In this tantalizing tale of Victorian ghost stories and family secrets, 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. 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.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
June 01, 2005
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Excerpt from The Ghost Writer by John Harwood
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 wo