Arthur Bannister has been unexpectedly accepted into Shiverton Hall, which, as it turns out, is an incredibly spooky school, full of surprises. And it is just as well that Shiverton Hall has made its offer, because Arthur had a horrible time at his previous school, and was desperate to leave. Timely indeed . . .
But Arthur has no time to worry about the strange coincidence. He is too busy trying to make head or tail of Shiverton Hall, dogged as it is by tales of curses and bad fortune. At least there are a few friendly faces: George, who shows him around; also Penny and Jake. But not all the faces are friendly. There are the bullying Forge triplets for starters. And then there is the acid tongue of the headmistress, Professor Long-Pitt, who seems to go out of her way to make Arthur's life a misery.
Luckily Arthur has his new friends to cheer him up. Although there are some friends that you don't want to have at all, as Arthur is soon to find out.
Warning... for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph, this review may contain spoilers.
I am struggling to work out where to start with this review, so forgive me if it comes across as a little rambling (more so than usual, at least). The problem I am having is that Shiverton Hall, the debut children's book by Emerald Fennell, is actually rather good, but at the same time it has a plot that contains elements that are similar to one of my all time favourite children's horror series - Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends. And whilst Shiverton Hall is a chilling and atmospheric horror story, it just does not quite match up to Barry's brilliant series in my humble opinion.
The similarity between the two books is a fundamental one - both involve the return of the characters' childhood invisible friends, but with a demonic and bloodthirsty mentality. Some might call that a spoiler for Shiverton Hall, but having read it and then gone back to skim read parts of it for this review, I'm not so sure. Young readers who have not yet discovered Barry's series will be able to judge this book far more objectively than I can, and any of them who love creepy ghost stories that invade their dreams will find this story a real treat. Unfortunately though, those who have like me read Barry's books may see the twist in the story coming from a mile away. However, that's where the similarity ends, as the reason for their coming back differs between the two books.
I'm glad I've got that off my chest, and I will now strive for objectivity as I tell you a little more about Shiverton Hall. Main character Arthur Bannister has 'won' a scholarship to the mysterious and isolated school that is Shiverton Hall. Not that he can remember applying for such a place - he just received a letter in the post one day. Very early in the story the author drops enough hints to suggest that Arthur had to leave his previous school under somewhat of a dark cloud, and so this letter heralds a new start for Arthur, even if he is quite nervous about going to a boarding school. Once there, he quickly makes a few friends, whilst also managing to upset his house's resident thugs, the Forge triplets. So far, so like any other start to a new school. However, Shiverton Hall has a particularly gruesome history, and this is gradually revealed throughout the book by a series of ghostly anecdotes, told by Arthur's new friend George, whose grandfather just happens to be an expert on the bloody history of Shiverton Hall. I found George's stories really added to the story, rather than distract from the main plot, and they helped keep the tension building.
Shiverton Hall is a well written debut novel, and the author particularly excels at creating an atmosphere of creeping dread. Shiverton Hall itself can be seen as an extra character in the plot, and as the first book in the series I feel that there will be a great deal more menace heading in the direction of Arthur and his friends in the future. I am very much looking forward to reading a further instalment, as the invisible friends strand is brought to a conclusion in this story, and I would like to see what the author does with her spooky school next. It is being marketed as a book for 9-11 year olds, and this is about right, although fragile readers who are new to horror may find it a little too scary. However, there isn't even a hint of gore, so if you like horror but gallons of blood tend to turn you away from books, then this is one for you.
Shiverton Hall is scheduled to be released as an ebook on Christmas Day, and then as a paperback on 3rd January. My thanks go to the lovely people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read.