‘Still Water’ book review: Chris Priestley is a master of conjuring up chills in ordinary situations

  • The ‘Tales of Terror’ author scores again with this short but brilliant novella
  • Set during second-world-war Britain, it combines the very real fears of that era with some far older superstitions
John Millen |

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Still Water

By Chris Priestley

Published by Barrington Stoke

ISBN 978 1 7811 2833 6

Review by John Millen

You know what you’re getting with a Chris Priestley book well before you begin reading. And if you are not already a fan, the evocative jacket design of one of his novels usually gives the game away.

That is certainly the case with the short but brilliant Still Water.

Since the success of Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror in 2009, the author has been on a mission to scare young readers with marvellous macabre novels and short stories.

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Still Water is a 112-page novella which most will devour in one go. Priestley is a master at conjuring up chills from the most ordinary of situations, and here he tells a deceptively simple story that hides a devastating truth.

Then, at the end of his ghostly tale, just when the reader has guessed where the plot is heading, the author throws a curveball, and delivers a cold and unexpected twist.

We are in England in the late 1930s, and the second world war is on the horizon. The students at our heroine Rosie’s school are being evacuated class by class out of London to villages in the countryside to save them from the German bombs that everyone knows will soon rain down on the city.

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Rosie hates leaving her mother back in the capital, but knows that the move out to the relative safety of the countryside is for the best. Life in a rural village will be very different, but there will be fun and adventures.

Rosie is collected from the village station by a Mrs Taylor, who seems friendly but a bit distant. As soon as she steps into her temporary home, Rosie meets Mary, her hostess’ daughter, who takes an instant dislike to the new guest.

Over the next few days, Mary goes out of her way to make Rosie’s life as unpleasant as possible. She even bites her own arm, and tells her mother that Rosie is responsible. Mrs Taylor, of course, thinks her own daughter can do nothing wrong.

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Mary slowly turns the village children against Rosie. Forced to spend time by herself, Rosie is drawn to an isolated pond in the village woods. No one ever goes anymore, ever there since a local girl drowned there many years ago.

The locals call this neglected body of water The Witches’ Pond because it was here that witches were tried and executed by drowning back in the 17th century.

So who is the girl that Rosie sometimes sees swimming in the pond? Why does she try and coax Rosie into joining her? And what is the reason behind her threatening request that Rosie not tell anyone about her.

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Priestley builds up the tension with effective brilliance. The mystery of the girl in the pond is utterly gripping, and when the climax of the story arrives, it lands with a tremendous jolt.

Still Water is essential for readers who like suspense and a scary story with Halloween vibes at any time of the year, whether or not it’s pumpkin season.

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