Houses are at the centre of Chris Coppel’s Lingering. The word appears no less than 263 times — about once per page. The story focuses on a young couple buying their first home, a horror story unto itself in this era of unaffordable housing. Paul and Christy purchase Croft House, a symbol of their open and united future, but the manor has a troubling past and the dark omen of separation looms between them even as the ink is drying on the homeowners’ documents.
If the tales are to be believed, dark entities approach their work through a classic military strategy: divide and conquer. The demonically harassed are willed into isolation where they are made easy prey. Paul and Christy soon find themselves barraged by dark forces on all sides, but not all of them are supernatural. When her father suffers a debilitating stroke, Christy, the prodigal daughter, decides to return to her childhood home and care for him. But this is no abode of familial warmth. Like Croft House, the home in which she was raised has a menacing history — her history. Ralph is a figure of pure paternal malevolence: an abusive drunk who drove Christy’s mother away before helping himself nightly to his daughter’s tender, pre-teen flesh. This is the home to which Christy returns; this is the monster she has returned to care for.
Houses are territories, zones of occupancy, but they are also fields of memory. Paul, separated from Christy, moves into Croft House alone. He happily sets about the inspections and moving, but soon encounters a supernatural presence. While initially startled, he discovers the presence to be playful and harmless. Recognising the tension his wife is under, however, Paul decides that this curious surprise might push her over the edge and calls a half-baked medium to cleanse the house.
The medium succeeds in sending the happy sprite along but discovers a second, quite malevolent entity is present, and of course Paul disregards her warning. It’s a classic set-up: the friendly ghost is sent packing by the hapless inhabitants who in turn discover the presence of a dark entity which had been kept in check by the very spirit they have just excised.
Lingering therefore tells a story in twain: our two monsters each span the gulf between the earthy and the metaphysical as Christy faces the demonic drives of a flesh-and-blood man while Paul faces a ghost animated by the bodily angst of sexual frustration. The story redoubles itself in eerie ways, but the flesh-and-blood monster in Christy’s father is far more unsettling than any spirit rattling the dark halls of Croft House.
The story shifts when Ralph abruptly dies. It’s an unexpected twist; in fact, it’s never clear why Christy goes back at all. She tells Paul that her father is all she has left, but even as she’s there tending to his decrepit body, she contemplates revenge. With him so close and so vulnerable, it would be easy. ‘After all the weeks she had spent contemplating whether to finally seek the payback she felt she deserved, the old bastard had robbed her of her chance.’ As soon as she comes to that realisation, she finds him slumped over dead. An ignominious end to such a monster. But Christy begins to worry that reality gave way to her conspiratorial thoughts, that she’s somehow responsible. This is Ralph’s parting salvo. Not only does he rob his daughter of the satisfaction of retribution, he leaves her to brood over her own guilt. Somehow, it’s the victim’s fault.
With Ralph gone, Christy is free at last and moves into Croft House just in time for the ghostly theatrics. The hauntings ratchet up quickly as the dark entity tries to drive them out. Their quiet manor is transformed into a carnival of menace as their fears are drawn out one by one and manifested. Paul suffers from hallucinations of cockroaches that attack him by the horde. Coppel shows good dexterity here, having his protagonist anguish over one insect that burrows itself in his chest hair. It’s a nice touch.
Christy, of course, encounters her father, but the effect doesn’t quite hit home. She is able to face him, her dark well of terror seemingly run dry, and his spell over her finally seems broken. It’s a good concept, but doesn’t deliver the impact the reader hopes for. The menacing spirit’s final form is particularly insidious, and yet it doesn’t hold a candle to Ralph. He is the novel’s true monster. Coppel has a dilemma; how do you write the second half of a scary story when you’ve just written out one of the scariest monsters imaginable? He cranks up the action in the final scene, throwing everything except the kitchen sink at the hapless couple (in a nice touch, Paul is knocked out by a relic from Christy’s tarnished childhood). It’s admirably done, but it is a little anticlimactic.
Nonetheless, there is much to appreciate in Lingering, not the least of which is its occasional burst of macabre humour. When Ralph dies, Christy ceremoniously covers his body with a sheet. The strange let-down of his death leaves her disconnected, and when the funeral director asks what coffin she would like him in for the funeral, she suggests just leaving him under the sheet. It’s taken on faith the funeral director will intuit this to be a comment made in grief, not a serious request. And yet, when Christy arrives at the funeral, she finds her father there in the casket draped with that same sheet.
It’s a rather marvellous scene.
Lingering presents itself in the cloak of realism, especially with its backdrop of pandemic masks and social distancing, but these elements are more contextual window dressing than thematic elements. Coppel is committed to the realism of the slow-burner, and slowly it does burn. It’s well worth the read for where the story takes you, but Coppel paces through details. It can be a wise strategy because real-life details add texture and lull one into a false sense of security, but Lingering’s prose on occasion suffers from a glut of details. Here is Paul moving into Croft House: ‘Somehow, the unloading process took less time than the move out, and Paul gave Tony and his son a decent tip afterwards, thanking them profusely for being so skilled at their job. The two of them seemed used to such gushing thanks, and Tony promptly reminded Paul that they were only so good at the job because it was all they ever did.’ This does create a disarming sense that all is well, but we only need so many extraneous details before they start to make the writing a bit stiff. And they creep into unlikely places like Paul’s manic cockroaches. ‘Paul handed her a tall gin and tonic, made with her favourite Hendrick’s gin.’ Coppel can’t resist naming the brand, that extra touch of realism, even if it doesn’t contribute to the narrative.
Nonetheless, Lingering remains a good read, especially for lovers of slow-burning, unsettling ghost stories. Its psychological depth pushes the meaning of ‘haunting’, urging readers to question the origins and nature of evil.
28 June 2022