The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

1st Feb 2012


When I think of Hammer Horror, I think of Dracula movies from the thirties, fake blood and screaming damsels. But for the past year, Hammer have also been in publishing, through Random House; bringing us classic tales of horror, as well as a series of novellas by literary authors.

Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat is the first of these; a chilling tale of lust and obsession. Bored 1950s housewife Isobel finds a RAF greatcoat seemingly abandoned in her rented flat by her standoffish landlady.

Soon she encounters a mysterious pilot, Alec, who appears one night tapping at her window. The presence of this handsome, mysterious man brings Isobel some much needed excitement, but this soon turns into obsession.

With The Greatcoat, Dunmore once again shows her magnificent scope as an author. This is her first ever ghost story (though you will never read anything as creepy as A Spell of Winter, which earned her the Orange Prize in 1997).

Yet she manages to take a outwardly simple tale of a haunting and somehow turn it into a cry against boredom and evocatively show the long-reaching effects of war on the individuals’ and nation’s psyches.

Reading it as a feminist, I was struck by how Dunmore showed everything that should not be celebrated about the fifties in a matter of paragraphs.

Isobel is the 1950s version of the unnamed narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper; trapped in a flat with no stimulus aside from caring for her career-driven husband, she obsesses over the cold, the history of a now abandoned nearby airfield, and the constant pacing of her sinister landlady.

Truthfully, that is my only problem with this book – every single part of it I’d read somewhere before. The fact it uses so many tropes of the genre however did not detract from the clarity and freshness of the writing, which effortlessly flexes between lyrical and poetic and gritty and hard.

The book is truly chilling, if not jump-out-your-skin scary, then quiet-tingling-scary, and short enough to be a perfect one-sitting treat for a windy night by the fire. It’s not the best thing Dunmore has ever written, but would make a great introduction to the author.

Hammer have struck gold with this idea; like the Canongate Myths series it serves to bring together literature and the mass market, and introduces new authors to readers in the process.

Published tomorrow, you can buy the hardback for £6.79, or get the Kindle edition for £6.45.

Rating: 3.5/5. I really enjoyed it, but not as much as Helen Dunmore’s other work.

Recommended for:Fans of Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters or The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Other recommended reading: Helen Dunmore is by far one of my favourite writers, so you should definitely add The Siege and The Betrayal to your reading lists.

Jess Haigh