an runs away singing baby shark night after night now, do you?
Napsbury Hospital is no more. it was closed in the late 90’s and is now an expensive, and very nice looking housing estate bearing the same name (sans Hospital, of course). It closely follows the layout of the old hospital and the wards have been turned into flats. I’ve no doubt at all that there will be stories of ghosts amongst those who have bought property there and who are aware of its history. Mostly, I imagine, people will have bought houses or flats there unaware of its former purpose and for them maybe they will live their life blissfully and undisturbed.
In The Lingering the ghosts of Rosalind House are very real. A lot has happened to to that place over the years. The ground on which it stands was the site of a former mansion dating back to the 1500’s and was the scene of some particularly nasty events. It was there that suspected witches were tried and hanged. Of course they were as likely to be witches as I am Marilyn Monroe, but that wasn’t going to stop them from stringing them up in the name of saving the innocent.
It probably didn’t take much to make people suspect that you were a witch back in them days:
The door flies open and a bewildered young woman is pushed through it into the darkened, candlelit room followed by an eager, overexcited Constable. A man sits at a table, a serious and dark look upon his face in the flickering candle light
Constable: “We found one Witchfinder General, Sir!”
WFG: *exasperated whisper* “Shhhhhh, I told you not to call me that…this is meant to be secret trial….ahem…”
Constable: “Sorry Witchfi…sir.”
WFG: *rolls eyes* “Never mind. Now, who have we here?”
Constable: “A suspected witch, Witchf…sir.”
Young Woman: *surprised* “What? I am not a witch! I’m a cook. I cook food.”
WFG: “Hmmmm, a cook you say? Not a cook of…SPELLS? Hmmm? We shall determine if this is true soon enough. Constable, what makes you suspect that she is a witch?”
Constable: *smug face* “Well…”
He gets out a little black book and a pencil. He licks the tip of the pencil and proceeds to check off a list as he reads it out.
Constable: “She possess a cauldron in which to concoct her potions? Check”
Young Woman: “Pardon me, but that is the Master’s bath tub. I was filling it with hot water for his monthly bath!”
WFG: “Silence! Constable, continue!”
Constable: “She has a wart on her nose? Check.”
Young Woman: “Hey, that’s not a wart, that’s a bean. It got stuck there after my casserole boiled over and exploded over me after this man came crashing in and started grabbing me for no apparent reason. He wouldn’t let me clean it off!”
WFG: “QUIET woman! You are in no position to question this man’s judgement. You are in a court of Law. So far your claims to be a ‘cook’ aren’t looking too good if you can blow up a simple casserole. Please Constable, carry on!”
Constable: “Thank you Witchf…sir. She owns a black cat? Check.”
Young Woman: “Hang on, hang on, that isn’t my cat. It’s the master’s cat. It lives there and keeps the mice away. And it isn’t black. He just tipped the coal scuttle over himself in his panic to get away after this jerk scared him!”
WFG: “Now now, we’ll have none of that language! It would just be the work of a witch to use the language of the Devil and to change the colour of a cat like that. Not looking good for you young lady now, is it? Carry on, constable!”
Constable: “Very good Witchf..sir. A broomstick was found in her pantry? Check.”
Young Woman: *sighs* “Every kitchen has a bleedin’ broom in it. It’s yer basic kitchen equipment. I mean, come on…!”
WFG: “Oh deary, deary me. I think you doth protest too much. Anything else?”
Constable: “Plenty sir. She has a pointy hat? Check….”
Young Woman: “Now, hold on….that is a conical sieve! I was straining the…”
Constable: *ignoring* “….a shelf of potions? …”
Young Woman: “oils and vinegar…”
Constable: “…check…and other dried ‘stuff’? Ch….”
WFG: “Now, now, this is interesting. What manner of dried ‘stuff’?”
Young Woman: *sighing “They’re herbs.”
WFG: “Shush and desist your witchy speech. Let the man speak!”
Constable: “From what we can tell Witchf…sir, though she has tried to disguise the label, it looks like dried and crushed baby, sir. Check.”
Young Woman: “What?? It’s basil you imbecile. Dried and crushed ‘BASIL’! Give me strength.”
WFG: “Dear God, may He bless us and save us from this evil woman. She crushes babies and cries out to the Devil for strength? I have heard enough. String her up and may the Lord take Mercy on her soul! Right, what’s for tea? Ooh, I remember, casserole. But first, a bath.”
Or something like that.
After the original house burned to the ground, as old houses are wont to do, in 1845 Rosalind House was built. Settled deep in the darkest part of Norfolk, which can get very dark indeed (trust me I’ve lived there. Another parallel with this story), it was the largest psychiatric asylum in the county:
“That’s what Rosalind House had once been. Built in 1845 on land that had lain barren since a grand family home burned to the ground in the seventeenth century, it was once the largest asylum in the county. Residents were sent here for all manner of medical conditions, many of which weren’t medical at all; such patients were mostly women, who were often sent away by men who wanted to silence them for having opinions of their own. The place had been self-sufficient back then, according to what she’d dug up during her research. The Victorian doctors had believed that activities such as tending to vegetable patches and churning their own butter would help soothe troubled minds. In the years that followed, though, the focus had changed, and in the 1940s it had become the local state psychiatric hospital, housing victims of wartime trauma as well as other members of society who had somehow lost their way.”
The hospital closed in the 1950’s after an investigation into years of systematic abuse of the patients, where it lay empty until one Smeaton Dunsmore acquired it to start his commune.
You can read all about why he started it and for his “Guidelines For A Light and Bright Existence” when you buy the book. What? Do you want me to reproduce the entire book here? 😉
The unlikely named Smeaton is a good-natured, well meaning man, if a little over optimistic in his ideals for Rosalind House, and things are going pretty well for his little ‘family’ until Ali and Jack arrive.
Ali and Jack Gardiner have come to RH to get away from their problems. Ali has dragged a reluctant Jack with her to see if they can get their relationship back on track. They have given up their lives in the city for the more simple and self sufficient life that the commune offers. A bit like a modern day Tom and Barbara Good from the classic UK sitcom, The Good Life.
But, unlike Tom and Barbara, are Ali and Jack all they appear to be, or what they want to appear to be? One of the other residents, Angela, or Fairy Angela as she introduces herself as, isn’t too sure. Whilst waiting for them to arrive at the house earlier she felt something arrive before them. Something bad:
“I hold my breath, close my eyes, focusing everything on my ears. Waiting. Waiting. Until I hear the distant sounds of a car engine, and my eyes fly open as I gasp in a breath and understand what it is I can smell in the air. Something dark. Something old. Something bad is coming. And there’s no way to stop it.”
There is something bad lingering in Rosalind House. Something that lies in wait for those who dwell there.
The Lingering has a truly palpable sense of terror within its pages. Right from the prologue, from which the extract above is taken, the dread of something bad about to happen builds and it rarely lets up thereafter. The story unfolds through two narrative styles; the third person of Ali and Smeaton, and the first person of young Angela. This style of storytelling works very well in The Lingering, and as each chapter is headed with the characters name you never lose track of where you are and who you are with. Using this style you really get into the heads of Susi’s characters and begin to understand them, for better and for worse. This alternating perspective is similar to the way Will Carver wrote his superb Good Samaritans. I enjoy this mixing up of perspectives as I often find with purely first person narratives that I feel that I am missing out on the POV’s of the other characters. Maybe that’s just me, as the author is only telling us the story that we need to know of course, but there are often times in FPNs (first person narratives) where I meet a character and think to myself, what did they see? What’s their take on this situation? A recent excellent example of maintaining this multiple point of view whilst keeping the narrative in the first person was Stuart Turton’s sublime body hopping The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle. I’m really enjoying these experiments, if that is the correct word, in narrative styles. I’m sure that this is nothing new at all to the more widely read reader, but it is to me.
It is clear from the outset that Ali and Jack are running away from something, but Susi skilfully keeps us in the dark for most of the book as to its true nature. The others in the house start to feel uncomfortable around the new couple, particularly Ali, as they begin to behave more erratically, and then one member of the family disappears.
Susi has successfully managed to create a suitably spooky and creepy location in Rosalind House; the house is a character all of its own. As I’ve already mentioned, its history as a psychiatric hospital really resonated with me (in fact Ali herself was once a psychiatric nurse. It’s as if Susi has been inside my head. Get out, witch! *hangs a Hag Stone around neck to ward her off*). Clearly for me the parallels with my own experiences helped me to realise the house and its previous occupants in quite vivid detail, but even if that hadn’t been the case I would have had no trouble in doing so. You can sense its dilapidated grandeur, feel the history in its walls and sense the disturbed presence lingering within. We get a better sense of why this may be via journal extracts from a Dr. Henry Baldock, who, in 1955, was sent to Rosalind House to investigate the claims of patient abuse there and of other deeds of misconduct by the staff at the time. The horrible things that he reported back on have clearly echoed down through the years even though the hospital is long closed and the patients long gone. Given the turbulent history of the house (a child also drowned in the pond there), and that of the ground that it sits on, it is clear that it is very reluctant to let go and forgive the bad deeds that have gone before.
But not everyone can sense, see or hear the ghosts of Rosalind House. Ali can. She begins to question her sanity as the presence, or presences, er, present themselves. Why are they targeting her whilst the others go about their daily lives unhindered? What is Ali and Jack’s secret?
There is more to The Lingering than just ghosts though. Beneath the spooky, supernatural goings on there are very natural and far more insidious evils at play. It is hard to talk about them here for fear of spoiling the story, but the neglect and abuse that Dr. Baldock uncovers are firmly rooted in reality. For years mentally ill people were treated as social outcasts, it’s part of the reason why places like Napsbury were built deep in the countryside away from towns and cities, and where their ‘treatments’, for want of a better word, could go undetected and unhindered. I never witnessed such extreme events as those portrayed here – though I’ve sadly little doubt that they may have happened over the years – but I was witness to some of the more bigoted and heartless attitudes towards the patients, a lot of it from staff who had become just as institutionalised as them.
The Lingering also explores the narcissistic levels of control that someone is able to exert over those they perceive to be weaker than themselves, and the manipulative and insidious methods that can be used to control someone, making them carry out acts against their will and character. It may also make you contemplate how much of this behaviour is truly out of character and how much is the unmasking of the true character within.
All of the characters within Susi’s story are on the whole believable and likeable – with the obvious exceptions already mentioned. Smeaton’s ideals for A Light and Bright Existence are admirable and although on the surface of it it looks like just another controlling cult, it is something much friendlier and less selfish than that. The other residents of the house that make up the family are quite protective of each other, especially of Angela, who maintains connections with the village, something discouraged in Smeaton’s rules. The arrival of Ali and Jack lights a match under this happy little commune and, unlike the previous fires that have consumed the buildings on the site over its turbulent history, you are left wondering whether it will truly recover.
The Lingering is a beautifully realised and thought provoking modern horror story. It ticks all the right boxes and pushes all of the right buttons to truly set your nerves on edge and, depending on your nervous sensibilities, you may be forced to read this one with the lights on and turned all the way up. The lingering memories of the history of the area, of the house and its previous incarnation and of the tragedies that occurred there, are far more palpable, and far scarier than those of the supernatural entities that dwell within as a result. You may not believe in ghosts, but the human horrors are all too real.
Buy your copy here;