The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

1986 paperback, art by Alun Hood

Researching Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows for a recent Mewsings, I was intrigued by the book that won the Carnegie Medal the year after it, Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting, which was published in 1982. Mahy, it turns out, was another who, like Westall, won the Carnegie twice.

The Haunting opens with young Barney Palmer seeing a ghost. He’s not entirely shocked, as he’s seen something similar before — though these were more by way of extremely vivid imaginary friends he’d had in his earlier years — but is a bit concerned by what the ghost says:

“Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.”

Barney’s full name is Barnaby, after his great uncle, and he can’t help wondering if the ghost is telling him he’s going to die. When he gets home he finds his two sisters (both older) waiting for him, mostly silent Troy (the oldest) and her wordy opposite Tabitha (who intends to be the world’s greatest living novelist). They’re bursting to tell him the news: Great Uncle Barnaby has died. Partly in relief, partly in fright, Barney faints.

1984 Heinemann HB

Great Uncle Barnaby Scholar is a relative on the children’s mother’s side. She died giving birth to Barney, and the Palmers haven’t since had much contact with the Scholars, particularly after the kids’ father remarried (to Claire, who, contrary to all YA novel expectations, is a wonderful step-mother, loved by her step-children). One of the reasons, perhaps, the Palmers have seen so little of the Scholars is that the Scholars are an off-putting bunch, largely due to their matriarch, Great Grandmother Scholar, a judgemental and unforgiving old woman whose intensely controlling way with her children has left them all slightly damaged. As Great Uncle Guy says:

“My mother wasn’t a woman who enjoyed having children… She would have preferred to have a set of chessmen, I think.”

And:

“She clipped and pruned us as if we were a family of standard roses.”

It turns out one child escaped her clipping and pruning — at least for a short while. Not present at the funeral, and not mentioned till the subject can’t be avoided, is Great Uncle Cole, the boy who ran away and was, it seems, drowned shortly after. He and his mother didn’t get on (they were “at war from the moment he was born”), and he’s since become, as Guy says, “a guilty secret, and it’s always been easier just to be silent.”

Orion PB, 2018

It’s evident, though, that Great Uncle Cole is still around in some form, for he’s the one haunting Barney. This is confirmed by a scrapbook Barney finds while at the Scholar household, containing a photo of Cole that looks exactly like the ghost he saw — and which immediately spawns inky words, writing themselves on the page before his eyes: “Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.” After this, Barney finds his world increasingly invaded by visions and messages from Cole, as well as the constant awareness of his presence:

“Someone was walking behind him — a long way off — still hidden in a misty distance but coming closer and closer, holding out a hand lined with the map of another world — a magical world, wise and beautiful perhaps, but not Barney’s own.”

The visions are:

“…little pictures, coming and going without warning… things that someone else was seeing… They were given to Barney as presents, as promises, for the person who was seeing these things thought they were beautiful and wanted to share them with someone.”

But they’re scary all the same, because Cole makes it clear he’s coming for Barney, to claim him and take him away, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Apple PB from 1987, which may be spoiling part of the plot

But while Barney lapses into despondency, his would-be-novelist sister Tabitha is keen to do something, because, in an unusual move for a ghost story, she also saw the writing appearing around the photo in the Scholar scrapbook, and needs no convincing it’s real. The only reason she can’t immediately enlist adult help is that Barney insists their stepmother Claire shouldn’t be told, because she’s pregnant, and Barney (whose birth resulted in the death of his natural mother) is terrified of causing Claire any worry in case it increases the chances that she might die, too.

Cole, Tabitha learns, is or was a “Scholar magician”, a type the family produce every generation or so, someone with “powers and peculiarities” that “have nearly always brought misfortune on them and on those around them”. They can make things happen, induce visions and create objects out of thin air. Cole’s powers seem too strong for Barney to resist, and he tells Barney he’s a Scholar magician too, and so is best separated from his “normal” family, just as Cole himself had to escape his.

The Haunting treads a line between the comic (usually when in the company of Tabitha, to whom everything is material for her novel) and the despondent (for Barney), and builds up to something like a supernatural equivalent of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, where a family get-together, plus an unexpected guest, results in a whole host of long-held secrets tumbling out into the open. (None of The Haunting’s were complete surprises to me as an adult reader, but may well have bowled me over in my early teens. Still, the revelation scene was very satisfying.)

Puffin 1999 cover, by Mark Preston

In essence, The Haunting is about how a family can become entirely skewed by its need to repress some innate characteristic. To all outward appearances such families are entirely “normal” — perhaps, even, a little too normal for comfort, being too regimented and controlled. Here, of course, that characteristic is magical ability, but I tend to read it as a metaphor for other, similar tendencies families can feel the need to repress, particularly in more buttoned-up times, such as creativity, sensitivity, particular emotions, or even all emotion. All of this is centred on Great Grandmother Scholar, who is unrepentant to the end, even when everything’s explained and in the open:

“I’m not one of your weak, whining ‘sorry’ people. I’m too old to be sorry for anything now.”

The Haunting was made into an hour-long children’s TV film in New Zealand (Margaret Mahy’s homeland) in 1987, as The Haunting of Barry Palmer. Perhaps because it was a co-production with a US network, it has some good effects for a kids’ TV show of the time (it seems to have had a slightly higher budget than an equivalent UK show, anyway), and only alters the plot to bring a bit more explicitly magical conflict on screen. (It can be seen, cut into 10-minute segments, at NZ On Screen. It’s probably on YouTube, too.)

(There seem to have been a few supernatural/science-fictional kids’ TV productions in New Zealand around the same time, and it’s a pity they’re not more available in the UK. There was Under the Mountain in 1981, based on Maurice Gee’s novel about telepathic twins, and the TV-original Children of the Dog Star in 1984, which features those two 80s standbys, unscrupulous property developers and child contact with aliens. I wonder if there are more. Do tell me if you know of any.)

Mahy’s second Carnegie win was for another supernatural YA, The Changeover (1984), and odds-on I’ll be reviewing that in Mewsings some time soon.

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The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

1981 HB, art by Gavin Rowe

Six years after the death of his father, 13-year-old Simon Wood (“Awkward age”, as one character puts it) learns his mother is to remarry. Simon pretty much worships his father, a major in the army who was killed in Aden in circumstances that hint he may have been acting a little more imperialistically than he should have. His mother’s new man, Joe Moreton, is his father’s opposite: “pacifist, ban-the-bomb”, an artist no less (a newspaper cartoonist and painter), a man who rose to success from a working class background, with the result that he has, to Simon’s mind, “too much money and no sense of how things were done”. Simon — who comes across as a bit of a snob, for instance in the way he’s ashamed of his school’s plastic guttering — finds him “animal and yobbish”.

Worse, Simon learns what’s going on not from his mother, but through an overheard conversation at the art gallery where she works. They’re having a show of Joe Moreton’s paintings and cartoons, and Simon, bored, drinks a few complimentary glasses of wine before hiding away behind some decorations. From there, he hears a couple of snide, gossipy patrons talking about Joe Moreton and “the brigadier’s daughter”. “Hot little lady, that one,” one says, before Simon realises they’re talking about his mother. I love how Westall describes the moment Simon is found and confronts his mother and Joe:

“Then suddenly, without a thing being said, everybody knew that everybody knew.”

PB, art by Alun Hood

The next thing, Simon’s mother is informing him they’re selling the family home in Croydon and she and Simon’s young sister Jane are moving up to Joe’s house in the village of Gorsley in Cheshire. Simon at first refuses to go with them. He’s a boarder at a private school, and is going to spend some of his holidays at an army camp. But when that’s finished, he relents and hitchhikes up to join them. (So we now have drinking alcohol and hitchhiking unaccompanied, both at age 13. There’s worse to come.) But he takes one look at how close his mother, sister, and Joe have already become — loving and playful, warm and far more domestic than his own father ever was — and just has to run away from it. Taking refuge in an abandoned mill in the next field, he spins a fantasy around three old coats hanging on the wall, of:

“…a mum who stayed home and was always there when you needed her; a father around who you could help and ask questions.”

But when he finds a starving cat and her kittens near the mill, he goes back to his mother so they can help the kittens. He can show a fierce, almost angry protectiveness for this helpless animal family, but can’t show affection for his own human one. He agrees to move in with his mother, sister, and step-father, but is constantly finding himself driven to destructive attacks against Joe and his mother. (As he owns his father’s army kit — his most precious possession — he at one point ends up with a loaded revolver. At age 13.) And this is where the supernatural starts to find its way in.

Puffin PB

Simon sees three scarecrows in the field by the old mill. They weren’t there before. He feels there’s something familiar about them, and finds himself constantly watching them. When he finally connects them with a story he’s heard about the mill — a love-triangle that turned murderous — and connects that with how he feels about his mother and her new husband, he starts to grow afraid. And each day, the scarecrows get closer. Even if Simon knocks them down, the next day they’re up on their stilts again, heading for him.

Simon obviously has “issues”. He has sudden, uncontrollable bursts of anger he calls his “devils”. The only emotion he’s been taught to process is fear, and that by his father, whose advice was to turn towards what you fear and deal with it in the most confrontational way — which may be what finished him off. This is why Simon’s grief for his father is so unacknowledged and unprocessed, until it becomes so strong it can only be dealt with as anger. And how does he deal with the many complex emotions brought up by his mother’s remarriage? Anger. And one of the first things we learn about Simon is that his anger, his “devils”, have left him “very frightened of himself”. So, if his only way of processing fear is through anger, and that anger makes him afraid of himself, it’s no wonder he’s messed up.

The scarecrows, seemingly driven to relive a past event through Simon’s pent-up emotion (a situation that recalls Alan Garner’s Owl Service and Penelope Lively’s Astercote) are themselves things of unresolved, frustrated anger:

“They had lived on their own hate for thirty years, and it was a thin, bitter, unsatisfying thing.”

US cover

Reading The Scarecrows is like being jostled between Simon’s increasingly unpleasant outbursts (calling his mother a whore, waving a loaded revolver) and how poorly he is dealt with by his mother and step-father. It’s evident nobody has helped him process the death of his father — he has been stuck away in a private school most of the time, with fellow pupils as likely to bully him as befriend him. While his sister has had plenty of time to get to know Joe Moreton as a person, and so love him as a stepfather, it’s a done deal by the time Simon gets to know him. And while his mother, thanks to Joe, is only now learning how unloving her first husband was, how self-destructive and ultimately afraid of the human part of life — “afraid of going grey, getting old, coming home every night and letting the kids jump all over him while he was watching the telly” — she doesn’t give any thought to how having such a father must have affected Simon, how it must have taught him all the wrong ideas about what it was to be a man. “I never knew what love was, till I met you,” she tells Joe, but doesn’t seem capable of passing the lesson on to her much-in-need-of-it son. It’s a situation of emotional blindness in one generation inculcating it in the next, and so perpetuating the misery.

The Scarecrows was first published in 1981, and won the Carnegie Medal (making Westall the first person to win it twice). Published for the first time today, I think any review would likely bring up the term “toxic masculinity”. For here we get a look at its origins in the ways some families deal — or don’t — with that “awkward age”, and with such supposedly un-masculine emotions as grief and vulnerability. Troubled boys, forced to act like little soldiers, become hounded by devils, and end up acting like them.

Penguin 2016 cover

The Scarecrows doesn’t spell this out, but leaves it to the reader to judge both Simon and his situation, which seems to be another characteristic of the more powerful YA novels of that era — an often unflinching harshness of material, dealt with in a very matter-of-fact style, and no explicit authorial judgement. In this way it reminds me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift and William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But also of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, proving it’s not just a thing of that era, after all.

I didn’t feel The Scarecrows had quite the cathartic resolution it needed — I’ve no sense that anything is definitely going to change for Simon, though it’s certainly not as bleak as Garner’s Red Shift — but it’s a powerful novel all the same, and certainly makes me want to read more from Westall.

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

cover illustration by Jim Kay

Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s been through it before, and both she and he talk as if this were just one more round of treatments, horrible to go through, but necessary to get her better again. Only, the treatments aren’t working and she’s not getting better. Meanwhile, Conor is being bullied at school, something he endures so stoically it’s almost as if he welcomes the punishment, and also has to put up with being looked after by his grandmother, a busy, efficient and scrupulously tidy woman not used to having to deal with a troubled boy.

And Conor is troubled. He’s wilfully isolated at school and hopeless about the future. He knows, deep down, what’s going to happen to his mother, and knows it will mean he’ll either have to live with his grandmother, whom he hates, or his divorced father, who’s far more interested in the new family he’s started in America.

And then, to top it all, Conor is visited by a monster. Woken in the darkest hour from a recurring nightmare, he sees the yew tree from the graveyard at the back of his house form itself into a monster and come to stand outside his bedroom window.

It’s not there to frighten him, though. It’s there to help him. Only, not in an easy or obvious way:

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley… I will come to you again on further nights… And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before… And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.

The stories the monster tells are far from comforting. And after each telling, Conor finds himself landed with some massive inconvenience to have to deal with, like a floor covered in twigs or yew-berries. (It gets much worse later on.)

A Monster Calls coverI found A Monster Calls an utterly compelling read. Patrick Ness (working from an idea from author Siobhan Dowd) follows Conor into some pretty dark, uncomfortable situations, and part of the compulsion in reading is to see how Ness deals with what is, after all, an awful situation. It’s obvious there’s no magic waiting in the wings to cure Conor’s mother. So how can it be turned into a story that ends in anything but despair?

Most of the trouble in the story is caused by the fact that nobody can come out and admit that Conor’s mother is dying — not Conor, not his mother, not any of the largely well-meaning but helpless adults — but then again, who could? It is, then, ultimately a story about having to face a cold, brutal, and unavoidable truth when you’re the only person who can force yourself to face it.

There’s something a little Pan’s Labyrinth about A Monster Calls. In both, we have a young protagonist — thirteen years old in the case of Conor O’Malley, about eleven in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia — visited by a monster on three significant occasions, each time with a challenge (or, in Conor’s case, a story, which are all pretty challenging). Both Conor and Ofelia are in similar situations, each having only one proper parent — and a sick one, at that — whose sickness puts their child in the care of a less-than-satisfactory replacement (Conor’s grandmother, Ofelia’s stepfather). In both, there’s a feeling that not only is the child protagonist on the verge of adolescence, but are also about to be abruptly exposed, with no parental protection, to a grim and uncaring world.

In mixing very fairy-tale like fantasy with brutal reality, both Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls seem to be asking what use the happily-ever-after promises of fairy tales can be in such an un-fairy-tale-like world that contains things like fascism and cancer. In both cases, though, stories are seen as vital ways of learning to adjust to that reality, never as a means of escape or retreat from it.

Early on in A Monster Calls, the monster says:

Stories are the wildest things of all… Stories chase and bite and hunt.

And I found myself thinking, at first, this was just the sort of thing writers like to write about their art, but was it merely self-congratulatory rhetoric and hand-waving sorcery, or was it true?

A Monster Calls, US coverCertainly, a story like this — a story nobody forced me to read, and which I happily and hungrily devoured on my own — can take you into some pretty uncomfortable situations, ones you wouldn’t leap into cold. So, reading A Monster Calls really did feel, at times, like riding a wild rapid, being jolted and knocked at every bend, with the very real-seeming threat of being completely thrown.

What kept me reading was, I suppose, the promise the monster made — ‘And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.’ — and my wanting to know what the fourth story, that truth, would or even could be. It was the very uncompromising nature of the book, and how it dealt with the situation of a young teen faced with his mother’s terminal illness, that compelled me to read. Had Patrick Ness at any point shied from being as unflinching as he was, I might easily have lost faith in the book. As it was, I think the result was spot on.

One thing I was glad to note was how the monster introduced himself:

I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!

Good to see the Deer-antlered One is still plying his weird, wild trade with Britain’s youth!

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