The Burning Web by Sophie Duncan

The Burning Web by Sophie DuncanEchoing the classic ghost stories of MR James and Susan Hill, Duncan demonstrates that modern horror need not be filled with gore and action to bring terror.

Tristan McCall was an armed response officer—until he mistook a replica for the real thing and killed a teenager. When a vision of his victim provokes a brain haemorrhage, he retreats to a house in the country to recover. But the visions continue, and start to suggest horrors from the house’s past. But are they precursors of another haemorrhage, symptoms of a guilty conscience, or something more sinister?

Duncan successfully fuses the contemporary images of homosexual marriage and twenty-first century riot policing with the classic tropes of haunted house mysteries, modernising the ghost story without losing it’s heart.

Cutting back and forth between the McCall’s flat in town and the house they are renovating in the country, the book builds an effective contrast between fast-paced, surveillance culture and the disconnected rural fluidity. This strengthens the alternative interpretations of hallucination and ghostly re-enactment, and makes the sudden intrusion of Tris’ visions into normal life more shocking.

The only potential speed-bump in this otherwise smooth journey is the slight delay in revealing the book is set in the United Kingdom. Opening on Tris’ leaving a hearing, cleared of the murder of the boy he shot, the impact of his decision is already weakened by the presumption he is an American police officer before the reader realises how uncommon brandishing a firearm would be to him.

Tris makes a solid protagonist. Displaying plausible symptoms of both guilt and neurological trauma, his certainty that he is not just hallucinating is both sympathetic and subjective. Isolated from his husband by his refusal to treat everything he experiences as a symptom of physical trauma, and separated from his past life by the whispers that he should have been found guilty, the reader cannot escape the conclusion some events must be his mind playing tricks. But his reasons for believing are not irrational, so it is hard to judge which are which.

Xander, Tris’ husband, is equally well realised. A doctor, he acts as a suitable scientific foil to Tris’ drift into the possible supernatural. Seen through Tris’ eyes but with the less inescapably involved perspective of a reader, his attempts to protect Tris from himself are simultaneously a plausible expression of true love and immensely frustrating.

The supporting cast is also skilfully written. Possessing a range of perspectives on events, each of them provides the reader an insight into the potential truth while displaying the realistic inconsistency of real human beliefs.

Where the characterisation might slightly fall down is in the homosexual marriage. Duncan avoids the trap of using a heavy hand, and thus damaging the delicate tension of the rest of the story, but has erred a touch on the side of caution: the prejudice the couple would face (especially in the reactionary world of the police) has left no noticeable mark on them.

I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking a solid thriller with a supernatural edge.

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a fair review.

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