Ghosts and time travel mesh in F.G. Cottam‘s The Waiting Room, an elegant horror novel that gets somewhat hampered by its own ideas. The story begins as ghostly sounds and spectral apparitions are spied around the titular railway stop on a long since demolished track. A popular television ghost hunter Julian Creed is summoned to solve the mystery that only deepens as the investigation progresses, eventually threatening reality itself.
Creed is, of course, a charlatan who does it just for the fame. The haunting, however, is real, caused by a soldier who died in the Great War; his parents, not being able to cope with the grief, did the mistake of dabbling with necromancy. The soldier returned, with grave results that reverberate through the centuries. After some first hand experience with the apparitions, Creed and his assistant/ex-lover Elena learn the story through old diaries and other historical research, giving the novel that old antiquarian sheen so typical of English ghost stories since the heyday of M.R. James.
But happily Cottam pushes the envelope a bit further. The use of time as a story element gives the story a modern edge, away from the well-trodden paths. Cottam’s writing is also solid, with plotting that offers good surprises. There are deliciously creepy moments in the first half, as the novel builds up to horrors that are almost cosmic in their implications.
Sadly, at the moment when creative lunacy should be turned to full steam, the novel crumples and retreats to a safe, middle class storytelling mode. Good for housewives and a BBC film adaptation, not so much for jaded horror aficionados. The third quarter is riddled with undeveloped scenes (Creed’s reunion with his estranged father, for example) or unnecessary repetition. The villain of the story also gets a raw deal; after being painted as a powerful, time-defying adversary, with all sorts of possibilities, he’s left hanging with nothing to do but scaring little children, his mysterious plans never really registering as a real threat.
Happily, the epilogue is a return to form, a fine, taut sequence that foregoes unnecessary explanations and instead brings things neatly to a full circle. But by then the novel is, sadly, out of time.