The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

A rose, by any other name... (Review: Bad Blood by Rhiannon Lassiter)

Bad Blood
Rhiannon Lassiter
OUP 2007

An an abandoned house in the Lake District, a cupboard door opens into a playroom. Buried in dust is a collection of children's books in which the names of characters have been savagely crossed out. Here three children played a make believe game, sacrificing their dreams and wishes to make what they believed come true. But the game was never finished and in the woods behind the house something waits, hungry for the only food it knows. Now a new family has come to the house. Soon they will discover themselves in the game. But they do not know the rules. And they are the pawns, not the players . . . 
(Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I found this in my local library and picked it up because it looked like my kind of thing. Having recently lamented the lack of ghost stories I now seem to have found two in quick succession. After reading the interesting, and modern, Nearly Departed (see my review here) I found Bad Blood to be quite different.

The setting for the story is Scar Fell house in the British Lake District and it certainly is classic ghost story territory. Creepy door-knocker? Check. Spooky attic bedroom? Check. Hidden basement? Check. Particularly spooky replica dolls house with scary dolls? Check and check. So far so good.

The family who find themselves staying at Scar Fell are a family in name only. In actuality, the children are two sets of brothers and sisters whose parents have married. Roley, Kat, Cat and John are not the happiest of siblings with the two girls fighting over their similar name and the boys bowing under the stress of the situation. Their parents bravely fight on in their attempt to create a happy family but in retrospect surely would agree that dragging them all off to a creepy old house in the woods was probably not the best idea. The depression caused by this unhappy familial dynamic permeates the story and the house just as much as the spooky storyline and is very cleverly written.

The plot revolves around a strange game played by previous inhabitants of the house which seems to have involved cutting the eyes of dolls out and scoring out the names of characters in books (the scene in which Kat finds these massacred tomes is really distressing as they speak, at the very least, of an unquiet mind). The woods seem otherworldly and dangerous and strange images start appearing in reflective surfaces. The most frightening character is the doll, Delilah. I don't like dolls – I saw a programme as a child that featured a room of crying figurines and have been freaked out by stuff like that ever since – and Delilah is the freakiest, most malicious and downright scary moppet that I have seen in a while. However, while all of these separate aspects are well realised, the story never seems to quite come together. It is genuinely frightening in places and the atmosphere that imbues each chapter is bleak and scary but the storyline seemed to lack cohesion and the ending seemed odd and forced. The characters themselves are interesting enough, even the bickering sisters are easy to empathise with, if not particularly likeable. All four children reminded me of the writing of Helen Cresswell and Ann Fine – perhaps seeming slightly old fashioned. In fact, this could be said of the entire book. Despite numerous references to Cat's ipod I still felt like I was reading a story that could easily have been set when I was a child (I kept thinking of the old BBC children's drama serials Moondial and Century Falls). This is not a criticism, as I love both the aforementioned writers and the TV programmes – I was just surprised by the style. Interestingly, the title of the book seems to have no relevance to the story. I really have no idea why it was chosen. Very strange.

Bad Blood does knock around some interesting ideas about imagination, ownership, loneliness and most of all the power of a name but I can't shake the feeling that the story had the potential to be really great yet ended up merely passable. Certainly, it is worth a read if you are interested in ghost stories and a British setting (there is something very British about the whole thing) and you'll certainly find that certain aspects send shivers down your spine but I suspect that ultimately, you may feel just a little disappointed.


Lauren said…
Wow. This book doesn't sound perfect by a long shot, but there is so much about it that sounds strangely fascinating. I know spooky dolls aren't new territory, but they never fail to scare the beejeezus out of me. Excellent review, too.

Also: Moondial. You are like, the first person I've 'heard' mention that programme in the past decade. I adored it. Creepy and intriguing and awesome. I'm feeling compelled to see if I can get hold of it on DVD, or at least reread the book.
Thanks for the review. I think your criticisms of the book are insightful and reasoned - and also reflect my own doubts about how well the metaphysical and action plots tie together.

This particular novel was infuenced by the work of Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy which may effect its placement in time. But mobile phones and connectivity are elements I do deliberately incorporate into my plotting - also parental units who are not entirely clueless.

As for the title. that was a compromise almost a a year in the making. Alternatives included 'Blight' and 'Dead Leaves'.

I'm hoping my forthcoming book Ghost of a Chance will overcome some of the problems I've identified and you've highlighted here. I think I'm improving with each book I write (see Waking Dream, which I used to charactise as by best work) but I've still got a lot of work to do so I appreciate honest, educated and intelligent criticism like yours.
Splendibird said…
Rhiannon - thank you for your interesting and gracious comment. I feel a bit starstruck now! I really did like the book and it certainly frightened me. I was a fond reader of Margaret Mahy et al when younger and wish that more books were influenced by them. I will certainly look out for reading Ghost of a Chance and had already added a few of your other titles to my TBR pile (I particularly like the look of Borderland). Thanks for the note about the title - I was really curious (I quite like Blight :-)).
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