The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.

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Mandog

Before The Changes, there was Mandog

(…Or is it Man Dog? The on-screen titles separate the two words, as does the Radio Times/BBC Genome, but the novelisation, and most subsequent reference sources, call it Mandog.)

It started with producer Anna Home (who would eventually become Executive Producer of Children’s Television at the BBC), commissioning Peter Dickinson to come up with an idea for an original TV drama for children. He provided at least three outlines, one of which, initially titled “Clever Dog”, was turned into this six-part series. It was filmed in the summer of 1971 (entirely on location, in Southampton), and broadcast at the start of 1972. (It was on the back of the success of this series that Anna Home decided to adapt Dickinson’s Changes trilogy.)

The story focuses on a group of three teenagers: school-friends Kate Saumarez and Sammy (Samantha) Morris, and Kate’s older brother Dunc (Duncan), who is now one year out of school and about to start work as a TV repairman. Kate and Sammy see a man apparently teleport himself through a garage door near their school, then teleport himself out again. They recruit Dunc to help follow this man and find out what’s going on, and in the best Famous Five tradition bring along Sammy’s dog Radnor (named after the district in Wales where Sammy’s parents spent their honeymoon). Their sleuthing ends at a car dump, and Kate insists they go inside, even though it means climbing through a hole in the surrounding fence. (Kate uses a wheelchair, though can get by for a short while on crutches.) Inside, they’re confronted by a man called Levin, and soon surrounded by his six companions. Kate just comes out with it and tells him they saw one of this group, who turns out to be called Justin, teleporting himself into a garage. Levin, dropping his obviously fake Irish accent for something more stiff and strange, strong-arms the kids into the group’s surprisingly technological headquarters beneath all the wrecked cars and scrap metal, and explains.

Levin, leader of the Group

This group (who call themselves “the Group”) are from the year 2600, a time ruled by a secret police organisation known as the Galas. The Galas were having Levin develop a time machine for their own nefarious ends, but as soon as he succeeded, he and his Group friends used it to escape to the 1970s, so they could build another time-device, return to the future, and free their era of the Galas’ control. They’re only a short while away from completion, after which they’ll leave our present forever. They can’t harm Kate & co., because any one of them might be a distant ancestor, but they do need to ensure the kids’ silence. The scheme they come up with is one that will simultaneously punish Justin for giving them away (which he has done once before, apparently), and hopefully ensure the kids’ silence: they’re going to swap the minds of Justin and Radnor the dog. Radnor will enter Justin’s body (and then be kept asleep, because a dog in a man’s body would be really hard to explain), while Justin will enter Radnor’s body and accompany the kids home. It will be a sort of penance for Justin (they say this is a common punishment in their time) and an exchange of hostages. The two will be swapped back when the Group are ready to return to their future.

Radnor the dog and Justin, becoming Mandog

It all feels like a rather over-elaborate set-up — are we really supposed to believe that in the future, criminals are regularly mind-swapped into dog’s bodies as a punishment? — but it gets the story set up for a mix of lightly comic and adventurous shenanigans. On the one hand, there’s Sammy having to explain away Radnor’s suddenly more intelligent behaviour. (He refuses to eat dog food from a bowl on the floor, instead sitting at the breakfast table wanting cereal or bacon and eggs.) On the other, once Radnor — who Sammy calls “Mister” from here on, because she knows he’s not Radnor, and calling him Justin would be silly — spots one of the far-future Galas in the town, evidently looking for the Group, the kids becoming involved in a series of adventures trying to foil the Galas and help the Group. (Levin explains that the time-machine he left in the future would have had enough power to transport a few more people, so he’s sure not many of the Galas will have made it to the 1970s.)

Kate and Sammy

Mandog feels like a transition point between the kids’ TV of the 1960s — which McGown and Docherty in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama characterise as mostly “kids in anoraks on bikes, accompanied by a dog or two, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers and bank robbers”, which Kate & co.’s adventures with the Galas certainly feel like — and the more progressive kids’ dramas of the 70s, with their mixing of the science fictional/fantastic with realistic modern settings and social concerns. Throughout their adventures, we see the kids getting on with their normal lives: Dunc starts a new job, attends his long-distance-running club, and buys himself a secondhand moped; the girls do their homework and start to find themselves boyfriends. At one point they discover that the Galas have ensconced themselves (claiming to be Syrians on a trade mission) in the home of Mary Ndola, a black girl in the year below them, who is clearly frightened of these strange men. The kids recruit Mary to get Dunc inside her house (in his new job as a TV repairman) to confirm these are the Galas, and then the Group scare them away — by the distinctly un-science-fictional and un-dramatic method of writing them a threatening letter.

Radnor, a.k.a. Mister

It’s not as experimental as the series that really marked the renaissance in kids’ TV drama two years before, The Owl Service (though, like that serial, it uses actors in their twenties as teenagers, unlike later shows like The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on, which used child actors). And the science fictional/fantasy element isn’t as weird (or horrific) as those later shows. We know the kids aren’t really threatened — the worst the Galas can do is use their hypnotic powers or pencil-like stun gun, because the Galas can’t afford to disrupt their past any more than the Group can — and it isn’t until the Group have departed that the kids suddenly wake up to the fact they haven’t asked Levin what the future is like, nor have they really thought about whether the Group were actually telling the truth. Perhaps the Group were the baddies and the Galas the goodies? As Dunc says, “All they were bothered about was who was in charge — and it had to be them.” The only confirmation that they backed the right side is that a handful of silver medals arrive from the future (concealed as free gifts in a cereal packet) with “Hero of the Liberation”, “Heroine of the Liberation”, and (for Radnor) “Dog of the Future” written on them. This could well prove the Group’s good nature (after all, Levin could have just forgotten about them). But, at the same time, I can’t help noting how similar “Levin” is to “Lenin”. I’m sure Stalin handed out silver medals, too.

But, though not much is made of it in the story, I feel that Justin, following his time as Radnor the dog, was changed. Before the transference, he said he’d rather die than be punished in such a humiliating way. But perhaps the enforced reconnection with his animal side — the Group do sound slightly future-robotic with their stilted phrasing, implying a sort of imbalance on the intellectual side — has had some humanising effect:

“It is a relief to be able to look at things with my own eyes again — a dog’s vision is so different. But if you only knew how you all smelt!” Justin laughed. “Goodbye, Duncan, and my regards to Sammy and your sister. I have learned much from you all.”

There’s only one episode of Man Dog available to watch that I can find — and that in time-coded fuzzy-VHS quality on YouTube — so I’ve relied on the novelisation for most of the story details. (The novelisation was by Lois Lamplugh, based on Peter Dickinson’s scripts.) The novelisation, though, differs in small ways from the one TV episode I’ve been able to see, so it might not be a totally accurate guide to the TV series.

Cover to the novelisation

I’ve been wanting to find out more about Mandog/Man Dog since reading about it as a precursor to The Changes, as it feels like a crucial transition story into that peculiar style of 1970s kids’ telefantasy that includes Sky, The Changes, Children of the Stones, and so on: rich in ideas, often weirdly horrific stuff that mixes science fiction & the fantastic with an almost kitchen-sink-style realism, exploring themes of environmental precariousness and social change, and big questions about the oppressive influence of the past, as well as the potentially unpleasant possibilities of the future. Mandog isn’t, perhaps, as thematically heavy as those later shows, but it certainly feels like it has one foot firmly planted in (or one leg cocked over?) the new style of the 1970s. It has, after all, music by the Radiophonic Workshop. (On Wikipedia, the music is credited to Delia Derbyshire, but as @phantomcircuit pointed out on Twitter, the theme music is by John Baker. It’s called “Factors” on the 1968 BBC Radiophonic Music album, so it presumably started life as library music.)

It would be nice to see it cleaned up and given a DVD release, though as it hasn’t picked up the same sort of reputation as The Changes and Children of the Stones, it’s unlikely. And, of course, it could even be that not all the episodes survive.

(There’s a “Musty Books” look at Mandog over at The Haunted Generation that’s worth a read.)

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Necromancer by Robert Holdstock

1990 Futura paperback

First published in 1978, Necromancer was the third novel Holdstock had out under his own name — the previous two being science fiction, Eye Among the Blind (1976) and Earthwind (1977) — but he was already a prolific author under a number of pseudonyms, including of horror (Legend of the Werewolf and The Satanists as Robert Black), historical fantasy (the Beserker series as Chris Carlsen), and sword & sorcery (the Raven series as Richard Kirk, in collaboration as Angus Wells). Necromancer would take Holdstock a step further towards the sort of modern-age/stone-age culture-clash feel of Mythago Wood and his other Ryhope Wood novels (there has to be a name for it — Woadpunk?) without quite hitting that series’s startling originality. There are, though, still hints of Holdstock’s strengths, here.

The novel kicks off with Dr Lee Kline, a Californian archaeologist and historian working at an unspecified London “Institute”, travelling to the Berkshire town of Higham to find out more about what he calls “the Higham Fragment”, a chunk of stone with an ancient mark on it, that he believes came from a much larger sacred stone. His suspicions centre on the font in the now fire-ruined church of St Mary’s, and when he visits it, he meets June Hunter, mother of young Adrian, who was seemingly brain-damaged as a result of being dropped onto the font during his christening. June, though, believes her son’s mind became trapped in the stone as a result of the accident, and comes to the ruined church to speak to him. (She regards the silent, mostly inactive boy at home as nothing but a “zombie”, a “human shell”.) Kline begins to suspect there’s something stranger going on — that some dark force resides in the font, and that this force is behind a spate of local suicides as well as the Hunter family’s troubles, which aren’t limited to Adrian. (Their daughter, sixteen-year-old Karen, sleepwalks and maybe-dreams about night visits from a humanoid creature that urges her to follow it out of the house.)

Norman Adams art for the 1979 Avon paperback

Kline travels to France to enlist the help of Francoise Jeury, a woman who has been writing to him for some time with (in his opinion) crazy theories about the ancient stones near her home, and her ability to read the truth about the past by touching them. Kline sort of believes and sort of doesn’t. He believes Jeury might have the powers she says she has — and she convincingly demonstrates them by reading a little too much about his romantic past from a ring he wears — but he doesn’t believe all of her explanations for them. Psychic powers and poltergeist phenomena he can accept, but not the idea that there are entities best referred to as “demons” active among us. Jeury agrees to come back to England and help June and Adrian. As soon as she touches the font at St Mary’s though, she knows there’s a real nasty demon inside it.

This is, in a way, Holdstock’s version of The Exorcist. Not only does a malevolent entity speak through the young Adrian and give him bouts of destructive supernatural strength, but there’s a hypnotism scene where another boy — a local teen called Don Belsaint, whose family have long been associated with the font — is regressed to a past life, and starts speaking a guttural stone age tongue and thrashing about on the bed. The Belsaints, it seems, are linked to the font-stone as its guardians, their DNA somehow encoded with knowledge of the spell required to keep the creature known as Cruachos trapped within it. In this, the book feels like Holdstock’s version of Quatermass and the Pit, too, with its idea of behaviour programmed into human genes, waiting to be activated.

A different Futura paperback cover

Adrian, as a slightly demonic young boy, is something of a Holdstock type, as the feral, would-be-shaman character of a young and slightly manic boy appears in other Holdstock stories, from the unnamed artist-apprentice in his short 1976 story “Magic Man”, to Tig in Lavondyss. But the really Holdstockian element here is the glimpse we get of the stone age that Francoise Jeury accesses with her special powers:

“I see the past, and in a sense it lives for me, speaks to me. What I see there, apart from the way of life, and of death, is frightening. They play with magic, and with the soul of man. We always think of them as primitive, dressed in furs and chipping stone, but Lee… There was such awesome power in those days, such terrifying abilities to summon the dark spirits of a world which, when you think coldly about it, is this world, this earth on which we stand. The earth has not changed, man has! What was in the earth then is in the earth now…”

It’s an interesting novel, with a folk-horror-meets-Exorcist kind of appeal, if you can imagine such a thing. For me, the main characters were too abrasive — everyone argues constantly with everyone, and is all too keen to analyse one another’s motives in the most negative way, and at great length — for anyone in the novel to really get my sympathies, but the way the dark-magic-tinged world of our ancestors breaks into the modern world — the thing Holdstock does so well — I could certainly have done with more of.

The character of Francoise Jeury (who is the “necromancer” of the title) returns in a later Holdstock novel, The Fetch/Unknown Regions, from 1991, though I haven’t read it. I must get on with my Mythago series read.

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