Sophie Hannah recently wrote a novella for horror imprint, Hammer Arrow. That novella, The Orphan Choir, owes much to prior ghost stories like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Susan Hill’s The Women in White; but what makes it really stand out is one other work it calls to mind.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a controversial sensation at the time of its publication and beyond. Documenting a Victorian woman’s decent into madness as she is haunted by images lurking in the wallpaper pattern, the short story is often found on school curricula around the world. While readers will wonder if Louise Beeston, Sophie Hannah’s main character, is really crazy or only tapping into an alternate dimension, it is virtually impossible for those that have read this earlier classic short story not to think of that work in relation to this new novella. Instead of the wallpaper leading her down the path to insanity, Louise must deal with the ever-present taunting of music.
The novella starts out with Louise confronting her neighbor about the excessively loud party music he insists on playing when she is trying to sleep. Any reader will sympathize with Louise at this point. However, as her certainly that this neighbor is purposely provoking her with his music begins to rise, so does the reader’s suspicion that perhaps Louise is not the most reliable of narrators. Once the music switches to the religious singing of the titular Orphan Choir, it is clear that something odd is going on – and it is either manifesting itself only to Louise, or its all in Louise’s mind. The question is, does it really matter which of these scenarios is the truth?
Sophie Hannah’s quick prose keeps the story moving along at the appropriate speed for a novella. By having Louise document her issues in a noise journal, Hannah is able to cover lots of ground very quickly while still giving readers the necessary information. Louise Beeston is a very relatable character and readers will enjoy that she is quick-witted, sarcastic and vulnerable at various times throughout the story.
It is only when the spectral entities begin to manifest that the spooky factor starts to ratchet up. Readers will be anxious to know if these auditory and visual hallucinations are just tricks of Louise’s mind or messages from beyond. The novella is best enjoyed in as few sittings as possible since the tension builds nicely from start to finish. And the finish itself is a nice payoff – no spoilers here – but know that the ending is as haunting as one would like for a story of this type.
Sophie Hannah has had great success with her series mysteries, but it is nice to know that she still wants to dabble in other genres when time allows. Be it poetry, short story, novella or novel, if Sophie Hannah’s name is attached, you can pretty much guarantee that you are in for a ride. This bodes well for the Fall release of Hannah’s Agatha Christie estate authorized Hercule Poirot novel. Until then, grab a seat and enjoy the thrills and chills Sophie Hannah incites with The Orphan Choir.
_____________________________________________________________________ Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.
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