"The Whistling" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Penguin Random House

the whistling rebecca netley poster large

Written by Rebecca Netley
2021, 270 pages, Fiction
Released on 14th October 2021


As a proud Scotsman in exile, I am always interested in spooky stories set in my homeland; tales which spirit me back to my childhood in the windswept north-east coastal area of the country. Sadly, Rebecca Netley’s debut, The Whistling, failed to fire my imagination and the location, the fictional island of Skelthsea, undoubtedly has something to do with it. There are countless breezy, desolate and atmospheric spots in the Western Isles, so I saw little logic in fabricating this key setting. To a Scotsman, this feels somewhat like cheating and genuine places like Mull, Skye, or Barra, for example, would have made this tale much more authentic. Francine Toon's Pine is a terrific recent example of a recent ghost story which did exactly that, making excellent use of its rugged north of Scotland location.

Why is this a big deal you might ask? Considering the entire novel is set on Skelthsea, its descriptions are rather bland, slightly repetitive and certainly do not feel authentically Scottish. The action could have been set on any island where it rains frequently and is windy most of the time. The location is absolutely crucial to the success of The Whistling and ultimately it comes up short, as it is too light on detail and rather bland. Perhaps I am a fussy Scotsman and other readers might not pick up on this gripe and simply accept that ‘an island is an island’. I also noted the complete lack of Scottish dialect, with the exception of the occasion token “aye”, everybody speaks perfect English.

This novel lacks scares and considering it is billed as a “chilling and original new ghost story”, this is a shortcoming. The main character frequently hears whistling at night or lullabies being sung in empty corridors, and strange dolls appear in abandoned rooms. All of this has been done so many times and it quickly becomes tiresome, goes around in circles, and in the end the supernatural part of the story is weak and it works better as a mystery novel. I love creepy dolls, but if you’re looking for a scare, try Adam Nevill’s House of Small Shadows, which will have you looking over your shoulder with the pitter-patter of tiny footsteps; this book will not. There is a children’s novel called Frozen Charlotte, by Alex Bell, which is set on the Isle of Skye and even that kid’s book has more scares than this. If a book for ten-year-olds has more frights than an adult ghost story, then you have problems. The Whistling is based around such an overused supernatural trope, it really needed to bring something new to the table, something else it completely fails to do.

As I said, the mystery element of the plot is more convincing, including some decent twists and turns. However, too much of it plays out like some nineteenth-century soap opera, with much of the big reveals coming via gossip, whispers, half-truths, and talking ill of the dead. Main character Elspeth Swansome arrives on Skelthsea to become the nanny for nine-year-old Mary, who has been mute since her twin brother William died some months earlier, mysteriously falling off a cliff. Around the same time, their former nanny also disappeared, with local gossip hinting she may have had supernatural talents.

Elspeth arrives at a dour house which is both mourning and unwilling to provide much background on the recent disturbing events, with the lady of the house not having left the island for some years. Finding everybody unhelpful, silent and very unfriendly, Elspeth begins to investigate what exactly happened to William and his former nanny, whilst at the same time she carries her own heavy psychological baggage, with the story slowly revealing the tragedy from her own past. At a rather pedestrian pace, the plot plods along with Elspeth irritating the locals with her questions as the mystery thickens.

In the background, the whistling continues and the house, haunted or otherwise, is remarkably bland and fails to fire the imagination, as the reader never truly feels any level of threat. This is undoubtedly one of the dullest haunted houses I have entered in a while. The Whistling has been compared to the work of Laura Purcell, Sarah Waters and Susan Hill. authors who specialise in atmospheric slow-burners which blend literary fiction with the supernatural. These are fair enough comparisons and if you are looking for an old-fashioned ghost story set in the mid-1800s, then you might enjoy this, but for readers looking for a harder edge, it might be too old-fashioned.

Other readers will undoubtedly enjoy it more than I, with some parts of the story holding my attention. There is a deeper theme about grief, loss and the compulsion to find atonement in the salvation of others which drives Elspeth, and this leads to the relationship with her charge Mary, who is both distracted and secretive, which is one of the strongest aspects of the story. One could also feel the isolation Elspeth feels, never truly knowing whether she would ever return to Edinburgh and her lack of adult friendship on the island. The disunity between rationality and belief in the supernatural is also nicely presented, as it becomes obvious that the islanders are very quick to accept the otherworldly, with obscure references to the ‘old ways’.

I like my horror or ghost stories with more bite than The Whistling offers and I am sure readers who are not as jaded by the remote-haunted-house-nanny trope and enjoy a not-too-threatening supernatural mystery may get a kick out of this.


Overall: 2.5 Star Rating Cover
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Buy from Amazon UK.

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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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