Jump Cut by Helen Grant

Christmas is approaching and we're well into long-dark-evenings territory, and it's the ideal time to read ghost stories and horror. If you're looking for a creepy read to get stuck into when it's pitch-black by 4pm and the wind is throwing sleet at the windows like handfuls of gravel, I can recommend Jump Cut, the latest novel by Helen Grant.

Helen Grant is one of my favourite writers of ghost stories and suspense fiction, with a flair for Gothic undertones. In Jump Cut, Grant takes the best ingredients of Gothic horror and transposes them on to more modern concepts. Theda Garrick (film buffs will notice that she shares her first name with the enigmatic silent movie vamp, Theda Bara) is a young widow in her late 20s, mourning the traumatic loss of her handsome, capable husband Max, without a job following her pre-wedding redundancy and without the emotional support of family or friends. Looking for a project in which she can fully immerse herself, Theda hopes to write a book on The Simulacrum, a famous lost film from the early 1930s that saw the screen debut of legendary movie star Mary Arden.

When the reclusive Arden, now 104, agrees to cooperate, Theda can’t believe her luck. She makes her way to Garthside, Arden’s isolated mansion in Scotland, where she plans to stay for as long as it takes to gather the information she needs. But why has Mary Arden suddenly decided to break her silence on The Simulacrum? And what is it that Theda can hear creeping through Garthside’s empty hallways at night?

Jump Cut takes the classic Gothic trope of a young woman, alone in the world and trapped in a lonely mansion, and subverts it. Garthside is no Victorian pile - instead, it's a place of vintage Art Deco splendour, full of ice cream colours, fan-shaped mirrors and luxury bathtubs, and the elderly lady of the manor is decked out daily in sickly bright pastels and matching nail polish. Instead of ancient horrors, the terror of Jump Cut comes from the early innovations of cinema.

As someone who watches a lot of films from the first half of the 20th century, I’m very familiar with that slightly eerie feeling of watching the distant past and scores of its long dead actors captured on celluloid at for an eternity, and Helen Grant squeezes every last drop of horror from this notion. The crackle of an old film running in a glowing monochrome is just as good a vehicle as any of MR James's dusty old manuscripts or ancient buried artefacts for awakening a dormant evil.

In Theda, we have a likeable narrator, and yet readers will have questions which she consistently refuses to answer. How reliable a narrator is she? Can we trust Theda’s account of her own past any more than we can trust Mary to tell the truth about her strange entry, aged 15, into the world of film?

Their conversations feel a little like a conversation between the fly and the spider in the latter’s parlour. Theda, whose car has been badly damaged during a skirmish with a flooded ford on the way to Garthside and sent for repair without her input, is effectively trapped at Garthside, at the mercy of Mary, her Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper Mrs Harris, and after dark, something altogether worse.

There's a sinister sadism to the way Mary torments Theda with intrusive questions about her recently dead husband, the price Theda has to pay for a capricious drip-feed of revelations about The Simulacrum delivered purely on Mary's terms. As their prickly, uncomfortable interviews continue, Mary offers Theda more and more compelling material in return for Theda's own secrets, and there's a sense of suffocating co-dependency in their relationship. 

For the reader, the urge to grab Theda by the shoulders and tell her to run for the hills is strong. Theda is an intelligent, capable woman, but she's alone and grieving and made doubly vulnerable by the intensity of her fascination with her subject. Every film fan who has ever read everything there is to read about a lost film they have no chance of seeing will understand Theda's burning curiosity, but there's also a strong sense that 'be careful what you wish for' is the best advice she could be given. Even at night, when Mary retreats to her private wing and Theda is left to her own devices, there's no respite from the mounting unease.

Scenes in which Theda becomes aware of someone - something? - that walks the corridors of Garthside at night are notable for the gradually increasing sense of threat, with the initial unease building to full-scale terror in nightly increments. Helen Grant's writing is a masterclass in how to make something all the more sinister for being largely unseen. 

Jump Cut is a tremendously enjoyable, original take on Gothic suspense, and my favourite horror novel of the year. It's published by an Edinburgh-based independent press, and if you have a ghost story aficionado in your life they may have missed it, so do them a favour and buy them Jump Cut for Christmas. It's a sinister surprise that will keep them reading late into the winter nights.