Set on the Yorkshire moors, one of the blasted motherlands of gothic fiction, The Wayward Girls moves between 1976 and the present day to spool out the story of a haunting. The two times are bound by Lucy. A little girl in 1976, Lucy (then called Loo) finds herself at the centre of a series of exactly the kind of bizarre phenomena that paranormal researchers in the 70s adored: knocking on the walls, wrecked furniture and a voice that speaks through her but isn’t hers. As a grown woman in the present day, Lucy returns to the old house of her childhood and all the secrets it still hoards.
Of course nothing is what it seems. It’s pertinent that the house is near Dracula’s cradle at Whitby; and when the paranormal research team arrive in the 70s strand, Loo and her savage sister Bee find Victorian clothes to dress up in, just like the blood-stained maidens in the books that fill their electricity-less farm-house. Of course Bee and Loo know how a haunting is meant to go: they are clever and utterly isolated, and they have a grudge to settle. But that isn’t all.
The novel is very much in conversation with the stories, both real and fictional, that have come before it; the girls are reminiscent of the cousins behind the Cottingley fairy hoax, or American mediums the Fox sisters, who were among the first to establish the idea that spirits like knocking. Meanwhile Amanda Mason’s focus on the researchers’ cameras and recording equipment reads like an acknowledging nod to paranormal investigation films such as The Quiet Ones and Grave Encounters.
What sets The Wayward Girls apart is its finesse. With a touch so light that it appears accidental at first, Mason arranges things in pairs. Two girls look alike; one character is called Loo, and another Lew; there are two sets of researchers, and two haunted houses – one occupied by a young family, the other a care home. Before long, these pairs start to feel like the flickering of two images pasted together on a film reel. Even the prose has a celluloid quality; the point of view switches mid-paragraph so suddenly that it can be hard to follow, as though the film on the projector has slipped. Brilliantly, all of that is a clue.
An engrossing response to paranormal films and gothic fiction, The Wayward Girls is a nearly perfect ghost story. It has a hollow, underexplicated ending; but this is a fertile subject, and one to which with luck Mason will return.
• The Wayward Girls is published by Zaffre (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.