In cold blood;Childrens books

5th February 1999 at 00:00
SILENT SNOW, SECRET SNOW. By Adle Geras. Puffin. pound;4.99.

UNDERCURRENTS. By June Oldham. Hodder Signatures. pound;4.99.

THE YOUNG OXFORD BOOK OF SUPERNATURAL STORIES. Edited by Dennis Pepper. Oxford University Press. pound;6.99 (pbk).

THE BEST OF ROBERT WESTALL: Volumes 1 and 2. Macmillan. pound;10.99 each.

FINGERS ON THE BACK OF THE NECK AND OTHER SPINE-CHILLING TALES:ghost stories from around the world. Puffin. pound;4.99.

Dysfunctional families can make rich pickings forstories aimed at adolescents, since most teenagers think they have the misfortune of belonging to one.

Family breakdown, long-buried secrets coming to light, twisted affections - all have been explored for the adult market by writers such as Iris Murdoch. Ad le Geras is adept at creating the same sort of frisson for younger readers in rich, poetic language.

Her writing takes a Murdochian turn as she focuses on family secrets in her new novel, Silent Snow, Secret Snow. Carlo - his name is Carl, but he's working on his image - leaps at the chance to spend Christmas with the family of his school friend Laurie, to escape what he sees as the grim ordinariness of his home life. Laurie's family seem wildly romantic, rich, educated, eccentric and beautiful, especially his sister Marianne.

Geras puts them together in the Golden House, an upmarket country hotel run by Laurie's grandmother, Irene, a former opera singer and a powerful matriarch who gathers her family for ritualised celebrations. When the house is cut off by heavy snow, the family turns in on itself. Pain and fear become palpable as secrets start to come out. Life will never be the same again.

Geras creates wonderful contrasts. As the snow silently covers up all the features of the surrounding countryside, souls are laid bare by enforced isolation. This is an intriguing novel, beautifully crafted, utterly compelling and perfect for a long, dark winter night.

June Oldham deploys her impressive powers of description and insightful portrayal of character in another highly-charged story about revelation and twisted relationships. Her intimate knowledge of the Yorkshire landscape comes into full force in Undercurrents, as the elemental nature of hill and dale forms a backdrop to the chilling story of a village forced to face its past.

Oldham is a thrilling writer. Her prose is uncluttered, poised, precise and evocative. She has an eye for the idiosyncratic and builds suspense through an odd series of characters and happenings. This is the story of Fergal, who is spending the holiday helping his mother nurse a bedridden woman on an isolated Yorkshire farm. The region is in the grip of a heatwave, and as the land dries up, villagers watch in horror as the water level drops in the reservoir, slowly revealing a terrible past.

Fergal becomes embroiled with Alex, a girl obsessed with that past, and the hidden secrets of the watery depths constantly remind Fergal of his own anguish. This is a fine novel. Though the pace doesn't slacken, and the tension builds to the end, it is full of reflection.

The ghosts of past, present and future are presented in a myriad of forms in the Robert Westall collections, and the impressive anthologies from Oxford and Puffin, all full of finely-honed tales. Geras is there in the Oxford, with the horrific "Captain Ashe's Daughter" showing off her skill at creating the macabre. I'll never feel the same about cats again.

In the same collection is Brian Jacques's lilting story of "Bridgey", who commands the forces of nature against her uncle and abuser. Like many spine-chillers, many of these tales have deeply moral messages. In the title story of the Puffin collection, Margaret Mahy shows how one can never get away with murder. In "The Mirror", Eiko Kadono unleashes mayhem when the mirror reveals our uglier side. And in "The Ravens", Klaus Kordon warns us to leave supernatural forces well alone.

Westall's collection is a gem. Stories like "Death of a Wizard" and "Woman and Home" show his superb craft as a short story writer in creating time and place, in building character, grabbing attention - and sending a shiver up the spine.

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