Halloween is nearly here and there is no better time to read a ghost story. Which is why I downloaded Andrew Taylor’s Broken Voices onto my Kindle. I’ve never read an Andrew Taylor story before but Broken Voices is published as an Amazon Kindle Single, a vehicle for quality short form literature and essays.
The story is set in the past, some years prior to WWI as Christmas approaches. It is told in the first person and the setting is a boys’ school attached to a cathedral in The Fens, a featureless landscape that ‘diminishes everything.’ In many of the best ghost stories the place is as important as the people and the backdrop here is wonderfully macabre with its utter isolation from any joys that Christmas might be bringing elsewhere.
Broken Voices is the adventure of two of those boys, the unnamed narrator and another pupil, a strange boy called Faraday but also known as Rabbit because of his prominent front teeth. The boys are never truly friends but are thrown together by circumstance. Both are outsiders and alone but find themselves drawn together when they have to spend Christmas in the local village while their rest of their class go back home.
Both boys have secrets to hide. The narrator admits to the lies he told at school about a dog he never owned. It also becomes clear that Faraday is a thief. ‘I suppose I should mention that I did not much like Faraday,’ says the narrator. The distrust adds tension to their relationship.
The idea of alienation and even indifference is threaded through the text. Duty rather than warmth substitutes for parental love as adults in the village take on the task of providing meals and lodgings for the boys. This cold distance helps build an atmosphere of unease that grows throughout the story.
The two boys decide to redeem themselves by tracking down a lost music manuscript, a piece written for the school choir by a master who fell to his death from the tower of the Cathedral. Author Andrew Taylor makes this boyish adventure perfectly believable, it seems a grand escape from their austere reality, a Christmas without parents, or presents or any moments of traditional good cheer.
‘Was there a ghost?’ asks the narrator in the very first line of the book. It’s a question that is never really resolved. The supernatural elements are few but make an indelible mark on the story and convince you that something is not quite right as the boys work their way through the Cathedral’s dark corridors and narrow stairs to a grim finale.
Andrew Taylor’s Broken Voices is a chilling ghost story. It’s a beautifully written tale in the traditional manner, the narrator who has a strange story to tell. I’d love to see it as one of those BBC ghost stories for Christmas productions. I’ll also be checking out Andrew Taylor’s other writings.