The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

This historical novel is a ghost story set in a maze of nested aliases. At its core, it questions the concept of identity. Who are we? Does that change depending on who we’re with? Who are we when we’re alone?

Arthor Crandle is a man fallen on hard times, a grieving father with an estranged wife. He’s travelled to Providence, Rhode Island to take a position as a personal assistant to a reclusive writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Once installed in the house, supposedly shared with a few other mystery tenants, he is consumed by the mystery of his employer’s past and drawn to the gregarious young actress living in the apartment downstairs.

In the well-established Lovecraftian tradition, Baker’s narrative is suffused with a gloomy nihilistic dread. Set in Spring – my least favourite season, muddy and cold – it rains constantly, the ocean is a repulsive set piece reeking of sewage, and the people are dour and suspicious. One gets the impression that nothing in this story will end far from where it started, and even if it did, nothing much will change as a result, because we are simply too insignificant to move that cosmic needle.

Arthor goes about his work, maintaining the household, transcribing handwritten manuscript pages, and communicating with H.P. primarily through letters. All the while Crandle is unravelling, seeing a ghostly little girl in the garden at night, hearing screams from the study, and encountering an oppressive malevolence stalking the halls. His one source of solace in a storm of confusion and despair is Flossie, the actress, though she too grows more and more insubstantial as the days press on.

It all comes back to the names, the aliases. Baker skillfully uses names as metaphor for the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Who are you? Using beautiful language and clever subtext, she builds a new mythology around an already somewhat mythical figure, and slowly, mercilessly, strips it away.

4/5