Hammer is the new imprint from Random House, working in association with the recently revived British film company, adored and deplored for its lurid 60s horror movies. The object is to bring out new tales of the eerie and macabre from literary authors, and the latest is by Joanna Briscoe. Touched is a gripping novella, a waking nightmare in the home counties that is both erotic and claustrophobic. There's a woozy atmosphere of menace, a satirical stab at Britain's postwar commuter-belt aspirations, and an elegant, postmodern, cine-literate twist.
The book is set in the early 1960s in the picture-perfect Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath – here renamed Crowsley Beck – which was used for filming by nearby Elstree studios, and became known as the "village of the damned" when it was the location for a 1960 sci-fi movie of that name, based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos, about alien blond children appearing in a cosy rural community. I myself was brought up there, and Briscoe brings a brilliant, Instagrammed intensity to the leafy lanes, pub and village green, which did indeed look faintly sinister once you'd seen the film; I felt about it the way I imagine inhabitants of Portmeirion felt after The Prisoner appeared on TV.
Rowena is the beautiful, harassed mother of five young children who has been chivvied by her husband into moving away from London to this sweet little village, a convenient half-hour drive from the capital. They have turfed Rowena's ailing mother-in-law out of her cottage, bought the one next door and are now trying to knock them through to create a family house and commuter base. But the cottage itself seems to resist this proto-yuppification. Haunted with resentment, the walls groan and bulge. Rowena's children start behaving oddly, forming a friendship with the local builder and his wife, Mr and Mrs Pollard – and then they begin to disappear. Rowena finds herself faint with desire for her handsome neighbour Gregory and begins to sense the presence of Freddie, the imaginary friend of her disturbed daughter Evangelina.
Is Rowena having a breakdown – or is it something else? This stifling situation reaches a climax when Rowena's daughter Jennifer gets a small role in a film with the unimprovable title of Blush, being shot on the village green. Rowena gets to visit nearby Elstree studios and watch the rushes in the dark projection room: her daughter's calm loveliness is reduced on celluloid to an alien blankness as her stilted line is repeated over and over again with each take. Rowena's cottage is visible in shot and, in some takes, Rowena can see an unexplained face at the window. It is as if the ghostly qualities of film have spread outwards into the fabric of the real world.
Touched has something of The Turn of the Screw, certainly, but with it, the brasher influence of Ira Levin, or Anthony Shaffer, screenwriter of The Wicker Man. And Briscoe is, of course, influenced by that strange and fascinating B-movie, the Twilight Zone chiller Village of the Damned. She is not influenced, thank heavens, by the exasperatingly obtuse and dull original novel by Wyndham, with its burbling Shavian speeches about mankind's future. This is a haunting and disquieting parable of children's safety set in an era when society was less troubled by this issue – when their vulnerability was less publicly visible. Briscoe has a shrewd sense of the sometimes featureless suburban Hertfordshire landscape, derided by EM Forster in Howards End as neither country nor city, a place in which an insidious malign force comes to flourish. Touched would make a terrific 1960s black-and-white film.
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