Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel
Ghosts have always been the lamest members of the monster family, and it's very hard to find a good story about them - few have motivations that go much beyond Vengeance from Beyond The Grave!, and they very rarely do anything interesting, especially the ones that just repeat their own death scene over and over again. HiIary Mantell has managed to do something very special with this book by taking the conventional ghost-behaviour and twisting it into something new and quite horrible.
The premise sounds rather like a sitcom: Alison is a medium who works the London commuter-belt circuit doing psychic fairs and private readings, accompanied by her sharp but efficient (non-psychic) assistant Colette and unpleasant spirit guide Morris. However, this is comedy of the very blackest variety. Against the bleak backdrop of travelodges, motorway service stations and draughty civic halls, Alison's life revolves around the petty rivalry of her fellow mediums, the bovine gullibility of her audience and Colette's nasty sniping; there's not a nice character among them. And the ghosts are even worse.
It's always left slightly ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are actually real or just hallucinations brought on by the trauma in Alison's earlier childhood - brought up by her prostitute mother among the squaddies and seedy criminal underclass of an overspill council estate. It is from this background that Alison's ghosts come; not spooky or vengeful, but sleazy, unpleasant characters who you'd certainly avoid if they were alive, and now they can walk through your wall whenever they want... Not all the spirits are malignant, but they are all as petty and dull as they were when alive - no messages or threats from beyond the grave, just worries about their dry cleaning or compliments on their relatives' new furniture.
The front-end story is Alison's relationship with Colette, who is reluctantly escaping a failed marriage, and her struggles to cope with the ghosts who are becoming increasingly intrusive. The main point of the book, however, is the gradual uncovering of Alison's past; even though the front story slows down towards the end, there is still plenty to keep you involved. Mantell paints a beautifully bleak England composed of concrete blocks, wastelands and motorways, which contrasts nicely with the dry humour used to describe (for example) the slightly bogus psychic readings and Colette's pathetic ex-husband. It is a very dark novel, but you should still come out of it smiling.