People, it so often turns out, have a fairly limited perception of time.
We tend to see the past, present and future as unalterably locked away in their own sealed-off chronological prisons but the truth, as Anita Frank demonstrates with gothic-tinged dread and considerable insightful compassion in her hauntingly atmospheric novel The Lost Ones, is that the past, at least, tends to be bleed into the present far more than we would like to admit.
It is not for want of trying to wall it off, far from where we think it can’t hurt us.
The reality is, of course, that the past never truly leaves us; we may leave that particular period of time behind, dragged forward by what feels like a ceaseless, unstoppable rush forward into the waiting arms of the future, but we are always marked by the events in our lives in such profound ways that the past is always carried with us in some form or another.
One person who knows the painful truth of this is Stella Marcham, recently returned to England from the muddy, horror-filled trenches of war-scarred France where she looking after wounded and dying soldiers in the penultimate year (1917) of what then known as the War to End All Wars (sadly that was proved to not be the case a matter of two short decades later).
“Still bristling with self-contempt, I decided to pay no further thought to the toy’s puzzling presence. Instead, I settled myself amongst the damply cold sheets and turned off the light, gratefully succumbing to the gradual creep of slumber.” (Stella, P. 59)
Heartbroken by the death of her officer fiancé Gerald, who succumbed to his grievous injuries in her arms, she is lost deep into the cruel folds of grief, unable to summon the boisterously-determined young woman she once was from wherever she went when the love of her life became yet another of the millions felled all too early by a war that everyone expected, rather naively, to be over by Christmas 1914.
Nothing her mother or father can do can revive her interest in the wonders of life on the estate her family calls home, and Stella spends her days in funereal black, fondling the gold locket Gerald gave her as an inviolable sign of his intention to return one day and marry her.
Her only escape from the bleakness of her blighted present is her beloved sister Madeline who despite some sizeable pain of her own drops everything to tend to her sister.
Stella is given the chance to return the favour when her brother-in-law Hector urges her to go and visit Madeleine at his family estate Greyswick, where his once unflappably sunny and generously patient has become a fraught shadow of her former happy self.
Happy to have an escape from her mother’s overly-attentive and somewhat judgemental ministrations, Stella arrives to find Madeleine jumping at shadows, hearing strange sobbing in the night and convinced there is someone altogether ghostly haunting Greyswick darkly oppressive rooms and hallways.
It is the perfect setting for the unfurling of a deeply human, emotionally evocative gothic horror story that proves once again that we perhaps have more to fear from each other than from anything that might lurk in dimensions unseen or places beyond our understanding.
In a narrative that as is much a tragic and enthralling whodunnit as it is a beguiling dive into the darkness and shadows of the past and the secrets and lies that lurk there, all the while bleeding into a marred and broken present, Stella comes to appreciate far more than she has to that point that we never truly escape our pasts and that our present and future are inextricably linked to it in ways we might never have emerged.
Or perhaps, we are all too aware of the lurking bogeymen of past misdeeds and choose to pretend they are not there, a convenient, self-serving falsity that quite a number of characters in The Lost Ones, which carries with it the gently frightening terrors of stories like The Woman in Black and The Others, seemed happy to perpetuate.
Alas for her own mental and emotional health and sense of restful peace, Stella is not among them, and much of this brilliantly-realised and superbly well-paced novel draws its energising and deliciously unnerving power from the protagonist’s unwillingness to let the secrets of the dead, which seem to be whispered over and over through the walls of ghostly Greyswick, remain buried where the living would prefer them to remain.
Frank neatly and affectingly builds the story with care and patience, allowing quite some immersive chapters to unfold before the mysteries of Greyswick and its influence on Madeleine’s happiness, Stella’s enervating grief and her maid Annie’s perceptive strangeness, to express themselves in full force.
“I was deeply troubled by what I had heard, and I churned the conversation over in my mind. Of one thing I was becoming increasingly convinced: behind the crass grandeur and tasteless opulence, the walls of Greyswick were infused with so many secrets and lies that the very fabric of the building breathed deceit … There seemed to be no end to the horrors that had occurred within the auspices of this awful house, and I was more determined than ever to uncover thee truth.” (P. 323)
While it proceeds with just-so pacing and a nuanced understanding of the capacity of the human psyche to convincingly and enduringly lie to itself in the pursuit of people all often see as a greater good, The Lost Ones is also a tension-filled, rollercoaster of a ride that takes you into the frightening chasm that is a deceptive human soul every bit as much as it journeys with illuminating power into the haunting environs of the depths of Greyswick.
While the characters might seem a little formulaically trope-heavy at first, with the acerbic dowager (Mrs Brightwell, Hector’s mother), the attentive lady companion (Miss Ruth Scott), the chatty Cook, the sceptical supernatural investigator (Tristan Sheers) and the rigidly unemotional housekeeper (Mrs Henge) all in attendance, Frank uses them in clever ways to move the story forward and to break open not simply the secrets of long-cast aside past events but also the lies we tell ourselves in our bid to make peace with the often cruel business of living.
Thus The Lost Ones, which leaps off the page with its raw, sorrowful humanity and its gripping, don’t-read-this-late-at-night sense of looming supernatural horror – again it’s an even bet just who have more to fear, the people still alive around us or the souls of those now departed (Pssst! Put your money on the former every time, and no, this is not a spoiler) – is as much a careful study of the human condition as it is a story of strange goings-on in house amply suited to such deeds.
As gothic horror stories go The Lost Ones is superb, an utterly involving mystery that begs you to stay clam and stay the course, and to trust that Frank, who builds things with consummate skill and an insightfulness and empathy that many of her characters, save Stella and Annie, could do well to adopt and emulate, will take you to a place where resolution might be painful and horrifically illuminative but where it is also freeing, a chance to leave the haunting strictures of the past and move into a future that truly is free from the brokenness and ghostly losses of the past.