Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up. Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…
A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…
I'm thrilled to be hosting the blog tour for House of Spines today. Many thanks to Orenda Books, Michael J. Malone and Anne Cater for inviting me and for my copy of the book received in return for my honest review.
I loved Michael J. Malone's previous book for Orenda, A Suitable Lie and was intrigued by House of Spines from the moment I first read the description. It's very different from the last book but with Michael's beautiful, thoughtful writing, I knew I'd be in safe hands.
In retrospect, safe hands isn't perhaps the best turn of phrase, reading late at night had me jumping at odd sounds and wondering just what that shadow was...! Rest assured though, House of Spines is a wonderful book, one that skillfully played with my emotions and left me both chilled and moved, this eerie psychological thriller is also a touching examination of just how terrifying mental illness can be.
Ranald 'Ran' McGhie is astounded to discover from a solicitor, Quinn that he had a great-uncle he didn't know existed, nor that his mother estranged herself from her moneyed family after falling in love with Ran's father, Gordon McGhie at the age of nineteen. He is further shocked to learn that his Uncle Alexander had 'checked in' on Ran throughout his life. His irritation turns to interest though when he hears he has inherited a library. As Ran wonders about storing valuable old books in his one-bedroom flat above a chip shop, Quinn informs him the library is not to be removed from the old house, and instead has also left it to Ran, complete with a trust fund to pay his bills and the wages of the ageing housekeeper and gardener. There is one proviso, the house remains in the ownership of the family trust. The house will be Ran's until he dies but he won't be allowed to sell it. Nevertheless, it seems he's a lucky man to suddenly with, a house, rent-free for the rest of his life. At first it really seems as if he's struck the jackpot, Newton Hall is not just a house, it's a mansion. When he feels overwhelmed by his new home, the huge library, understandably, becomes a place of solace. After all, what book lover doesn't identify with this sentiment,
'He needed to be surrounded by the muffle and hush of the bound word. There, his body cushioned by soft leather, he breathed in the smell of hundreds of years of literary works and allowed his heartbeat to settle. It felt as if the rows of spines around him formed a sanctuary, protecting him from the unknown, unexplored rooms that surrounded him.'
Not all is at it seems though and this House of Spines has some terrors in store for poor Ran. In the best tradition of Gothic novels, Newton Hall itself is as much a character as the people in the book. The claustrophobic sense of fear builds up thanks to the layers of familiar horror motifs; the suggestion that certain rooms (in this case the lift) are best left locked, shadows seen at windows, mysterious voices warning visitors to leave, the unsettling coincidences, and then the visions of a woman in a mirror - a woman Ran will ultimately become dangerously obsessed with. As the book became progressively more chilling I had the impression that Michael was having tremendous fun, toying with his readers perceptions and expectations. As Ran becomes more and more unhinged, it's hard to ascertain just what is real and what is in his mind.
Ran, we learn, has a history of mental health problems, supposedly triggered by the double suicide of his parents when he was eighteen. However, it seems his family history may also mean his illness is inherited, and he is the latest in a long line of Fitzpatricks to fall victim to the malevolent atmosphere at Newton Hall. I was never in any doubt here that the issue of mental health would be explored sensitively. We see that Ran still has a close relationship with his ex-wife and is a kind and caring friend to his old neighbour, Donna and he isn't the the violent 'lunatic' of certain demonising tabloid headlines. He may be an unreliable narrator at times but he is pushed to the very limits of his sanity by outside forces. His decisions, particularly involving his medication may seem foolhardy but in the context of the novel they are understandable. It's a series of circumstances that I can't give away here that drive Ran to losing his grasp on reality, the twists and turns wrought upon him would petrify anybody, that Ran is so vulnerable makes his decline even harder to witness and had me racing to the end desperate to discover whether he would get the happy ending he deserves (you'll have to read the book to find out!)
House if Spines is an unforgettable book, Michael J. Malone's writing is terrifying but it's also evocative and poetic. I really enjoyed this haunting, lyrical tale with its deliciously disturbing twists and the empathetic and sympathetic mental health story. With Halloween not too far away, I recommend you give the sweets and candy to your visiting trick or treaters and guisers and treat yourself to House of Spines.
House of Spines is published by Orenda Books. You can follow Michael J. Malone here on Twitter.
About the Author
Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country, just a stone’s throw from the great man’s cottage in Ayr. Well, a stone thrown by a catapult. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. His career as a poet has also included a (very) brief stint as the Poet-In- Residence for an adult gift shop. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize (judge: Alex Gray) from the Scottish Association of Writers. Other published work includes: Carnegie’s Call (a non-fiction work about successful modern-day Scots); A Taste for Malice; The Guillotine Choice; Beyond the Rage and The Bad Samaritan. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number one bestseller. Michael is a regular reviewer for the hugely popular crime fiction website www.crimesquad.com. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller.
Don't miss the other stops on the blog tour, particularly my tour buddy today, The Writing Garnet.