Peter James is the author of a bestselling crime fiction series. In the late 1980s and in the 1990s he wrote some noteworthy horror novels, including Possession, Sweet Heart, and Twilight. He returns to the supernatural in The House on Cold Hill, a serviceable haunted house yarn. There are eerie sequences in the book, and a plot twist that may surprise an unseasoned horror fancier. Overall, however, the tale falls short of its potential.
The narrative opens with promise, garnering the reader’s attention at the get-go. The destructive powers inhabiting the edifice waste no time in claiming victims. The next family to move into the structure is the focus of the novel. Brits Ollie and Caro Harcourt, along with adolescent daughter Jade, are townspeople who relocate to the countryside. Though not unlikeable, they aren’t particularly engaging. Protagonist Ollie repairs old houses and flips them for profit, and is trying to establish a new website business. When disturbances occur in the dwelling, he focuses more on probable financial loss than the safety of his wife and child. Had his tragic folly been better delineated, the devastating consequences of his inaction would have been shattering.
James updates this take on the traditional ghost story by employing modern technology: an apparition appears in the background during a FaceTime chat, and there are communications from the dead via phone and computer. The tech-savvy malevolence is hellbent on destroying Ollie’s budding career. It also messes with his mind. The omnipotence of evil is so heavily accentuated that the outcome is easy to foretell.
The House on Cold Hill has been praised by the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times as “impeccable.” I beg to differ, and this mistake reinforces my opinion: Ollie, upon arriving at the newly purchased abode, romanticizes a literary likeness: “It looked like something out of a romantic novel or a movie, perhaps Rebecca’s ‘Mandalay.’” It was hard after reading that sentence not to scream “It’s MANDERLEY, not Mandalay!” Whether this careless error is the responsibility of writer or editor, it should have been noted before appearing in the Pan Books British trade paper edition. It jars the knowledgeable reader out of the narrative.
Spooky manifestations and haunted dwellings never lose their appeal. Peter James has stated that the inspiration for The House on Cold Hill was a former residence in which paranormal events occurred. Although the novel has its shortcomings, it’s nice that Mr. James came back to the genre.