The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer

by John Harwood

Paperback(First Edition)

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A tantalizing tale of suspense and family secrets that weaves Victorian ghost stories into the present—where they start to come true

Timid, solitary librarian Gerard Freeman lives for just two things: his elusive pen pal Alice and a story he found hidden in his mother’s drawer years ago. Written by his great-grandmother Viola, it hints at his mother's role in a sinister crime. And as he discovers more of Viola’s chilling tales, he realizes that they might hold the key to finding Alice and unveiling his family's mystery—or will they bring him the untimely death they seem to foretell?

Harwood’s astonishing, assured debut shows us just how dangerous family skeletons—and stories—can be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156032322
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/21/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 380
Sales rank: 234,254
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

John Harwood is the author of two previous novels of Victorian Gothic suspense. Aside from fiction, his published work includes biography, poetry, political journalism and literary history. His acclaimed first novel, The Ghost Writer, won the International Horror Guild's First Novel Award. He lives in Hobart, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

I FIRST SAW THE PHOTOGRAPH ON A HOT JANUARY AFTERnoon in my mother's bedroom. She was asleep-so I thought-in the sunroom at the other end of the house. I crept in through the half-open door, enjoying the feeling of trespass, breathing the scents of perfume and powder and lipstick and other adult smells, mothballs for the silverfish and insect spray for the mosquitoes our screens never quite managed to keep out. The net curtains were drawn, the blind half lowered; there was nothing to see through the window except the blank brick wall of old Mrs Noonan's place next door.

I stole across to my mother's dressing-table and stood listening in the dim light. The house was silent apart from the muffled ticking and creaking which my father insisted was the iron roof expanding in the heat, not someone creeping about in the dark cavity above the ceiling. One by one I tried the drawers, three on each side. As always, only the bottom left-hand drawer was locked. There were wooden panels between each layer, so you couldn't see what was in the drawer below by pulling out the one above. Last time I had searched through the litter of tubes and jars and bottles crammed into the uppermost drawer on the right. Today I started on the next one down, rummaging through a shoebox crammed with packets of needles and carded buttons, reels of coloured cotton and hanks of wool, the loose ends hopelessly tangled.

To see if there was anything behind the shoebox, I tugged at the drawer. It stuck, then shot right out of the dressing-table and hit the floor with a thud. I tried to force the drawer back in, but it wouldn't go. Any second now, I expected to hear my mother's footsteps hurrying up the hall, but no sound followed. Even the ticking in the ceiling had died away.

There seemed no reason why it wouldn't fit. Except that something cold and hard was stuck to the underside, right at the back. A small brass key. I had prised it loose, peeled away the tape and opened the locked drawer before the enormity of what I was doing had begun to register.

The first thing I saw was a book, whose title would elude me for years afterward. The Carillon? The Chemillon? The Chalmion? A word I didn't know. The grey paper cover was crumbling at the edges and pitted with rust-coloured spots. It had no pictures and looked grown-up and boring.

I couldn't find anything else. Then I saw that the brown paper lining on the bottom of the drawer was actually a very large envelope. It had a typewritten address and stamps on it, and one end had been slit with a knife. Another disappointment: just a thick bundle of pages with typewriting on them, tied together with rusty black ribbon. As I drew out the bundle, a photograph slid into my lap.

I had never seen the woman in the photograph before, and yet I felt I knew her. She was young, and beautiful, and unlike most people I had seen in photographs she did not look straight at you, but gazed away to one side, her chin tilted slightly upwards, as if she did not realise anyone was looking at her. And she did not smile, at least not at first. As I went on staring at her I began to think I could see the faintest trace of a smile, just at the corner of her mouth. Her neck was amazingly long and slender, and though the picture was in black and white, I felt I could see the changing colours of her skin where the light fell across the back of her neck and touched her forehead. Her hair, masses and masses of it, was drawn back behind her head and wound up in a long plait, and her gown-as I felt sure a dress as wonderful as hers must be called-was made of a soft dark velvety material, with shoulders gathered like the wings of angels.

Boys, I had learned from somewhere, were supposed to think their mothers were beautiful, but I suspected mine was not. She looked older and thinner than most of the mothers at my school, and worried about everything, especially me. Lately she had been very worried indeed. There were dark pouches under her eyes; the lines across her forehead and around her mouth seemed to be cutting deeper into the skin, and her hair, which used to be dark brown, had grey streaks running through it. I worried that I had worn her out by not being good enough; I was always meaning to be better, yet here I was burgling her secret drawer. But I also knew that the anxious, haunted look could descend when I had done absolutely nothing wrong. Whereas the woman in the photograph was calm and beautiful and alive, more alive than anyone I had ever seen in a picture.

I was still kneeling in front of the drawer, lost in the photograph, when I heard a hissing sound from the doorway. My mother stood rigid, fists clenched, nostrils flared. Tufts of hair stuck out from her head; the whites of her eyes seemed to be spilling out of their sockets. For a long, petrified instant she didn't move. Then she sprang, hitting and hitting and hitting me, screaming in time to the blows that fell wherever she could reach until I broke away and fled wailing down the hall.

FROM OLD MRS NOONAN I LEARNED THAT IF YOU SHIVERED for no reason it meant that someone was walking over your grave. Mrs Noonan was thin and stooped and had twisted papery hands with strange bulges around the knuckles; she smelt of stale lavender and felt the cold even in summer, especially when she took her first sip of tea. My mother didn't like her saying it, so Mrs Noonan took to shivering silently when she was drinking tea in our kitchen, but I knew what she meant. When I wasn't being bad, I used to imagine that someone had found out my mother's grave, a man in dark clothes with a dead white face who dodged behind a tombstone whenever he saw you coming, so that you could never catch him doing it. That was why her anxious look came down for no reason at all. Some days you could tell that he was tramping back and forth, back and forth, over and over her grave.

We would sometimes drive past Mawson cemetery, but I'd never been inside because we had no relatives there to visit. My father's parents were buried in Sydney, and he had a married sister in New Zealand who wrote every Christmas, but they never came to see us. All my mother's relatives were buried in England, and that was where I imagined her grave must be.

Mawson is an overgrown country town sprawled along the edge of the Great Southern Ocean. It used to be called Leichhardt, after some luckless explorer who never returned from the dead heart, until, so my father explained, the council decided to change it to something more cheerful. Beyond the remnants of the old town centre there's nothing much to see except shopping malls and filling stations and mile after mile of sprawling identical suburbs. Beaches to the south, hills to the north; the dead heart beyond. That was where you ended up if you crossed the narrow strip of farmland beyond the hills and kept driving north through the endless sandy scrub and saltpan into the desert. In summer when the north wind blew, clouds of fine red dust covered the town. Even inside, you could feel the grittiness of it between your teeth.

Copyright © John Harwood 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy,
recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Customer Reviews

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Ghost Writer 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author has written a story within a story within a story creating a very clever tale. He provides many clues and gives vivid descriptions of people and houses and makes you feel you are actually participating in the story. I was sorry to come to the end of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've never written a review on a book before, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this one. Harwood is a wonderful writer with a real talent for detail and suspense. Whenever I had to put the book down I couldn't wait to start again, actually looking forward to what would happen next. However, the ending left me flat. I know writers often like to leave something to the imagination, but this was really disappointing. I thought surely my copy of the book must have been missing a few pages. It's as if he had to hurry up and finish the book to meet his deadline. Perhaps I just missed the nuances of the story, but it just felt like a sequel needed to be written. If that were the case, I would purchase it in a heart beat, but there was no indication of that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the author's tongue in cheek allusions to Victorian literature. However, that same quality which made it unusual also led to a certain predictability. Nonetheless, the language is beautiful and surprisingly unselfconscious, considering the author imitates an older style of writing. Very enjoyable!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book definitely had its good points. The characters had some depth and the mini-stories within the book were really good. It just wasn't the best book I've read. The plot was obvious to me early on. The probability that such a relationship between the main character and his penfriend is low. Overall, the writer painted a beautiful picture, it just wasn't a scene that appealed to me. It's a good book if you are bored and want to read something.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Best book I have read in some time - enough to actually write a review! I put everything else on hold this morning just to finish the last 50 or so pages! Intriguing plot, believable characters and nailbiting suspense...You will not be bored! Great first effort - cannot wait for more from this author!
twagers More than 1 year ago
If you are searching for a book that is out of the ordinary.. You have found it. A mystery that pulls you in and keeps you wondering, wanting to push for more. I really enjoyed the writing style and prose. I still think of it sometimes. I went immediately and purchased his other read. Can't wait for his next one to come out! Hurry John. :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really nice modern-day Gothic -- haunted houses, mysterious pasts, and lots of secrets. I loved the stories within the story effect.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am in the middle of reading it and am finding it to be very interesting and reminds me of an old story that fades into the present. The story is very good and woud recomend reading it, but thats only from what I have read so far.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In his debut novel, John Harwood creates an eerily psychological horror story with a nod (and a wave) to Victorian literature. As the novel begins in Australia, young Gerard discovers hidden away in his mother's possessions a strange photograph and a book. His mother swoops down on him with fury, snatching the belongings from him and hiding them away where Gerard cannot find them, refusing to tell him of her past. Soon thereafter, he begins a secret correspondence with a crippled English girl named Alice, and her letters rescue him emotionally from the bleak surroundings in his Australian home. As he matures, he falls in love with Alice, who won't let him see her for fear he'll feel sorry for her. As he learns that the book his mother has hidden away contained a ghost story written by his grandmother Viola, which Harwood presents in full, Gerard confides even more deeply in Alice. Viola's lengthy - and thoroughly creepy - stories seem like separate entities until Gerard discovers some disturbing connections. Upon his mother's death, he sets out to England to finally meet up with his almost-healed Alice and to settle family matters. What he doesn't count on, however, is that nothing, not even his own senses, can be trusted. Even if the reader solves much of the mystery before it is revealed, the ending has all the force it should, thanks to Harwood's highly visual description and talent with suspense. Harwood does a marvelous job of embedding the mannered ghost stories within Gerard's story, and the stories-within-a-story works exceptionally well in his hands. The tales are so throat-grabbing by themselves that I forgot at times that they were but segments of the whole. The effect is truly eerie as details from them begin to surface in Gerard's plot. Because the author's debt to Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW is obvious well before he makes reference to it, I wished he had just let the style and the allusions to speak for themselves instead of pointing them out. His acknowledgment of Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS is even less successful. I overlooked these lapses simply because I could not willingly put this novel aside. This is not Stephen King-type horror but something more elegant and literary. This moody, stylish debut will capture your imagination for hours at a time. Especially if you like creepiness, you'll love this tale of multiple hauntings and mystery.
Anonymous 21 days ago
Ok I am writing a spoiler! Dont read anymore, if you dont want to know a KEY point!! This is NOT a horror novel!! Actually it was an excellent ghost story right up to the end. I didnt hate the ending as badly as most other reviewers, my dissapointment lay solely on this NOT being a supernatural book at all In the authors bio, at the end, he is classified as a writer of gothic suspense. That is exactly what this is
SenoraG163 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good ghost story. Keeps you guessing.
ehines on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like so many stories of this sort, the setup was great, but the resolution proves to be a bit disappointing. This is probably inevitable to some extent. The story takes us from hot, dry Australia to post-war London, to garbage-strewn 1980s London to better-kempt 1999 London and then into a disused, dusty Hampstead mansion. All those settings are brought to life well. Harwood is very good at establishing atmosphere and mood without being too ostentatious about it. The story contains several "stories within" that are all very good, indeed and which (pleasingly) blur into the main story. But the finale brings in yet one more new element to an already crowded story and still manages to be predictable. (Shades of Philip Dick.)All in all, though, a good modern gothic novel.
edundatscheck on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This tale contains stories within the main story, all adding to the plot. So long as you pay attention to the chapter headings and realize that the title of the chapter very often is the title of the story just mentoned at th end of the last chapter you will find this to be an enjoyable read. Though I would have liked to see a bit more of an expanded denouement.
BookshelfMonstrosity on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You know that book you have to carry with you and read as you walk around your house, bumping your shins on coffee tables? That book you can't tear your eyes away from while eating so you accidentally dump lasagna down your chin, and you don't really care? The Ghost Writer is that kind of book. I read incessantly, stopping only for work, sleep, and any other sort of thing that gets in the way of finishing a great book.All the elements are here: This book is a creepily Gothic, cozily Victorian story within a story, including one of the most frightening scenes ever to take place in a library. It all begins when Gerard finds a ghost story written by his grandmother Viola while snooping through his mother's room. Interspersed throughout Gerard's narrative set in present time are Viola's short stories, which I found to be my favorite part of the book.Then, I reached the ending. I won't write anything spoiler-ish here for those of you who haven't read the book, because I think you will enjoy it immensely. I just don't think Harwood quite knew how to finish the dang thing. Regardless, I can't wait to read Harwood's next one, The Seance.
moecatj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love this new modern gothic trend. An amazing read and a fantastic talent. I only wish Harwood had some other titles available.
readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There was so much I enjoyed about this book. I especially liked how Gerard's exploration into the mystery of his mother's past was used as a vehicle to present some nice classic ghost stories. However I didn't feel that the ending was very well constructed. I usually don't require a book to have a perfectly tidy ending but this one was just a little TOO loose.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fabulous! I loved this book. I could not stop reading and I spent the bulk of a Sunday afternoon and evening reading it straight through when I should have been working in the yard. Young Gerard Freeman grows up in a small Australian town but he is obsessed with learning more about his English mother's childhood in England. She is secretive and fearful, haunted by the recollection of some terrible event or crime. Gerard's other obsession is his mysterious penpal in England. Gerard does of course go to England to confront these demons. His story is suspended from time to time with his grandmother's ghost stories as he discovers them but there are strange parallels which build throughout the book between the stories and life which lead to the final horrifying conclusion. The pacing and plot are perfect and this book is extremely well written.
PirateJenny on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful atmospheric book, reminiscent of Victorian/Gothic ghost stories. It's the story of Gerard Freeman, who grew up in Australia being told stories by his mother of her girlhood at a house called Staplefield in England. After his mother dies, he begins to start unraveling the maze of her girlhood in England and what happened in that old rambling house. We're also treated to stories written by Gerard's great-grandmother, Violet. Wonderful Victorian ghost stories. I adore stories within a story, so that was much fun for me. The book also brought back the dreams I had as a little girl--the daydream/wish that someday I'd find I inherited an old house in England, complete with ghosts. I alway did have an odd imagination. What really shocked me about this book, though, was the fact that I wasn't trying to figure out the whodunnit bits--I was so wrapped up in the atmosphere of the book that I just didn't care. I didn't want to know until the end.
cherokeelib on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Harwood masterfully winds story into story in this novel: letters, diaries, stories half-heard, memories half-remembered, the confusions of childhood dragged into the present. The book teases information out of the book's sources, teases the reader by parsing out this information in bits and pieces. Well-written and captivatng, this book dares you to put it down.
mmhubbell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the beginning of this book, told from the point of view of Gerard, a little boy in Australia in the 1960's, with a very dour and protective mother, and a quiet father who spends all his time with his train sets. That might not sound like a great plot, but the way it's told is both creepy and inviting and it's easy to identify with the lonely little boy who can't seem to stop himself from disobeying his mother's orders not to snoop into her private papers. He does, and discovers a packet of papers and a photo of a very beautiful woman he will remember all his life. Unfortunately his mother catches him, and her extreme anger puts a wall up between them. She no longer tells him the stories of her happy childhood at a beautiful house in England. He seeks solace and companionship in the form of a "pen friend" -- Alice, a girl his age who lives in England.The penfriend relationship continues throughout his childhood to adulthood, and develops into a deep love. They plan to meet and marry. When Gerard's mother dies, he is free to go to England to finally meet Alice, and to research his mother's childhhod, and family history -- but this is where things get mysterious and strange. Throughout the book are ghost stories written by V.H. (Gerard's grandmother's initials) which strangely echo his reality, and repeat plots, themes and events.The story becomes a mystery, as well as a ghost story and the second half is quite creepy! Reality, stories, letters, diaries, dreams and hallucinations overlap to the point where Gerard (and the reader) are not sure what is real and what isn't. It's a trite term but this is definitely "a page turner"!Unfortunately I can't rate the book any higher than a B+ . The sweet nostalgia of the beginning is so much better written than the story-within-story ghost tales that make up at least 1/3 of the book. While the ending is tense and creepy, like the ghost stories, it is a bit cliche and hackneyed. We're pretty tired of the already overused ghost story elements by the end of the book.However, if you like ghost/mystery stories this is an enjoyable and pretty quick read with some lovely parts at the beginning.
Crowyhead on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fantastically spooky, twisty book about a young man named Gerard who, in trying to learn more of his mother's past, unearths terrible secrets best left buried. The novel is interspersed with Victorian ghost stories written by Gerard's grandmother, which are simply marvelous in their own right. This is a wonderfully literary ghost story, perfect for curling up under the covers.
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osaka More than 1 year ago
This book was way to confusing and slow.  I usually like to savor the words I'm reading, however, I found myself speed reading through the book, so that I could hurry and get to the end.  I didn't care for it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago