Reading Tom Fletcher’s short story ‘The Safe Children’ was all it took for me to place his novel The Leaping on my to-read list. Now that novel is here, and it was worth the wait.
The Leaping centres on a group of twenty-something housemates who all work in the same call centre in Manchester, and particularly on Jack, who also has a sideline in writing articles about the paranormal. One day at work, Jack meets – and falls in love with – the beautiful and enigmatic Jennifer, though she warns him that it’ll be an open relationship, as she believes in the free-love ideals of the Sixties. This leads to certain complications involving Jack’s housemate, Francis (who shares the book’s narration with Jack).
Jennifer has recently come into some money after her mother died, and uses it to buy Fell House, a creaking old mansion in Cumbria, where she moves in with Jack. Back in Manchester, the remaining housemates plan a surprise birthday party for Jack – but some uninvited guests turn up, and everyone discovers that there’s some truth to the old tales of werewolves, after all.
One of the first things I noticed about The Leaping is how good a writer of voice Fletcher is. I like the narrative voices to be differentiated in stories with multiple first-person narrators, and Fletcher does this very well indeed. Francis’s voice is particularly striking, revealing an earnest personality and an obsessive eye for detail (he lists all his friends’ favourite books, films and music because, he says, ‘the only way of working out the true personality of a person, their true soul, is by their taste’ ). Those same character traits are used to brilliant effect later in the novel, when events take a horrific turn.
And it’s the horror where Fletcher’s prose shines its brightest. The best of his passages about the werewolves are as good as one could wish horror writing to be, as Fletcher captures both the profound horror of having one’s very self undermined and transformed, and the primal attraction of the lycanthropes’ existence. He also gives his werewolves an air of genuine strangeness, which makes even this hoary old staple feel fresh – no mean feat.
Where I think The Leaping is less successful is in its treatment of the larger dichotomy it seemingly aims to dramatise – broadly speaking, that of modern life versus nature. Jack expresses disillusionment with urban life – and, with what he and his colleagues have to put up with at the call centre, it’s no wonder – but the ‘push’ of this doesn’t seem to me to be as strongly felt by the novel as the ‘pull’ towards the wildness of nature. When Jack talks about wanting to run with the werewolves, he does so with a deep yearning that’s woven into the very fabric of his words. But Jack’s comments about city life don’t come close to that, and this imbalance dilutes the impact of the theme.
Even taking this into account, though, The Leaping is still a very good piece of horror fiction. That puts an interesting spin on a venerable motif. After years in the wilderness, horror currently seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence; as long as there are writers like Tom Fletcher working in it, the field is in good hands.