cover image The Haunting of Lamb House

The Haunting of Lamb House

Joan Aiken. St. Martin's Press, $17.95 (200pp) ISBN 978-0-312-09060-9

In three interlocking ghost stories spanning two centuries, the veteran British novelist ( Jane Fairfax ) places a fictional haunting within the history of a real English house, displays a masterly way with several contrasting narrative styles and sympathetically evokes some ghostly presences. The main spirit is the lame, sickly man-child Toby Lamb, who lives with his family in Lamb House in the English town of Rye during the 18th century. His sad, eloquently rendered diary shows Toby being bullied by his father, intimated by an older brother and emotionally broken by the fate of his sister Alice, who is effectively sold into slavery. Toby's chronicle also depicts his fluctuating health, his one close friendship and the two sad deaths that touch his family. The diary later falls into the hands of a late-19th-century tenant of Lamb House: Henry James, whose own lesser tragedies are made to parallel Toby's, and whose fragile ego demands that the journal be published, carefully doctored by James himself--until a subtle form of demonic visitation persuades the exiled writer to change his mind. The third owner and second author is E. F. Benson, who also senses the wayward spirit of the house and the growing number of literary demons quietly taking possession. Aiken starts much stronger than she finishes: Toby's tale has a somber, understated power, but while the two shorter sections on James and Benson demonstrate an admirable fluidity with language, they dilute the effectiveness of the book and the author's surprisingly hopeful message. (Jan.)