I don’t read a lot of horror stories — real life provides all the thrills and chills I can handle these days. But every October I like to pick one book to put me in the mood for Halloween. This year’s spooky season read was No One Goes Alone (2021), a historical fiction novella by one of my favorite narrative nonfiction authors, Erik Larson. It was released only on audio because, as Larson has said, ghost stories are meant to be told aloud. I was happy to get this one from my library just in time for Halloween, and I listened to it for an hour or so each night, in bed with the lights off for maximum effect.
The cast of characters is a mix of real-life historical figures, like William James (brother of novelist Henry), who really was a psychologist who pioneered research into “psychical phenomena,” and fictional creations who are either loosely based on real people or entirely made up for the purposes of the plot. The story is narrated by Josiah, a young scientist who is working for the General Post Office on the nascent technology of wireless communication. In 1905, Josiah joins James and a group of researchers on a trip to the Isle of Dorn off the Cornish coast to investigate several mysterious disappearances over the years, including an entire family of four.
The researchers are a nice mix of skeptics, like the infuriatingly smug Adam Winter, true believers like the son of a famous medium and the lovely Catherine, and those with an inquiring but open mind like James and the lovely Madeline. (Indeed, the sheer number of romantic pairings-off in this short novella would do a 21st-century teen comedy proud). The island setting and the house that stands upon it are beautiful and serene, making it hard to believe that anything evil could lurk within. But mysterious things start happening from the first night the researchers spend on the island, and Josiah and the rest must figure out whether someone is playing pranks or if there’s a more sinister force at work.
This is not the sort of hair-raising horror that will make you afraid to walk down the dark hall to the bathroom (Stephen King, I’m looking at you). But it’s nicely atmospheric and the tension ratchets up in a satisfying way. Continuing the narrative past the climactic scene seemed to be a miscalculation, as it’s a bit deflating to read a summation of what happens to each of the main characters in the years following their experience on the Isle of Dorn, but then right at the end there’s a secondary twist that kind of pulls it all together and ties the story off neatly.
In terms of audiobook quality, the narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt is fine, though the American accent he attempts for William James is a bit wobbly. It’s far from the worst I’ve ever listened to, though, and didn’t really detract from getting engrossed in the narrative.