Petra’s Ghost by C. S. O’Cinneide
Titan Books, pbk, £8.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Write from what you know, isn’t that usually good advice for a writer? And since Canadian writer, C. S. O’Cinneide has actually walked the 500 miles of Camino de Santiago in Spain it would be a shame not to put that experience to good use in her debut novel which concerns Daniel Kennedy, who wants to reset his life after the death of his wife, Petra. He is carrying her ashes which he intends to scatter at the end of the trail. But it is harder than Daniel thought because he is carrying the weight of the true circumstances around her death, a secret he has managed to keep from others. He hails from Ireland and wants to return there after living in America, but he can’t let his old life go until he has undertaken this pilgrimage and scattered Petra’s ashes, relieving himself of his burden.
Still, he eventually sets off on a trip that will take a month to complete despite his prevaricating. He meets other travellers – real and unreal – as he starts to see the spirits of other people, one of which might be his late wife. He also meets Virginia, otherwise known as Ginny, from California who is also making the pilgrimage. While they are chalk and cheese in terms of personality and outlook, they are perfect travelling companions. But their journey is overshadowed as a woman has vanished on the trail, and Daniel’s encounter with a nun who makes the sign of the Devil with her fingers and tells him he is being followed.
Petra’s Ghost is an evocative, creepy read that turns up the tension and the chills as the protagonists go further into their epic hike, in a tale where we have a classic unreliable narrator with a secret, who can’t even trust himself and what he believes he is encountering.
O’Cinneide has completed the journey, and it shows in the descriptions of the landscape and the physical and mental effects of undertaking such a gruelling exercise. There are little details gleaned from the experience such as having a trail passport that must be regularly stamped to stay at certain hostels, some of which can be overcrowded with travellers and the gory details of how to tackle infected blisters.
The Camino de Santiago or the “Way of St. James” to give its English title has been the subject of many films and documentaries, arguably, best known in the film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. It has also appeared in many fiction and non-fiction books by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, David Lodge and Paulo Coelho. However, this is the first time to my knowledge it has been the setting for a horror novel and who is to say that you can’t encounter the creepy and supernatural during a hot, sunny day and surrounded by the countryside? Despite being set in wide-open spaces, Petra’s Ghost is reminiscent of the quiet claustrophobic horror of Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter and Thin Air.
While O’Cinneide seems to be busy these days writing a crime series about a former hitwoman, it will be interesting to see what she comes up with if she makes a welcome to this genre in the future.