Tartan Gothic appears to be having a bit of a moment. Up in Carnoustie, the acclaimed novelist Sandra Ireland is busily weaving together uncanny tales steeped in Celtic folklore; in Perth this month, you can catch a touring production of Ali Milles’s spooky new play The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor; and now here’s published poet Francine Toon with a debut novel that’s carefully calibrated to make every single hair on the back of your neck stand up on end as if you’d just heard a twig snap behind you in a forest at midnight.
As all good horror movie directors know, the trick to scaring the bejesus out of your audience is to give them a hero that they can really root for, and in her ten-and-a-half year-old protagonist Lauren, Toon not only gives us someone we can relate to but also someone we feel instinctively protective of. Bullied at school, her mum Christine long gone, her troubled dad, Niall, barely able to take care of her, she relies for companionship on her friend and neighbour Billy and her older pal Diane, who she idolises, and who steps in from time to time to rescue her from the bullies on the school bus.
Ever since Christine disappeared when Lauren was still a baby, Niall has been struggling to cope with fatherhood, and with life in general. Unsure of whether his wife simply abandoned them or whether something happened to her, he drinks to numb the pain he still feels. However, he is not so oblivious to the outside world that he isn’t aware of what people in their small, insular community near the Moray Firth are saying about him behind his back.
And these whispers only intensify when a teenage girl, Anne-Marie, back at home with her parents after being suspended from boarding school, suddenly vanishes without trace. Lauren, meanwhile, has started catching sight of a pale, blonde woman wearing a white dressing gown. Other people seem to see her too, but when Lauren questions them about her later they deny all knowledge.
There’s much to admire in Pine, particularly the way in which Toon takes us deep into the inner lives of Niall and Lauren while at the same time managing to leave just enough unsaid to keep us guessing. She is also good at building up and sustaining a sense of dread when her characters are in peril; if The Blair Witch Project freaked you out, parts of this book almost certainly will too.
There are, however, one or two issues with the predictability of the plot that detract from the whole. It’s impossible to go into much detail without giving away the ending, but suffice to say that, with only a relatively small cast of characters, readers trying to guess what happens next will only be left with a very limited range of options to choose from. For the most part, the supernatural elements of the story are well-handled, with the ambiguity of what may or may not be happening enhancing the general sense of unease. Then again, there is so much about these mysterious goings-on that is left unexplained that you can’t help wondering if the novel might have functioned perfectly well without them. Roger Cox
Pine, by Francine Toon, Doubleday, £12.99