House of Spines

Michael J Malone

(Orenda, £8.99)

Review by Alastair Mabbott

HOUSE of Spines is something of a departure for Malone, the Ayrshire-based author and poet known mainly for his crime fiction. His well-honed skills for building suspense are put to full use here, but for the first time they’re serving a story filled to the brim with the most iconic elements of Victorian ghost stories and gothic romances – including, but not limited to, an inheritance, a spooky house, two loyal retainers, ghostly visions, family secrets, madness and, just for good measure, murder.

It’s about Ranald McGhie, a struggling writer of educational textbooks and frustrated poet. His mother, who was disowned by her wealthy family for marrying beneath her station, was a deeply troubled woman who ended her life in a double suicide with Ranald’s father. Even before their shocking deaths, Ranald had long feared that he might have inherited his mother’s madness, and as an adult he keeps bipolarity at bay with medication.

His mental fragility isn’t the only thing passed down to him by his mother. Summoned to a lawyer’s office, he is astonished to discover that he has inherited Newton Hall, a huge old house in Bearsden, from the grandfather he never met. Alexander Fitzpatrick hadn’t entirely washed his hands of his daughter after all, but had kept track of her and followed Ranald’s progress with interest. Before his death, he decided that Ranald would be the ideal person to inherit the house become custodian of the extensive library it contains.

For a freelance writer with a patchy career, this is a windfall beyond imaginings. Ranald explores the rambling house, avails himself of the swimming pool, plucks volumes to read from the shelves, conscious of the unreality of it all. But his sojourns outdoors awaken him to the fact that the Fitzpatricks were not universally liked in the surrounding area, and as the locals realise that the new arrival is descended from them, his attempts to get out and about leave him feeling awkward and self-conscious, which isn’t helped by the fact that he has stopped taking his medication.

As he gets settled in, Ranald senses the presence of a woman, someone who lived there a long time ago. She comes to him in dreams and waking visions, like a long-lost lover, alluding to buried family secrets. These visitations could be dismissed as side-effects of coming off his medication if it weren’t for some uncanny things that can’t be explained away so easily: memories, snatches of poetry, things Ranald couldn’t possibly know.

Far from seeming like a mishmash of thrown-together tropes, House of Spines slots all these elements together intelligently and purposefully so that they reinforce each other to form a compelling and memorable psychological thriller. The story twists and feints, pulling us along with it at every turn, the edginess of its central character making every development even more unsettling. The sinister atmosphere of Newton Hall feels like it’s soaked into the pages, just as it has infected Ranald’s thoughts, making it a chilling read, best savoured late on a dark night.