Pine by Francine Toon – review

It’s the perfect time of year for something creepy, when even the most easily spooked of souls (like myself) are tempted by the prospect of a book that makes you want to leave the light on. Pine is without doubt my pick of the spooky season, ticking all the spine-chilling boxes and then some. It’s not, however, a traditional ghost story by any means, and that’s part of the reason I loved it so much – nothing here is predictable, and nothing about it was like anything I’ve read before. It’s a full-on mash up of thriller and supernatural, and it’s really hard to say on which side of the line it falls. I’ve come across a number of thrillers (as I’m sure you have too) that throw in the odd thunderstorm or creepy old house to add a bit of atmosphere and amp up the tension, when in actual fact there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, and we’re never meant to really believe there is. This novel, however, flips wholesale between the very real, earthly mystery of a woman who went missing in unexplained circumstances several years before, and genuine occult chills: the figure at the window, stone circles that appear out of nowhere, not to mention some very literal bumps in the night.

But before I get too carried away, I should probably back-track a bit. The book’s two main characters, who share the majority of the narrative between them, are Niall and his daughter Lauren, who live in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren’s mother (and Niall’s wife), Christine, is the woman who disappeared some years before, when her daughter was only tiny. No body was ever found, but no-one ever heard from her again – and no-one knows why she would have left or where she went. This tragic event – and the effect it had on the family left behind – creates a genuine sadness that runs through the core of the story, giving it a lump-in-the-throat emotional depth that many thrillers lack. Niall responds to his grief by drinking, and alternates painfully between moments of overwhelming love and affection for his little girl and periods of neglect, when the lure of the local pub proves stronger than his paternal instincts. Lauren faces isolation on all fronts: the absence of a mother she doesn’t remember yet whose presence she knows she misses, an unreliable father with a propensity to vanish for hours on end leaving her to fend for herself, and loneliness at school, where the other children seize on her vulnerability and subject her to a constant barrage of verbal and physical bullying. She isn’t completely friendless, however, and while her father drinks she creates her own adventures with schoolmate Billy and a couple of older girls from the village, Diane and Ann-Marie. Her relationship with Ann-Marie in particular will turn out to have some very chilling and ultimately dangerous repercussions.

The Highland setting is an absolute gift for anyone wanting an unnerving backdrop for their tale! The pine forests behind the village are full of frightening potential; when Lauren and Billy head off to play in this disorientating, menacing wilderness, we as readers follow them with some reluctance. Where I thought the author surpassed herself, however, was in her imaginative creation of Lauren’s home; the very place where you’re meant to feel safe became one of the most sinister settings in the novel. From the moment we take our first tour of the wooden paneled walls, dark blue carpets and damp rooms we get an unshakeable sense that all is not well. Francine Toon stirs up fear through the simplest things – the sound of dripping without an obvious source, a curtain that divides the living and dining area – a barrier that seems somehow insecure and subject to be breached without warning; a lamp that may or may not have already been on when the characters first entered the room….

Seriously, I’m getting a cold sensation up my back even just sitting here typing this out as I remember how I felt reading those spooky passages! I read a book of M R James ghost stories earlier this year and creepy though many of them were, none gave me quite the physical sensation that Pine managed. It’s easy, I think, to misjudge horror, and there’s a very fine line between scary and silly, so I have to take may hat off to Toon for evoking maximum discomfort while staying on the right side of the line. My only tiny niggle is that perhaps the supernatural element of the book becomes slightly overdone right at the end, but certainly not enough to spoil the book as a whole.

I mustn’t forget of course that there’s a whole other side to the novel, carried away as I am with the thrill of the paranormal! It is just as successful in its other guise as a crime novel, and the human relationships are what makes the whole story so, well, believable. Whatever spooky goings on may or may not be happening up in the forest, at its heart Pine is the story of a father and daughter who are both grieving, one for a life he lost and the other for a life she could have had. If you took away all the other mystery, that relationship alone would have made for an immensely powerful novel. It would have been easy to make alcoholic father Niall, who forgets to come home to feed his daughter and takes out his misery in violently destructive rages, a despicable character, but he is so nuanced and complex that he garners our sympathy rather than our condemnation. Ten year old Lauren, too, is given a voice that feels utterly authentic for her age (which must be very hard to do I think) an despite being “only” a child is as fascinating and sophisticated a character as any of the adults. The whole book, in fact, is a beautifully realised mosaic of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find together, but the end result is a striking, unforgettable book that defies easy classification. It won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year, but if you overlook it because you don’t consider yourself a crime fan (and I certainly don’t) then you’d be missing out on something really special – and you’d be spending a little less time looking over your shoulder when you turn the last light out before bed….

Related posts

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

I’m actually quite proud of myself for even allowing this story collection into my home! I don’t mind admitting I’m the world’s biggest coward when it comes to anything vaguely supernatural; there’s a frantic scramble to change the channel when even just the trailer for a spooky programme comes on TV, and quite frankly the thought of consuming any paranormal entertainment by design is pretty much unthinkable. So when my sister recommended this book to me, to say I was wary would be an understatement, and I was completely shocked when not only was I not overly terrified, but I actually enjoyed it.

If you’re of a fragile disposition like me, I think it definitely helps that most of the stories are framed by an objective narrator, who passes on the story second hand after talking to a friend, finding a documented account and so on. This keeps the ghostly action contained within the tales one step removed if you like, and it’s a comfort to come back to the safety of a (surviving!) narrator and a sense of reality after any creepiness is over and done with. Having said that, it’s very much a mixed bag of scariness, ranging from the mildly sinister to the fairly disturbing, and which ones linger in the mind most will probably vary very much from reader to reader: out of all the stories, I count myself fortunate that only one came back to bother me in the middle of the night! (If you have even a slight aversion to puppets, then avoid “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” – you have been warned).

The author definitely has some favourite themes, returning to them a number of times in the course of the collection. There are a lot of stories that take place in and around churches or cathedrals – unsurprising perhaps given the wealth of potentially spooky material attached to these places, but I didn’t mind the repetition of the setting as these tales in particular appealed to me. The notion of revenge or punishment is also a prevalent idea; many of the stories’ victims are hounded by supernatural entities precisely because they’ve committed some sort of sin, whether that’s consorting with evil spirits, or taking possession of a significant object that doesn’t belong to them. At the end of “The Haunted Doll’s House” there’s even an author’s note acknowledging the similarity to another of his stories, but hoping the reader will see enough of a difference to still enjoy it!

I can see why M R James is known as a master of the ghost story; what I found most intriguing – and extremely clever – was his ability to create an atmosphere of menace out of what would normally be the most benign of surroundings: a hilltop on a sunny day, a painting of a country house, the blackberry bushes at the side of a country lane. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to look through a pair of binoculars again for a while without a shiver down the spine. It was a superb mixture of the traditional and the unexpected, and it held my interest from first to last despite there being around 30 stories in all. Even if you think you’re not a fan of ghost stories, like I did, I’d honestly encourage you to give these a try and see what you think – I’m certainly glad I did. Just don’t read them after dark.

My favourite stories:

  • The Mezzotint
  • The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  • A Neighbour’s Landmark
  • An Episode of Cathedral History
  • The Residence at Whitminster

Related posts:

“Fireside Gothic” by Andrew Taylor – review

Before I’d even opened this book I’d fallen in love with the title: it’s just so evocative of dark winter evenings curled up under a blanket with a creepy book, and I couldn’t wait to grab a cup of hot chocolate and get stuck in.  I wasn’t disappointed – you’d be hard pushed to find a better January read.

It’s a collection of short stories, a literary form of which I have to confess I’m not always a fan, but these are all long enough to be immensely satisfying; in fact, they’re almost long enough to be novellas rather than short stories.  It’d be misleading as well to refer to them simply as ghost stories since they’re much more complicated than that.  There are elements that could feasibly be supernatural but there’s a psychological aspect to all of them as well.  All three feature central characters who are at an emotionally tumultuous time in their lives and who find themselves in an environment that lends itself to paranoia, fear or a sense of isolation.

The first, “Broken Voices”, takes place in the early twentieth century and has the most conventionally “gothic” setting of the three: the house of an old schoolmaster that stands in the shadow of an imposing, eerie cathedral.  The schoolmaster is tasked with looking after two lonely boys from the cathedral boarding school who have no home or family to go to during the Christmas holiday; at first, none of the three are particularly keen on the arrangement, but after an evening of ghost stories by the fire the boys’ interest in their previously uninviting surroundings is piqued.  What is the truth about the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Goldsworthy, Master of Music at the cathedral, who fell to his death from the tower nearly two hundred years before -was it really an accident or was there a more sinister explanation?  And is there a connection between his tragic end and the shadowy figure and untraceable music that can be seen and heard within the cathedral walls?

I loved the traditional feel of this first story; it fulfils every obligation of a good ghost story, and there’s an element of comfort in revisiting the familiar ground of what you would consider the epitome of the spooky story to be.  Reading it was akin to putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and I was completely delighted by it.  You get the feeling that the author really relished following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other such writers, and I would put money on the fact that Andrew Taylor has a genuine love for those writers who paved the way for this kind of story.

With the second tale, however, he changes tack completely.  We’re now back in the modern day and in the company of a man whose car has broken down as he drives home from his sister’s funeral.  He’s lost, alone and with no means of calling for help – but as luck would have it, he stumbles across an old cottage.  The enigmatic woman who answers the door directs him to a large, comfortable and welcoming house just a few minutes away, but try as he might he can’t get the woman out of his mind.  When he returns in the morning, however, he gets the shock of his life, and what follows throws everything we thought we knew completely out of the window.  It’s almost impossible to talk any more about the story itself without giving away a whole load of spoilers, so I’m not going to.  What I can say, though, is that I loved the way this tale suddenly spun off into head-messing territory.  Are we in the presence of some serious supernatural shenanigans or are we witnessing a grief-stricken man in the grip of psychological distress?  I got to the end and my mind was still reeling, but that’s exactly the way it should be.  If the first story was cosily creepy, this one was the total opposite: complex and quite unsettling.

The third and final story, “The Scratch”, was a very different one again.  Gerald and Clare live in the idyllic Forest of Dean, a comfortable life in a beautiful house.  Then Gerald’s nephew Jack comes into their life and everything begins to change.  Jack is ex-military and is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of a horrifying experience he endured while on active service in the Middle East.  He has a curiously intense fear of the couple’s cat but also and unhealthy obsession with the idea that a giant, wild, cat-like creature is on the prowl in the forest.  And he has something else too: a bizarre scratch that never heals.  As it turns out, Jack isn’t the only one with an obsession.  Clare finds, to her horror, that she’s becoming increasingly attracted to the young man, and from this moment on things go from bad to worse for the family.  It seems that post-traumatic stress isn’t all that Jack has brought back with him; as events unfold it starts to look suspiciously like some kind of curse.

But, the author challenges us, do we really believe in things like that?  Is it possible that something otherworldly can exact revenge upon us for our transgressions or is it the burden of our own feelings of guilt that make us believe that the past is somehow haunting us?  I thought this story was very clever as it manages to create an unsettling mood without any of the usual ghost story tropes.  There are no gothic cathedrals and no dark, stormy nights, just warm spring days in the Forest of Dean, but it’s incredibly effective storytelling nonetheless.

The whole book was pitched just the right side of spooky for me.  It won’t give you sleepless nights (thank goodness!) but it will give you something much more rewarding: cleverly crafted, stylishly written tales that create a gently spine-tingling atmosphere and much to think about.

20170110_171352