Book Review

The Night Visitors by Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst

Great book, plus lots about why I didn't win the award I was shortlisted for.

“Why are so few books written collaboratively?” is a question I’ve asked several people while making my web series, Triumph of the Now TV, and not one interviewee has yet given me an answer interesting enough to be included in the show.

The answer that writers and editors seem to give me, over and over again, is always little more complicated than “it’s the way things are”, which – to me – doesn’t seem to make sense. The majority of writers who are doing particularly well at the moment (at least as far as I can tell) are those who have fully embraced the idea of the “public author”.

Writers are – now – people who “network” (especially while telling you they don’t like the word “networking”), writers are people who do workshops and speeches and podcasts and reviews of other writers and go to events and organise things and make friends and seek people out and, generally, get about in public. Writers are – now – almost like salespeople, selling themselves as a persona, a thinker, a speaker; writers are not solitary figures bleeding into typewriters any more, writers are out and about, honing their social [as much as their literary] skills. Writers no longer exist in an individualistic bubble – check Twitter if you don’t believe me, they’re all over it  – but writers haven’t yet made the shift from public figures to public creators.

If writers are spending huge amounts of time amongst other people, then why not spend that time engaging with other people creatively? Why not collaborate, why not make work with these people you’re hanging out with, why not do exactly what Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst have done here with The Night Visitors and create a compelling and exciting piece of fiction TOGETHER?

If you’re going to be wasting time communicating with other people anyway, contemporary writers, you may as well get something out of it. Right? Collaborate more, please, because – clearly – it WORKS.

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For me, actually, it was liberating when I realised this central importance of schmoozing to contemporary literary success. I’m bad at it and I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t enjoy writing enough to get over the anxiety-making horror of having to interact with real people in real life. Realising that I would never be able to do the schmoozing necessary were I to get any kind of a foothold on the literary world helped me to accept my slip from wannabe creative to “fan-boyish-critic”, which isn’t ideal but isn’t terrible. People read my “reviews” and people seem to like them, some people whose work I’m a fan of enjoy whatever-this-blog-is, which is nice.1  As if to prove this, I was miraculously shortlisted for a reviewing award recently from an indie lit website that categorically states in its T&Cs w/r/t reviews:

keep it critically rigorous, and remember that the review is about the show/publication, not you.

Lol. Obviously, my self-centred reviews didn’t win the award and they shouldn’t have done, tbh, as my approach is CATEGORICALLY the opposite of what they’re into (#imanoutsider). However, the book that forms the ostensible focus of this “review” WON the ‘Best Novella’ category at the Saboteur Awards 2017 (500 words into this review and under 10% is about the book – that is not “critically rigorous”, is it, how did I slip into the shortlist???)

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The Night Visitors is a collaborative novel written by Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst, two writers based in the northwest, and is published by the very exciting Dead Ink Books. The novel is formed entirely of an email exchange between Orla Nelson – an ageing woman, losing her sight, who wrote one hugely successful novel four decades ago – and Alice Wells – a newly unemployed divorcee in her early fifties desperate to create a more fulfilling life before her teenage son leaves school and thus home. The justification for the form is that Orla doesn’t like to use telephones and must use voice recognition software to write (thus ruling out letters). This – for me – is sufficient to explain the style of the text, something that I believe is an important thing to do. I won’t mention it again.

Alice wants to write a book about a distant relative of hers, Hattie Soak, who is the great grandmother of Orla. Hattie was a silent movie actress who, at the height of her fame in 1917, disappeared the same night as her husband and two of her three children were brutally murdered in what the tabloids called the “Gosforth Massacre”. The only surviving child was a two-year-old sleepwalker, Emily. This violent multiple homicide is, within the context of the novella, a serious source of longstanding rumour, as people have debated the possibilities of what happened for 100 years. Alice’s book, however, will be about Hattie’s career before the murders, about her seeming success at balancing a family and working life, and how she maintained a developing career as an actress, undamaged by having children. It is this point that piques the interest of Orla, who has had a lifetime of being bothered by conspiracy theorists, and it is following this discovery of Alice’s interest in human emotional strength rather than violence, that she begins responding in detail to Alice’s emails.

That’s the premise, and it’s a good, solid, grounding for a mystery tale. The crime itself happened so long ago that no witnesses or perpetrators are left alive, but it was of such horrific violence and notoriety that its echoes have continued on into the present day. Orla puts Alice in contact with Aaron Plainwater, a middle-aged researcher with a keen interest in the same topic, and it is once this external connection is established that the book starts to take darker and more dramatic turns.

To go into more details of plot would spoil it, and I don’t mean that offensively, because Ashworth and Hirst have constructed a tightly dramatic text that pulls a reader backwards and forwards, into and out of, confused realities. The night visitors of the title are the hallucinations – or echoes on the retina – that Orla sees increasingly as her sight fails, but as Alice also starts seeing things that don’t exist the authors force a reader to question the reliability of both narrators. The text is not confused, but it is confusing, disarming, terrifying and deeply unnverving. I sat alone in my kitchen reading it until late into the night, scared to stop in case I’d get my own night visitors, scared to go to bed in case the images that flickered into my head as I fell asleep would mirror Orla’s as I’d read them.

The Night Visitors is an evocative text, exploring psychosis, dementia, ageing, jealousy, fear and loneliness, all within the confines of what is, in some respects, a very traditional ghost story. There is enough familiar for the [possible] supernatural elements to make sense, but there is nothing derivate in what this pair of writers do with the world they’ve created. This is fresh, exciting, Gothic writing that uses the tropes of the genre combined with a form that is very suited to the contemporary age. I would highly recommend this – in fact, I already have – to anyone with an interest in creepy stories, but also to anyone with an interest in being reminded about the importance of independent publishing in the modern age.

A great, short, novel, and one VERY deserving of a prize and attention.

BUY IT DIRECT FROM DEAD INK BOOKS VIA THIS LINK.


1. Obvs. some people don’t – there’s at least one successful literary type I’ve regularly encountered for years who visibly blanks me every time we’re in the same place. 

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