Cold Bath Street by A.J. Hartley Book Review: A Modern Ghostly Mystery Woven with Local Legends

Cold Bath StreetCold Bath Street by A.J. Hartley (with illustrations by Janet Pickering), £7.99 (UCLan Publishing, 9780995515574)
Publication date: 27 February 2018
My rating: 

Despite appearances, most ghost stories focus on the living and the impact the dead have on them. By the beginning of Cold Bath Street, however, protagonist Preston Oldcorn has already died, his heart and watch stopped forever at 9:22p.m.

Part supernatural thriller, part mystery, Cold Bath Street is pacey and engaging, drawing the reader in with an unpredictable plot and warmly drawn characters. Hartley casts Preston as a relatable young boy who, like many of us, wishes he'd spoken up for himself more often. Unfortunately, it takes his untimely death to jolt him with this realisation. The extraordinary circumstances in which he finds himself see him face many of the usual worries and desires of a teenager alongside the dawning realisation that he will never again get to act on any of them.

Some of my favourite scenes, however, involve Tracey, one of the main perspectives in the book. Smart, fearless and determined, Hartley succeeds in writing a likable, realistic female lead as well as the sort of character you'd want in your corner in trying times. She also isn't afraid to reevaluate her preconceptions about the world based on her observations, which is an admirable trait.

Hartley clearly conducted a considerable amount of local research about his native Preston for this book (see The Bannister Doll ghost legend and the painting Pauline in the Yellow Dress at the Harris Museum for more details), and he weaves his modern-day tale with compelling local legends and history in a highly original way. In doing so, he shines a much-needed spotlight onto a unique and underappreciated Northern city with a strong working-class presence (the audiobook version is even read by the superbly suited Christopher Eccleston).

The lovely detailed, atmospheric illustrations by Janet Pickering contribute to the scene-setting as well as the sense of care taken with this book, though considering the strength of some of these I feel that the cover image chosen could've been much stronger, cool optical effect aside.

Hartley also offers an interesting angle on the afterlife without claiming to know all the answers, avoiding info dumps and retaining a certain mystique around supernatural mechanisms that aren't of great importance to plot progression. The result manages to touch on spirituality without being preachy, though I sensed (and sympathised with) an aversion to organised religion on Hartley's side.

I can't say I was ever truly scared, though there is a subtle sense of unease and dread throughout (though this could differ for younger readers) and I did have the creeptastic folk song 'Early One Morning' stuck in my head for a few days afterwards. Due to the dark, reflective themes, there is an undercurrent of sadness to this book, though it isn't overwhelming.

In addition, due to the detached, lonely nature of Preston's world, I couldn't help but look forward more to scenes that overlapped with the 'real' world, resulting in a feeling of slight slow pacing at the start. As the book is so character-driven and readable, however, my interest was maintained throughout, and I wasn't surprised to hear that some finished this in a single sitting.

I did find the ending a little 'neat', though this is perhaps suited to younger readers and counterweighed by Hartley's humanistic approach to ghosts, showing that behind every object of fear is its own story. I also enjoyed the perfect simplicity and sweetness of the final few lines, which I found refreshing when a more emotionally overblown ending might've been expected.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this for children and young teenagers with a taste for mysterious, spooky tales (which I'm assuming is just about all of this demographic) as well a few local history and paranormal buffs my own age. Those interested in these themes should also check out the sequel, Written Stone Lane, which was just released this Halloween.

Note: I was a student at the publishing house that produced this book during its publication date, but I wasn't involved in its creation.


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