The House On Cold Hill – Peter James’ First Full-Length Ghost Story in 20 years

Page 5 of Peter James’ latest ghost-ridden thriller, The House on Cold Hill, ends with a terrific and completely unexpected shock – but it’s just the beginning of a horror-go-round (“merry” doesn’t really do it) that makes this book un-put-down-able. Mind you, putting it down was very tempting in order to come up for air before the next assault on your senses.

Ghost after ghost, evil presence after evil presence, and cruel catastrophe after catastrophe shatter the lives of a family who have just moved in to a sprawling Georgian mansion in the middle of nowhere.

Ghost after ghost, evil presence after evil presence, and cruel catastrophe after catastrophe shatter the lives of a family who have just moved in to a sprawling Georgian mansion in the middle of nowhere.

I wrote that sentence twice, deliberately, but I’m not going to tell you why. You’ll just have to read the book – a mind-altering romp through all kinds of spooky worlds, brought right up to date with ghost-written e-mails.

You don’t know whether to scream, laugh (hysterically) or take a cold shower as the events in and around T.H.O.C.H. unfold, enveloping the Harcourt family in a seemingly endless series of horrific events.

There’s a nice little bit of quantum theory thrown in, with some musings about the nature of time – and whether it actually exists.

The house is loosely based on one that James himself lived in with his first wife. If only a fraction of what happens took place in real life back then (the real house “only” had four ghosts) it’s no surprise it put his first marriage under considerable strain.

One of the “nicest” touches in The House on Cold Hill (and there aren’t many!) is building the character of Jade Harcourt, the one family member who almost takes the endless parade of violent happenings in the family home in her stride. I remember thinking, as her character develops, “how come my friend Peter seems to know so much about the workings of a teenaged girl’s mind?” The answer is right at the top of the Acknowledgements at the back of the book. James spent a considerable amount of time with a girl called Charlie Rance, whose parents Matt and Emma he thanks profusely. “I could never have conjured such a personality out of thin air” he writes.

What he does do is conjure many evil spirits out of thin air, and they litter almost every page. No wonder the word “scary” appears in his email address!

The only “presence” I really missed was that of our old friend Det. Superintendent Roy Grace, the central character in his best-selling series of crime thrillers. I knew, of course, that this amenable Brighton detective was not going to show up in T.H.O.C.H. – nor, for that matter, his missing ex-wife Sandy, almost a ghost herself since her mysterious disappearance chronicled in the very first Roy Grace book, Dead Simple. (Even he would surely have been baffled by the events in this grotesquely ghost-ridden house). Somehow I missed his comforting company as the evil spirits romped relentlessly through the chapters. (Coincidentally the paperback of James’ latest Roy Grace adventure, You Are Dead is just out, too, at £7.99).

There’s a chilling postscript to T.H.O.C.H. in which a key element is a mysterious window. “It’s a window, they one day realise, for a room that does not appear to exist” says James. “In addition to my home in Sussex, I have an apartment on two floors in Notting Hill. Just after finishing the book, my (then) fiancée, Lara and I were walking along the street beneath, looking up, and talking about this particular part of the book. Suddenly Lara asked, pointing up: ‘Which room is that window in?’ “We stood there frozen for some moments, as it began to dawn on us that the window did not make sense. We could not work out which room it was. We ran in, raced up the six flights of stairs and into each of the two rooms which the ‘mystery’ window seemed to straddle. But there was no window!

“We finally did solve the mystery – the builders who had put a fitted wardrobe in the master bedroom had decided to lose the window in the process and, leaving the glass on the outside, had timbered over the inside. Who says truth is not stranger than fiction?”

One can only hope that his new bride Lara will stop him checking out any other haunted properties in which to begin their married life. One feels if this pattern continues, they might be better off living in their garden shed. Oh, and you’ll love the book’s ending, by the way – I think!!??

Arnie Wilson