Satirical pulp: The Possessed, by Witold Gombrowicz, reviewed

On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. It’s hardly an event which needs its significance re-stating, but there was one outcome which has received rather less attention than the impending crisis in Europe. After the first instalments – serialised in newspapers in the summer of that year – a bizarre, flamboyant, mock-gothic novel by an unknown writer, ‘Z. Niewieski’, was forced to cease publication on 3 September. Witold Gombrowicz, the author of The Possessed and master of Polish modernism, had penned the work under a pseudonym, and, he claimed, only for money. If that distance from the book weren’t enough, he then put an ocean between himself and the manuscript.

Hampton Court: an architectural symbol of royal lust

The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore – so much so that her ‘every word’ made one ‘sick’, according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with exquisite irony that ‘envy kept the women at a distance, despair the men’. This kind of witty, skittish anecdote is scattered throughout Gareth Russell’s scintillating hybrid of a book, which is partly a biography of a place and partly something stranger: an episodic history of England from Tudor times to the present, illustrated by lightning

The truth about ‘the most haunted house in England’

Place and story are little remembered now. The rectory in Essex was severely damaged by fire in 1939. But any old house with an unpleasant atmosphere, especially isolated, damp, dark and unmodernised, was once described as ‘like Borley Rectory’. Judging by this long ‘story of a ghost story’, the place showed its true nature from the beginning. Many of the incumbent rectors, their families, servants and guests heard and felt ghosts, always malevolent. Crockery flew about and hit people; candlesticks tumbled down stairs; there were whisperings, cries, thumps and bumps. The usual. Well, odd things do happen in old houses. I have entered rooms which I was immediately desperate to

A ghoulish afterlife: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka, reviewed

Ten years ago Shehan Karunatilaka’s first novel, Chinaman, was published and I raved about it, as did many others. Set in the 1980s, it intertwined the stories of a vanished, forgotten cricketer who was able to bowl unplayable deliveries and the particularly brutal war that was ravaging Sri Lanka. My review ended with the words: ‘Karunatilaka is, I gather, writing another novel, but how it can be as good as this I can hardly imagine.’ We now have that novel, and I was right: it isn’t as good. Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, there are parts of its design and telling that are very good indeed.

An angry poltergeist: Long Shadows, by Abigail Cutter, reviewed

Long Shadows, a powerful novel set mainly in the American civil war, is very unlike Gone with the Wind. The narrator, Tom Smiley, is now an unhappy ghost trapped in his old home, which, apart from snakes, mice and silverfish, has been uninhabited since his widowed daughter Clara died. A young couple arrive: Harry, who has inherited the property, and Phoebe, a psychic. To Tom’s indignation, they start renovating, getting rid of loved objects such as his family’s kitchen table and piano. Letters, medals and his sisters’ clothes are unearthed, prompting painful memories for him. This is the story of a man from a modest Virginia farming family who were

Plumbing the mysteries of poltergeists

This is a paranormal book — by which I mean it exists in a truly out of the ordinary netherworld of amiable smut and arch silliness not normally associated with titles reviewed in these pages. But hold on, there is a point — which I’ll come to later.‘Perhaps Wakdjunkaga was really Gef the Talking Mongoose.’ I read this amazing sentence and was about to throw the book across the room, but then realised that a flying paperback might, if S.D. Tucker were to see it, be interpreted as evidence for the existence of poltergeists (from the German for ‘noisy spirit’). So I read on resignedly until my wife interrupted me