Psychological thriller author E.J. Henry's first ghost story, The Corpse Lodging (Endeavor Press), is an interesting beast. It reads like a thriller, without a lot of frills and flowery dialogue, but aside from a few sequences it's thoroughly rooted in traditional gothic and folk horror. Ed Donavan is a merchant seaman. After his ship is captured by Somali pirates, he suffers from severe PTSD, hallucinating the restless spirits of his murdered colleagues. Or are they more than just hallucinations? At a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland he meets a troubled American woman named Mary, and the two bond over shared traumas. Soon they're moving off to a small coastal town in the Curraghs (a marshy area on the Isle of Man), where Mary has inherited a house from a long-lost relative. The caveat to bequeathal her is odd: she must keep a grave open in the local cemetery (the "corpse lodging" of the title). Even more bizarre is the behavior of their new neighbors. When Ed begins seeing ghosts again, and hearing ships in the mist-covered waters he can't see, he wonders if he's losing his mind, or if the visions he's seeing are tied to the journal found by the local rector, dating back nearly two-hundred years ago.
If The Corpse Lodging suffers from anything, it's an incredibly convoluted beginning. It's not until about halfway through that the story really gets going, although the opening chapters in which Ed deals with his Somali captors are very exciting and well written, reminding me a lot of early Clive Cussler, it's not quite the story we're promised from the description. So many things happen in that first half of the book and much of it could have easily remained as backstory.
However, that's a minor gripe, as this is an entertaining psychological ghost story in the vein of Henry James's Turn of the Screw or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, wherein you're never quite sure if it's all in Ed's mind, if there really are ghosts, or if the townspeople are trying to gaslight him for some reason.
Ed's suffering of PTSD and his time in the psychiatric facility makes it difficult for him to believe that what he experiences in the house, called Croit-e-John, and the surrounding area is not just more hallucinations. Without that part of the story, without following him during this period of his life, his willingness to go along with certain events might feel false. It's what follows between the kidnapping and hospital, and their arrival at Croit-e-John, which seemed overly long and perhaps unnecessary. For instance, there is a death during this period of the novel that could have been avoided with the excision of specific extraneous minor characters (without getting into spoiler territory). And the overly long Prologue, which takes place in 1818, could have easily been parceled out in snippets throughout the story, or gotten rid of entirely, saved instead for revelations from the Rector's journal. Opening with it dissolves much of the mystery later in the book.
There were also times I felt like I'd love to look more deeply into the minds of these characters, but that speaks more to the likeability of them than to any shortcomings in the writing. And there were points where I wished certain events were "unpacked" just a little more, that scenes were given a bit more flesh or room to breathe before we're whisked away into the next scene. I wanted to feel more of Ed's fear and confusion. These are the elements of Gothic and folk horror that bring chills to the readers' blood.
That said, I did enjoy reading this book a fair bit. All of these elements come together, and in the latter half of the book I found myself glued to the page, eager to get through to what was definitely a satisfying conclusion. It has an insistent style, very tersely written, but with a psychological depth you don't find in many thrillers.
If you're looking for a good 21st century interpretation of the kind of ghost stories M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood were famous for, look no further than The Corpse Lodging. As far as marrying the snappy prose and style of modern thrillers with the deliberate pacing and trappings of Gothic horror, E.J. Henry has done an admirable job.