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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