Hell is What Haunts us. Something is not right in the picturesque Yorkshire village of Henchcombe. Terrible things walk the streets each time a thick mist sweeps down off the moor.
Not monsters or beasts but the villagers’ deepest, darkest terrors. The things that haunt them in the dead of night. Broken hearts and betrayals. Missed opportunities and old regrets. Lives lost to bitter hatred.
It’s up to a small group of villagers to come to the rescue of Henchcombe. They face a journey deep underground to a place none of them could have imagined. This is a dark place. A place of misery and pain. This is the Veil. (synopsis from Goodreads)
The Veil begins as something very like a classic ghost story. There’s a sleepy village with a lot of history, interesting characters who carry around their own metaphorical ghosts as well as physical ones, a stranger to the town digging up the past, and a vicar-exorcist with his own slightly odd methods. The story has a slow start, introducing all the main characters and, importantly, the village, which is almost like another character itself.
However, The Veil is a lot more than a simple ghost story, and this becomes apparent when the hauntings begin to take a serious turn for the worse. The evil lurking under the hill is paranormal – a kind of portal to a purgatory-like dimension – but also very human; it feeds on the worst human emotions, like fear, anger, shame and guilt. Its ghosts are real creatures that rise from the eerie faery mist that creeps into the village, but they are also manifestations of people’s ‘Dark Dreams’. Considering that these Dark Dreams are made of a person’s deepest fears, of losing loved ones, being alone, past torment, or what they fear about the kind of people they really are deep down, it’s easy to see the kind of power that these spirits have. They haunt their victims in more ways than one, harrowing them to the point of despair. And this is when the Veil steals their soul.
While reading this I did feel that the book took a little too long to get going, but once the real truth behind the ghosts became apparent, I understood why the author took so long to establish each character, as well as all the little (and occasionally very big) things that they tried to keep buried deep inside themselves. This becomes very important as the Veil really lets loose its ghosts, but it does give the first half of the book some pacing issues. The two halves of the story have a very different feel, the first of a slow-building, creepy English ghost story, whereas the second half has more of the energy of an action story. Rather than feeling too disjointed, I actually thought this change in atmosphere worked well in the story. I always prefer horror stories where the characters at least try to fight back a bit, and it was fun and exciting to see the sleepy village’s inhabitants standing up for their home in whatever way they could. It also added a surprising, fresh and quirky element to the book; from the early chapters you would never expect certain characters to do some of the things they do in the second half of the book.
The characters were also superbly written. Jerry Ibbotson picks up on so many little details about people, and about the eccentricities and day-to-day life of an English (and very Yorkshire) village. I grew up in Yorkshire, so reading this gave me quite a strong feeling of nostalgia; all the author’s observations are wonderful, and many are very funny. This is another thing that I really like in a horror/ghost story – a sense of humour alongside the scares. And, while the story has a strong sense of Englishness, it doesn’t sugar-coat this, instead showing the good with the bad – the self-sacrificing, the cowards, the heroes, the vulnerable, and the Daily Mail readers.
Jerry Ibbotson picks an odd bunch of people to be his main characters and defenders of the village. There’s a vicar who feels compelled to save his flock, an academic researching one of the village’s more notorious past inhabitants, a grief-stricken man who’s recently lost his wife and child in a horrible accident, his anxious brother who can’t let go of his childhood tormentor, and an old lady who has faced the evil alone for years. This is a really good mix of very different characters with distinct personalities, and the interactions between them make for compelling reading. Each character also grows a great deal throughout the story, learning things about themselves and facing up to their guilt and fears. In fact, this strong character writing is tied directly to the plot and the themes of the book; the whole story is about growth, change, acceptance, forgiveness and love.
Vicars and other holy men in stories have a tendency to be written as stereotypes, but Martin in this story is not. He’s kind and compassionate, but can also be impatient with people; he has a sense of humour; he’s brave and honest, but battles with his own doubts and fears and sometimes makes mistakes. He feels like a real person. He’s also a very likeable character and he works well as the main protagonist, the one who must eventually face the creature that dwells in the Veil.
I also thought the book had a very interesting take on faith, based on a line from the Bible that claims that out of faith, hope and love, the greatest is love. Here, love is the key to defeating the evil of the Veil. Love is the force that opposes fear and despair, and in the end, it is better for the vicar to lose his faith than to lose his love for others. Stories that emphasise the power of love can sometimes be a little cheesy, but in this case I thought it was effectively and beautifully done, and with quite an unexpected turn at the end. And, while the book deals with themes of love and faith, it never forces any beliefs on the reader, leaving some details purposefully vague so that the reader can give events their own interpretation. I thought this was handled extremely well.
The Veil is both a ghost story and not-a-ghost-story, dealing with a supernatural force as well as what it means to be human. It has some genuinely creepy and scary parts, but also humour, action, and some moving moments too. As a simple story of English villagers battling the evil that threatens to claim their home, it’s engrossing and enjoyable, but it’s also much deeper than that, telling us something about where evil comes from, about fear and despair, but also about love, self-sacrifice, faith and friendship. In both senses, I found this a satisfying read.
Thank you to Jerry Ibottson for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.