I first came across Syd Moore as the founding editor of Level 4, an eclectic, free magazine covering culture in Southend-on-Sea. Then, with her artist friend Heidi Wigmore, she created a card game about female stereotypes, Super Strumps, which was launched at the Women Of The World festival at London South Bank. (If you are interested in it, go HERE)
I had read some of Syd’s articles in defence of the much maligned Essex Girl, in which she made the link with the fact that Essex had been seen as "Witch County" across the ages. Her interest for the subject has now been turned into a two-book deal with publishers HarperCollins; not bad for a debut novelist!
First, the blurb – because I wouldn’t write anything better than this to sum up the story:
“Relocated to a coastal town with her young son Alfie, widowed teacher Sarah Grey is slowly rebuilding her life. But following a séance one drunken night, she begins to experience frightening
visions. Her attempts to explain them away are dashed when Alfie starts to see them too, and soon, it seems that they are targets of a terrifying haunting.
Convinced that the ghost is that of a 19th century local witch and her own namesake, Sarah
delves into local folklore and learns that the witch was seen as evil incarnate.
When a series of old letters surface, Sarah discovers that nothing and no-one is
as it seems, maybe not even the ghost of Sarah Grey…”
This is a refreshing and actually rather original take on the ghost story genre. But a word of warning here: if you are after a brainless, non-stop blood-splattered feast of chills and screams, you won’t get it, not in that way.
Yes, it is a chilling book that has been cleverly written to make the hair stand at the back of its readers’ neck, but I have found much more in there than that.
“The Drowning Pool” works on several levels, and the ghost story at some point turns into what I
would call a detective story. From investigating events that have taken place in the 19th century, Sarah Grey finds that she might also be probing into a more recent past… perhaps even the present… That’s what is so enjoyable about this book: it effortlessly moves from a very familiar environment, a 21st century full of mobile phones, Skype communications and drunken antics in crowded pubs and wine bars – all instrumental in the development of the ghostly storyline – to the dark, tough reality of an 19th century seaside village.
Incredibly enough, it works.
The supernatural elements are introduced subtly, as the ghosts from the past – literally – start to infiltrate the very normal world of young widow Sarah Grey. The haunting itself is so unnerving because we seem to never really be sure about what is really happening. Is there any “reality” in those manifestations? Is Sarah’s mind – or shall I say, brain – playing tricks on her? Is her grief for her late husband behind all this?
So, you ask me, do we firmly know the facts when we reach page 356? You’ll have to read the book, of course.
What I can tell you, though, is that as the story develops and the young woman delves into the “witch”’s life and that of the close-knit, superstitious community in which she lived, we are completely taken by the historical details about the times and the area. The author has done her
research (the "sea-witch" Sarah Moore did indeed live in Leigh but her name has been changed to avoid confusion), and it shows without being forced down your throat as so many authors do.
An important part of the success of the book is Syd Moore’s humour and her flowing, bouncy writing style – she can switch it to stark and brooding at will. I like the unpretentious style of the author who is not here to dazzle you with some literary prowess but to offer you a bloody good read and tell you the story of a human being whose fate has obviously touched her very much.
I smiled and chuckled quite often as well – comic relief works marvellously here and helps you shake off the tension, before plunging you into yet another goose bumps-inducing episode. As an ex-teacher myself, I recognised the staffroom antics and “teachery” (I’ve made up a word here) moans of Sarah and her colleagues. In the early stages of the book, Sarah's tense communication with her boss, the barely human McBastard, oops, I mean, McWhittard – an austere, gothic character – is responsible for some uncomfortable but funny scenes.
And the drinking! There is a lot of it indeed, as the author captures the spirit of our times, all the socialising and self-doubts brought on by modern life… I actually think that the first supernatural moment in the book occurs as soon as the first chapter, when Sarah and her group of friends – all very inebriated – decide to go up the Hadleigh Castle from Leigh Broadway and light up a camp fire. Go up there, on foot, blind drunk, as the sun sets? If this is not supernatural… Try it yourself, you'll see...
Do you need to know Leigh-on-Sea and the area to appreciate the book? No, of course, not. There is enough in there to make any reader happy, but I do admit to finding it rather helpful and it made me feel closer to the story, more intimate with it.
Familiar names of buildings and public places find their way to the pages and conjure up images. If you know the atmosphere of the Leigh folk festival, for example, or what the Old town, St Clement church or the Heritage Centre there look like, it might make your experience that little bit more interesting.
As I was finishing the book, I thought that it would make a great classic British movie, if the director managed to capture the atmosphere and the haunting the way it should be. In the right hands, it could become the "clever" chiller of the year - with Helena Bonham Carter as the 19th century Sarah , although she probably is too expensive... Any takers?
In the meantime, I for one will start looking around me a little bit more carefully next time I walk around Old Leigh. I will try and ignore the ice-cream licking, seafood chomping and beer drinking visitors and I will think about the 19th century Sarah Moore/Grey, the so-called “sea-witch”, a woman whose incredibly hard life and insufferable tragedies are the things that will haunt you long after you have closed your copy of "The Drowning Pool" and put it back on the shelf.
*UPDATE*: Just been on Amazon and some comments made me almost wet myself with laughter:
Reader 1: "The only thing I'd have changed, was how much alcohol the main character downed on a regular basis. I don't know how she managed to work, look after her son and the house as she seemed to be permanently drunk!"
Reader 2: "Agree about all the booze - and all the smoking. That's the only thing that I didn't like about it."
(Hahahaha! I won't comment on this because I could be unkind to some people I don't know... We live in strange times indeed!)