Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

Lamb House garden, Rye, from the first floor

The opening narrative, which provides the main impetus for the remaining two, is told in the first person by Toby Lamb, son of the James Lamb who built Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, early in the eighteenth century. Toby is the ill-used child of the family, disregarded because of his lameness but with sterling qualities nevertheless. While he works hard to do the best for the family business, a series of misfortunes befall the family members. The older brother is a bully, a gambler and a drunkard who predeceases Toby; a beloved sister is fostered by a childless Tunbridge Wells couple who, to put it mildly, don’t have her best interests at heart; a younger brother meets tragedy on Winchelsea beach; their mother is temperamentally of a weak disposition and remains sequestered in her bedroom; Toby has but one childhood friend.

On top of that Toby is the only one to see a mysterious figure in the garden, a portent whose significance Toby desperately believes may be a key to the family’s misfortunes.

‘The Stranger in the Garden’ is followed by ‘The Shade in the Alley’, which follows on from Toby’s 1784 journal, picking up its themes in the early 20th century. We now are in the presence of Henry James, the writer, who in 1897 leased Lamb House and then two years later bought it outright. During this time he had written and published his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, said to be partly inspired by an incident told him by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, E W Benson, co-founder of The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry. In this section James comes across a mysterious manuscript as the result of a curious fire in 1899, soon after he’d bought the house. And this journal is to prove an obsession for the remainder of his time at the house.

The language of ‘The Shade in the Alley’ is very Jamesian: it is told in the style of the writer himself (indeed, Aiken admits to using his own words wherever possible) with James constantly referred to as ‘our friend’, cher maître and ‘our hero’. One could almost imagine James writing his memoir in the third person, were it not for the fact that he ends his life in the closing pages, undecided whether to publish Toby’s account or rewrite it in his own, more felicitous, words.

The final section, ‘The Figure in the Chair’, takes on yet another mood, lighter in tone at times, less ponderous than the Jamesian section and less melancholy than Toby’s writing. This is narrated by E F (‘Fred’) Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who was friends with James, and features Fred’s brother Arthur. Both siblings were writers and also interested in ghosts: Fred even wrote several supernatural short stories. ‘The Figure in the Chair’ has a séance at its centre, and draws together the stranger seen by Toby at Lamb House, James’ concerns about how to deal with Toby’s journal and, finally, the import of the revelations that Fred and Arthur hear at the séance. What then happened to the eighteenth-century manuscript after James discovered it? Do we, the readers of this novel, hold the account in our hands?

And now there is this novel, written by Joan Aiken, native of Rye. Reading it while on holiday in East Sussex and visiting places mentioned in its pages for me made it so much more vivid.

Would it have made the story less involving if I’d never been there? Hard to tell, but I will say this. Aiken reveals her ability to write in distinct voices, neither pastiche nor parody but convincing in their evocation of period detail, language and manners. Toby’s account, though long, is a fictionalised version of the Lamb family in the Georgian period and its history, reworked to suit her purposes. I’ve read James, and skimmed Benson, but these sections come out as authentic recreations of those authors’ own writings, mannerisms and moods.

A man in black—poltergeist happenings—a hidden manuscript—revelations at a séance—a restless spirit who seeks rest. If no tingling spines ensue then possibly the odd shiver may make itself felt (not just from supernatural causes, there is implied abuse though we have to imagine details). This novel calls out to be read during a late autumn evening in a creaky old house; you don’t have to be familiar with Lamb House and its environs to be persuaded that this could — just — be all true.

Lamb House, Rye, East Sussex, in the Snow by Brian Cook Batsford. Watercolour of the front of Lamb House (showing the Writing Room window before bombing in 1940) by the designer of the colourful dust jackets of books he published in the 1930s; he was also once a tenant of Lamb House (

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a scary book

17 thoughts on “Merely raw materials

  1. I am enjoying your tour of Sussex – I made a similar pilgrimage myself a couple of summers ago, including Monk’s house and Dungeness… Wonderful that there are plenty of these powerfully (forgive pun!) haunted places which still inform the art of their inhabitants.

    Felicitous date too – 24 Sept – year and month of Joan’s birth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I see you too have that magical thinking where numbers are concerned, Lizza! Today’s date for posting was entirely coincidental but happily synchronous. 🙂

      Monks House was deeply satisfying, inspirational in a different way from Virginia’s sister’s Charleston, and another definite highlight was Vita’s Sissinghurst. Lovely to see the gardens as well as the more intimate spaces, all cosy and lined with books. How well these places are curated, so that as you say we can sense the presence of their former inhabitants.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Merely raw materials — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. Certainly, having visited the house and area while reading the book, the context was made clearer to me and I was in my imagination able to people the rooms, garden and town with the characters. But of course the story stands up in its own right.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is, Mallika! I’m planning to read James’ The Turn of the Screw in October—everyone tells me that’s really spinechilling, ideal for me not only because the days are getting shorter (we had our first frost of the autumn here last night) but also because James completed it while renting Lamb House.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t read the Turn of the Screw so far but have heard pretty much the same thing about it. Must do so sometime. I was just thinking of In a Glass Darkly (the short story by Agatha Christie) which also seemed to me to fit in with the season.

        Our days have begun to shorten too and we’ve been having heavy rain, and generally grey and dreary skies (unusual for this time of the year-usually the rain is gone by now) — so good time for the spooky stuff. I read a lighter hearted one though—Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-A-Ghost!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I haven’t read any of Ibbotson’s novels for younger readers, and just two of hers—one for young adult and another adult one repackaged by the publishers for a YA market, as seems to have happened to most of the last category. Luckily I have three or four of these waiting to be read, many set in the mid 20th century when Eva was able to escape from the Nazification that was happening in her part of the world.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. My situation seems just the opposite-I’ve read a couple of her younger reader’s titles-witches and ghosts and such but none of the YA ones, nor the romances (not sure if the latter are YA as well).

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating! After reading The Little Stranger, I think I need to be wary of the ghost story. I’m not sure what I want to expect, what I’m willing to not have or what I need to see from the ghost story…I’m a bit of a muddle. It might be all those ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK television episodes and RL Stine books I read as a kid…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read H P Lovecraft and Arthur Machen when I was younger, and the odd M R James, but could never quite buy into the fear they conjured up: all I could think was, Is this believable? The answer was nearly always no, mainly because the protagonist — inevitably male — would begin as a sceptic or dilettante while refusing to note all the warning signs. How could one take them seriously.

      Later horror, especially of the misogynistic kind that involves a female victim, has never appealed either—feeling voyeuristic if not sadistic, approaches that I’m never comfortable with.

      Aiken’s story however, though abuse is tangentially referenced, is never explicit about what memory might trigger a ghostly appearance—for her it’s all about atmosphere and personal stories, in my view. You might well enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you enjoy James I think you might like this. I’m late to his works (only three so far, all in the last year, and now tackling The Turn of the Screw) so not familiar with ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ but Aiken would doubtless have read it to reference the title in this novel.


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