The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

1984 HB, art by Bruce Hogarth

The Changeover (1984) is Margaret Mahy’s second YA novel, and her second Carnegie Medal Winner (following The Haunting in 1982). According to her postscript to the 2003 Modern Classics edition, it started out as the story of an 11-year-old girl who sought the help of a somewhat witchy girl of her own age to save her younger brother from a supernatural menace, but that story faltered until Mahy changed the witchy girl to an older (though still witchy) boy, and upped the protagonist’s age to 14, introducing an element of incipient sexuality to the mix. (The novel was initially published with the subtitle, “A Supernatural Romance”, though that seems to have been dropped in modern editions.)

Laura is a part-Maori girl of 14 who takes care of her 3-year-old brother Jacko after school while her mother Kate runs the local branch of a chain bookstore. (Laura and Jacko’s father went off with another woman, leaving the family in something just above poverty. As Kate says: “It’s not that we’re poor… But we’re usually short.” I particularly like how Mahy puts it when an unexpected expense comes up, and Kate “gritted her teeth in financial agony”.)

1985 HB

Bringing Jacko home one day from his daytime babysitter, the pair pop into a new shop, Brique à Braque, run by the eccentric/creepy Carmody Braque, who Laura thinks smells of “rotting time”. (He’s later described as “an improbable cross between Dracula and Mr Pickwick”.) Braque playfully stamps the back of Jacko’s hand with a rubber stamp, but afterwards the boy is bothered by it, and the image won’t come off. Jacko falls ill, a doctor is called, and pretty soon he’s comatose in hospital. Laura is convinced it’s Braque, through his stamp, magically draining her brother of his life, but her mother dismisses this with a “Don’t frighten me any more with your Space Invaders rubbish!” (A rare 80s-specific moment for the book.)

2018 cover

The only thing to do, then, is for Laura to get help for Jacko in her own way. She has long felt that an older boy at school, Sorensen Carlisle (known as “Sorry”), is something of a witch, and she’s often found him looking at her, as though he knows she knows. She decides to call on him at his home and ask for help. There, she meets his witchy mother and witchy grandmother, and learns his mother became pregnant assuming she’d have a girl, a young witch to complete the traditional trio of crone, mother, and virgin. But he was a boy, so she gave him up to be fostered, only to learn, much later, that he nevertheless had a witch’s powers. By that time, Sorry had had to learn to live with and understand his powers on his own, as well as having become the focus for his alcoholic foster-father’s rages. He turned up in a terrible state at the Carlisle home, and now, though somewhat better, is still highly reserved and at times almost alienated, emotionally. (When he speaks of what’s happened to Jacko, Laura thinks “He behaved as if something had gone wrong with a car, not a brother.”)

But the family agree to help. Braque, they think, isn’t a human being at all — at least, not now, anyway — but “an old and careful demon”, “a wicked spirit that has managed to win a body for itself once more and has probably gone on by absorbing the lives of others…” The only way to break his hold on Jacko, though, is to put Braque under a similar hold. He’d be too wary of any of the Carlisle family to let them get close enough, but Laura might. However, she’d only be able to put him under a hold if she was a witch herself. And so the family suggest she become one. She’s already proved she’s a “sensitive” through being able to see the witchiness in Sorry, and Braque won’t be expecting her, previously not a witch, to have suddenly become one. The Carlisles can initiate her through “the changeover” of the book’s title:

“We will marry you, if we can, to some sleeping aspect of yourself, and you must wake it.”

1994 Puffin PB cover, art by Tom Stimpson

The world of The Changeover feels very much like that of Mahy’s earlier novel, The Haunting. In both, certain families have a strain of magic, and though this means they can do wonderful things, they’re also far more emotionally reserved — not because of their powers, but because they are so much more sensitive. (Sorry’s mother says “We are a fond family rather than a loving one”, but this may be an emotionally cool family’s inability to judge just how cool it is.) Both the Carlisles in The Changeover, and the Scholars in The Haunting have the power to change reality, but this doesn’t make life easier for them — rather, the opposite, considering the distance this puts between them and their fellow human beings, and all the pitfalls the misuse of power throws in front of them.

In a way, in The Changeover, we get a glimpse of three stages in the life of a “magical” person, and how they might or might not go wrong. Braque, if not an actual demon, has certainly become one through multiple lifetimes of preying on others, till he has come to enjoy it, calling himself “something of a gourmet”. Sorry, on the other hand, has been abused by life and now stands at a crossroads, unsure how much he wants to invest himself in being an ordinary human, or how much he wants to take ownership of his capacity to feel. And Laura, taking her first steps into the world of power, is hovering over its first pitfall: once she has Braque at her mercy, she can do anything she likes to him. She tells herself “He’s not a real person, Mr Braque isn’t”, and he has, after all, been torturing not just her brother, but herself and her mother with all he’s been doing. But it leads to the question:

“Given the chance to be cruel did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?”

Laura’s story is also about her learning to understand — or at least come to terms with — men. She likes Jacko, of course, but he’s only a boy. She’s grown to resent her “dark, powerful father” who abandoned the family, and feels her mother’s new boyfriend, Chris, is taking her mother away from her rather than adding to the family. She’s attracted to Sorry, but finds his oddly distanced personality, and his frank sexual curiosity in women, somewhat difficult. And of course Braque is the ultimate example, to Laura, of how a powerful and selfish man can behave. But through coming to understand Sorry, and his own rather sorry story, she starts to understand her father and her mother’s boyfriend a little more, while knowing to draw the line at ever forgiving something like Braque.

The Changeover was made into a feature film, released in 2017, with Timothy Spall perfect as the creepy Braque, and a brief appearance from Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Sorry’s mother. It’s a dark, quite effective take on the story, set some years after the earthquake of 2011 that hit Christchurch, New Zealand (which is where Mahy’s novel is set). The plot makes a few abrupt departures from the book (I thought one element of the ending took things a bit far, but perhaps because I was mentally comparing it to the book). It’s the feel that’s the most different thing. Mahy’s book is infused with the coming-into-magic air of an adolescent’s burgeoning awareness of themselves, the world, and their place in it; the film is much more of a supernatural thriller, creepy and compelling, but without so much of the positive magic of Mahy’s novel. A good film, nonetheless, keeping some of the book’s restraint as far as magical powers go, and upping the presence and menace of Braque.

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The Alabaster Hand by A N L Munby

1974 Tandem paperback

In a brief foreword to The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories (first published in 1949), A N L Munby says that these stories “were written between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia”. In fact, Alan Noel Latimer Munby — “Tim” to his friends — spent five consecutive years in German POW camps. He’d joined the Territorial Army some years before the Second World War started, and in 1940 was sent to the continent to help defend Calais. Two days later, with German guns less than 100 yards from the town, Munby and the captain of the French defending forces shared a bottle of brandy, then gave themselves up. Munby was sent to Laufen in 1940, Warburg in 1941, and then Oflag VII B in Eichstätt in 1942. While there, he formed an antiquarian society and gave lectures (he’d been a book cataloguer for Sotheby’s before the war), wrote humorous poetry and a mock-Baedeker guide to the camp, helped make fake uniforms and stand-in parade dummies for escapees, and, of course, wrote ghost stories in the style of M R James. (At least one of which, “The Alabaster Hand”, was composed during an air-raid blackout, with Munby and a friend composing alternate paragraphs.) Three of these tales — “The Four Poster”, “The White Sack” and “The Topley Place Sale” — were published in a camp magazine, printed on a press owned by the Bishop of Eichstätt. (A fellow POW, Elliott Viney, who helped with the magazine, was later the printer of the first edition of The Alabaster Hand in England.)

But before this makes it sound as though Munby had a jolly war, when he was freed and returned to England in 1945 he found that his wife, whom he’d married only the year before his capture, had just died. (He’d marry again, and have a son.) Munby returned to his work for Sotheby’s, but soon left to become librarian at King’s College, Cambridge.

If it weren’t for that foreword, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for signs of the Second World War in the Alabaster Hand stories — though that, of course, may be the point. Munby’s narrators (or, quite possibly, his single narrator, as they could all be the same person) gad about the British countryside, visiting friends who own country houses, popping into isolated chapels in remote villages, or take walking trips in Welsh or Scottish mountains. They peruse booksellers’ catalogues, discover the stories behind obscurities in their own antiquarian collections, and have time to listen to the supernatural experiences of old acquaintances. It’s quite possible these ghostly stories, scary though they are, were mainly designed as a sort of mental holiday from the realities of Stalag life, both for their writer and his fellow-prisoners.

But there are a few moments when war — not the Second World War, but still possibly based in elements of Munby’s own experience — breaks through the pipe-smoke fug of academic bookishness and M R James-ishness. For instance, in “The Lectern”, we learn of one Thomas Prandle, whose sheep-farming forebears raised themselves to somewhat surly minor gentry (there are a few examples of upstart gentry behaving badly in these stories, and they always get their comeuppance). Prandle joins the late-18th century equivalent of the Territorial Army, and eventually gets his chance to do some overseas soldiering, though not (as with Munby) in France, but in Ulster. It falls far short of his dreams of soldierly heroism:

“It very soon became clear to Prandle and his troop that this wasn’t the glamorous business for which they’d been training so long. Instead of the dashing cavalry charge that he’d pictured he found the drab necessity of conducting house-to-house searches in a hostile countryside. There is no glory for the soldier matched against guerrillas — no enemy is drawn up in line to do battle, only a sordid series of murdered sentries, shots in the dark and vanishing assailants. The inevitable reprisals only made a bad situation worse. The soldier is at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with civilians. If he is a man of chivalry, they can insult him with impunity, for he cannot retaliate. If an unarmed man is killed by a soldier there is an immediate outcry…”

This surely can’t have been Munby’s experience in Calais, as he wasn’t part of the occupying forces, which makes me wonder if he perhaps formed this picture of Thomas Prandle from observing his German captors.

First HB cover, with art by Joanna Dowling

The only explicit mention of modern war comes in “Number Seventy-nine”, the tale of an antiquarian bookseller’s cataloguer, Merton, who “came down from Oxford in 1913, and got caught up in the war before he’d settled down to anything. He was badly shell-shocked in France, and when he got his discharge in 1918 he was a nervous wreck…” Merton, much to his employer’s delight, becomes engaged, but is even more distraught when he loses his fiancé in an automobile accident. (Reading which, I couldn’t help wondering how Munby must have felt about this tale when his own wife died before his return to England.) Merton turns to spiritualism and then, in a final desperate move, to a manuscript on necromancy his employer has just acquired. His employer (who is telling the sorry tale-within-a-tale to Munby’s narrator) hears Merton scream and run from the shop, and looking out, sees “a shadowy figure… of grey colouring” following him, accompanied by a smell he recognises from an exhumation he’d happened on as a boy. (Smells — quite often of burning — accompany other Munby spectres, too. The reality of burned flesh may be another wartime experience of Munby’s.)

The most visceral passage in all of these stories comes in “The Tudor Chimney”. The narrator’s wealthy friend, who has recently taken up the hobby of renovating an old house, opens a bricked-in chimney and looses something that the narrator encounters one night. Generally, in these tales, the spook is witnessed by someone else, or is even relegated to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, but this time the narrator himself sees the thing, and his response is authentic:

“There are certain human passions that strip from a man the veneer of civilised culture which normally encases him, that turn him into something primitive and elemental. I felt myself spiritually naked when face to face with the apparition that confronted me that night.”

This passage stands out because, generally, Munby’s narrator is quite cool about the existence of ghosts. In “A Christmas Game”, the narrator sees one coming for a fellow guest, but, knowing it’s not there for him, doesn’t seem to feel any fear. It’s not as with Lovecraft, where the very fact of an entity’s existence is enough to drive a man to madness. Nor is this quite M R James’s approach. Mike Ashley has described Munby as the “Closest to inheriting the mantle of M R James”, and the air of antiquarianism, churchiness, strangely-historied things bought on impulse at auction, and horrors rooted in recent centuries past, is certainly there. But the differences are evident in a tale like “The Tudor Chimney”. While James generally lays out, piece by piece, the whole background necessary to understand the full import of his spook before it makes its final appearance, Munby has us see the ghost, and know it as a ghost, then his characters start the investigation into what or who it is, how it came to be a ghost, and how to lay its disturbed soul. And once it’s dealt with, the characters get on with life pretty much as before, no sanity points lost. A ghost, as the narrator of “The Tudor Chimney” says, “isn’t the sort of thing one can shut away and keep out of one’s mind”, but it’s also, in these stories, not the sort of thing to shake one’s faith.

Munby’s tales are brisk, compared to James’s, and once you get past the POW’s holiday-in-the-mind of gadding about the British countryside engaging in idle antiquarian research, the supernatural elements are introduced quickly, have their stories told in straightforward narratives rather than Jamesian hints, and then they’re put to one side. But they’re effective tales for all that, and if they’re lacking the weird power of M R James’s originals, they get their little shiver of terror by more than mere association.

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Although it’s far too well known in the English-speaking world by its translated title, Remarque’s original German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, means something more like “Nothing New on the Western Front”. While the English title conjures up a deceptive lull before the storm, the original German is an ironic comment on the death of yet another soldier, and perhaps a whole generation, being nothing sufficiently new to be worth reporting.

The novel was first serialised at the end of 1928, then published in book form in January 1929. It became an instant bestseller. By the end of that year more than thirty translations had appeared, followed in 1930 by an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film directed by Lewis Milestone (and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., of Universal Horror fame). When the film reached Germany, the National Socialists, newly voted into being the second largest political party in the country, campaigned to have it banned for its supposed negative take on the “reputation of the German soldier”. They saw their success on this front as their first major victory over democratic Weimar Germany. (When they achieved full power in 1933, Remarque’s novel was one of the first books to be publicly burned.)

As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t really have a story. (The very lack of anything by way of a change in the narrator’s fortunes — a way out of his Hell — let alone one due to his own actions, could well be part of the point.) There’s nothing he can do but go where he’s told to go and try to survive. Rather, the novel does its best to present us with all the basic types of situation a WWI foot-soldier might have found himself in: initial training in bootcamp, waiting for orders near the front, at the front and under fire, on leave and unable to adjust, on duty guarding POWs, back at the front and stuck in no-man’s-land, one-on-one combat with an enemy in a bomb crater, in hospital watching fellow patients being taken one by one to the Death Room, then back at the front once more…

US HB cover by Paul Wenck

From the start, it feels like a sourcebook of all those telling moments you find in so many subsequent novels, films, and TV shows, which illustrate the brutality and horror of modern warfare in a single image. One after another, like a series of trump cards being laid down, you get them in single-paragraph snapshots: helplessly listening to screaming, wounded horses; watching a beloved friend dying in a hospital and wondering who will get his boots (“For us, it is only the facts that count. And good boots are hard to come by.”); the young recruit the narrator takes under his wing, telling him all the tricks on how to survive at the front, only for a random chance to blow him away; the wounded comrade the narrator carries back singlehandedly for medical help, only to find, on arrival, he’s been dead for some time…

What will quickly become clichés of modern warfare fiction are all there: the comrade who, despite the privations of the front-line, can always get hold of those little luxuries; the ultra-strict training officer who goes over the top in breaking his charges; the old men at home who know all about how the war should be fought; the dead enemy soldier with the photo of his wife and child in his wallet… But there are also so many scenes you don’t get in subsequent films and fiction, and which must have really been shocking to those first readers — those who hadn’t witnessed such scenes themselves — for instance, when the narrator and a fellow soldier pass an all-but denuded forest, and speculate idly on why the corpses hanging in the trees are all naked. It’s because they’ve been blown out of their uniforms, it’s just a thing that happens.

Poster for the 1930 film

What probably seemed among its most notable qualities back then — and certainly one that riled the Nazis — is it’s not pro- or anti-German. It takes no real political sides at all. As the translator of the edition I read, Brian Murdoch, points out in his afterword, Remarque’s narrator almost never uses the word “enemy”. The soldiers are all too aware that the people they’re fighting are simply recruits like themselves:

“‘It’s funny when you think about it,’ continues Krop. ‘We’re out here defending our homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?’”

To these foot-soldiers, the war’s no longer a thing to win or lose, it’s a thing to endure and survive — and survive at the most basic level:

“We set out as soldiers… we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.”

Remarque’s main point, though, is how the war was harshest on one specific generation:

“Things are particularly confused for us twenty-year-olds… The older men still have firm ties to their earlier lives—they have property, wives, children, jobs and interests, and these bonds are all so strong that the war can’t break them. But for us twenty-year-olds there are only our parents, and for some of us a girlfriend.”

This is a generation that went straight from school to the front line, egged on by ultra-patriotic schoolmasters preaching heroism and a greater Germany, and who had no chance to experience anything like the life they’d been brought up to expect. Suddenly, once the shells started falling, they find it has all been a lie, and none of them has had the chance to build up any experience to the contrary:

“They [our teachers] were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilised behaviour and progress—into the future… But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than theirs…”

Education suddenly means nothing, because it had all been preparation for a completely different world:

“Nobody taught us at school how to light a cigarette in a rainstorm, or how it is still possible to make a fire even with soaking wet wood—or that the best place to stick a bayonet is into the belly, because it can’t get jammed in there, the way it can in the ribs.”

Something underlined most poignantly by another comrade’s death:

“Bertinck has been hit in the chest… After a few minutes he sinks down like a rubber tyre when the air escapes. What use is it to him now that he was so good at mathematics at school?”

Remarque in 1929

Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970) had written one previous novel, published in 1920, under his birth name Erich Remark. He changed the spelling of his surname to the older Remarque (his grandfather’s name) to distance himself from that first novel, Die Traumbude, which he’d begun before the war. It has, apparently, never been translated. (The middle name “Maria” he changed — his original being Paul — in tribute to his mother.)

After having his writing banned by the Nazis, he moved to Switzerland, then to America, and then back to Switzerland in 1948, where in 1958 he married ex-Mrs Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard. He published a kind-of sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, in 1931.

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