When five teenagers with nothing in common are picked to work on a class assignment together, they're horrified. They're not friends. They're not from the same crowd. So they figure they'll get the assignment over with as fast as they can, and go right back to ignoring each other.
But this is Woodsville, where nothing is that simple. The locals don't call the place Weirdsville for nothing. And the five soon find themselves caught up in something else altogether. Something that lurks in the shadows on the streets of Woodsville. Something that starts the moment outcast Emily Night says she might just believe in ghosts...
I'm not easily scared by books. I'm not sure why, because when it comes to movies even the lamest ghost story can have me sleeping with the light on for days to come. Since I love being scared, I'm always on the lookout for a YA title that might just manage to creep me out the way a film can. So when I caught sight of some reviews of Rook Hastings' Nearly Departed that claimed this book had genuine scare-power, I couldn't wait to read it.
And actually, Nearly Departed is one of the spookiest YA novels I've read in a long time. Set in and around a rough estate in a UK town known locally as 'Weirdsville', it's packed with the kind of urban-creepy atmosphere that will have readers looking over their shoulders for different reasons the next time they're walking alone down a quiet street. From the moment that five classmates decide to embark on a somewhat sceptical ghost-hunt of one of their homes, this book weaves an insidious shivery spell that will have readers hooked.
As someone who generally prefers books written in the first person, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself taking almost instantly to this particular third person narrative. (I say 'almost', because as usual I could have done without the prologue). The ensemble cast are introduced so extraordinarily well that it's easy to distinguish between them straight away, and most importantly to eventually relate to each and every one of them. Their reactions to Emily's claim that she's experienced supernatural contact are initially just as you'd expect from a bunch of your average streetwise British teenagers, meaning that they're just as sceptical as your average reader. But as the story develops, it soon becomes clear that there's something rotten in the town of Weirdsville and no amount of bravado is going to make it go away.
I have to confess, I did guess this novel's big twist about halfway through - but this didn't make Nearly Departed any less gripping. If anything, it made me want to go back and reread the beginning of the book so I could see just how Rook Hastings managed to pull it off. Although it's not the kind of scary that will give you nightmares, I definitely found myself getting jumpy about sudden noises while I was reading. It's got great pacing, fantastic atmosphere and a slowly building sense of dread that absolutely succeeded in giving me the shivers.
As this is the first in a series, Nearly Departed does set the stage for further tales from Weirdsville - it's clear the group have been brought together for a reason, and it looks like future instalments will see them functioning as a kind of reluctant Scooby Gang - but there's enough closure to this episode to make it a satisfying standalone read. No cliffhanger, but there's a little taster at the end of the book for the next title - and having read it, I can't wait to see what the rest of the series has to offer. It's contemporary, spine-tingling, and a definite win.
Out: 4th February 2010, UK
Big thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a copy of this book for review.