Eleanor Birne

  • The Observations by Jane Harris
    Faber, 415 pp, £12.99, April 2006, ISBN 0 571 22335 4

It’s a rare feeling to be swept up by a book in the childhood way, but when it happens it’s extraordinary: deeply familiar and strangely unsettling. I was staying in a large house in the middle of a French field when I first discovered Rebecca at a ridiculously advanced age. The house seemed to take on the same eerie feel as Manderley as I read on into the night. At about three in the morning I was still reading when I heard the sound of footsteps in the attic above us. I dropped the book, woke my sleeping boyfriend, told him we were about to be murdered in our bed, and made him run out with me into the field to take refuge in the car. We sat there for five minutes before he managed to persuade me to let him go inside and search the place. I sat there with the engine running and the headlights trained on the doorway as he disappeared back inside. When he finally re-emerged, having searched the entire place including the attic, he suggested that perhaps it was the spirit of Rebecca herself I had heard, or else the old water-heater clanking. Which makes me wonder: how can a story still so frighteningly take hold when we’re supposed to have banished the fear of ghosts? What is the trick that makes the reading chill? How is it engineered?

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