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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The Visitor by Josephine Poole

Jacket by Gabriel Lisowski

The mysterious Mr Bogle arrives in Cormundy Village to perform some ‘light tutoring’ duties for fifteen-year-old Harry Longshaw, who (as with other protagonists of children’s fiction, like Marianne in Marianne Dreams and Henry in The Night-Watchmen) is out of school recovering from a fever that (like Mark in Marianne Dreams and Colin in The Secret Garden) has left him with difficulties walking. Harry and his older sister Margaret live alone (their parents being dead) at a large house called Fury Wood, which they’re about to sell, as Margaret is marrying Rupert Musgrave, a young man newly moved into the village, who has plans to revive its farms and mills with new machinery and modern methods. Harry takes an instant dislike to Mr Bogle, with his goat’s foot inkstand and coat of tabby-cat fur, and who claims to have a scholarly interest in witches. Bogle says Fury Wood is built on land where, long ago:

‘The trees were cut down and burnt, and the spring filled in; that was the usual procedure when they were mopping up witchcraft.’

When not tutoring Harry, Mr Bogle is not exactly to be found doing local research. Instead, he’s seen dancing the ancient Horn Dance in the local square, a ludicrous-looking performance (to Harry’s eyes, anyway) that for some reason fascinates the village adults, the men especially. Later, Bogle urges the village’s out-of-work men into flights of resentful nostalgia with a (surely magical) film show evoking their lost past:

‘And that old school… remember the horseshoes and hopscotch, and a week off from lessons at haymaking time? Are your own kiddies any better for their posh education? It’ll take them away from you in the end, away from the village… But that’s progress, I suppose.’

Inscribed above the fireplace in Harry’s room is a line from Virgil — ‘Arise, thou avenger to come, out of my ashes’ — which Mr Bogle says refers to the execution of the local witches. And it soon becomes obvious he not only believes the ‘avenger to come’ is himself, but that he is not merely the gentleman-scholar he seems:

‘Mr. Bogle frowned and drew the curtain behind him. He disliked the habit of swearing. People were too apt to take his own name in vain.’

I came across mention of this book while looking for reviews and information on William Rayner’s Stag Boy, and found a post at the Whistles in the Wind blog, which mentions The Visitor (released in the UK as Billy Buck, which is what some of the villagers call Mr Bogle), alongside Stag Boy and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (which I reviewed here), all of which were published at the start of the 1970s, and which share a lot of common characteristics. All three, for instance, feature teen protagonists caught in a struggle between the old ways and the new in otherwise quiet English villages. In The Visitor, Rupert says of Cormundy:

‘The village is dead all right, with people out of work, and buildings standing useless and empty. But one rich man could start the ball rolling again…’

Rupert is that rich man, and it’s significant that the final action of the novel takes place before a church where, the next day, Harry’s sister Margaret (representing old village stock) is to marry the forward-thinking Rupert. (Margaret is also linked, through her flower-spotted wedding dress, to the May Queen, thus representing new life and hope in contrast to the village’s wintry despondency.) Mr Bogle, on the other hand, is set to wear the costume of antler-headed Cernunnos in his own secret revival of the Horn Dance pageant, making him yet another character in early 1970s YA fiction to assume stag’s horns, and to revive an ancient festival. Bogle plans to use that pageant, though, as a means of exacting his long-overdue revenge for the burned witches. (Which makes you wonder why he waited so long.)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Stag Boy, where the battle between the old and new is tied up intimately with the teen protagonists’ inner struggles between childhood and adolescence, Harry of The Visitor doesn’t really have an inner struggle going on, and the story isn’t as focused on him as the Lively and Rayner books are on their central characters. In addition, the forces of paganism which, in Hagworthy and Stag Boy, are dangerous and alluring, but which also point towards valuable but little-acknowledged truths about the wider world, are here reduced to nothing more than wrongheaded forces of backwards-thinking superstition. There isn’t the same ambiguity, so The Visitor, for me, doesn’t pack the same inner tussle, the same sense of brushing against wider, weirder, darker truths. Paganism, in The Visitor (aside from the identification of Margaret with the Queen of the May), is simply deviltry by another name, and Mr Bogle, in the end, is a rather pallid Devil.

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Astercote, The Whispering Knights, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

In Astercote (1970), when a chalice known only as ‘the Thing’, which is supposed to have protected the village of Charlton Underwood from the Black Death in medieval times, goes missing, the modern-day villagers begin to cut themselves off from the outside, and chalk white crosses — indicators of infection — on houses where people are showing the slightest sign of being unwell. In The Whispering Knights (1971), three children, bored in their school holidays, boil up a witches’ brew (or the closest they can get to it — ordering frogs’ legs from a London shop, for instance, but having to use drawings for some of the more hard-to-obtain ingredients, like the wing of a bat) in a barn supposedly once inhabited by a real witch, and manage to bring themselves and their village to the attention of an increasingly baleful supernatural presence. In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (also 1971), a new vicar (‘Frightfully nice man — full of ideas’) decides to revive the quaint old Horn Dance of Hagworthy as part of a fête to raise money for the church roof. But the Dance is linked with the far more ancient and powerful Wild Hunt, which isn’t something any of the village oldsters want to see revived.

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Penelope Lively’s first three books for young teens are characteristic of a type of British YA fiction in the late 60s and early 70s (as well as the TV shows of the time, like Children of the Stones, or The Changes), mixing Famous Five-ish ‘what we did on our holidays’ adventure with touches of 1960s kitchen sink realism and incursions of the folkloristic supernatural. The Whispering Knights is the most Famous Five-ish, with the characters feeling a little light and cartoonish, and the adventures being mostly episodic. (It’s also the most explicitly supernatural of the three.) The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, on the other hand, has the most realistic development of its two lead characters, with the slightly withdrawn Lucy Clough and the rebellious Kester Lang both feeling like proper teenagers. And, in both The Wild Hunt and Astercote, the supernatural is more a psychological force than an external one, working through people’s superstitions and prejudices more than through actual manifestation. (Though manifestations do occur.)

At the heart of each book is an abuse of something traditional and sacred, something tied to the village as a continuing way of life, but also to the dark, dangerous forces of superstition and the supernatural. This means there’s an odd tension in each story, with the sacred thing — be it an object, such as the chalice in Astercote, or a practice, like the Horn Dance in The Wild Hunt — needing at once to be preserved, and to be hidden away or suppressed; protected for the village, and from the villagers.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In both Astercote and The Wild Hunt, the sacred thing is abused for financial reward (even if, in one case, it’s for the repair of a church roof). In The Whispering Knights, it’s the children’s playing at witchcraft that feels like an abuse, even though it isn’t done for gain; afterwards, with the witch Morgan on the loose, it’s village life itself that comes under threat, when the newly-embodied witch marries a local factory owner, and gets a proposed motorway’s route altered to take it straight through the centre of the village. At first, the children who summon Morgan are told that she thrives on superstition, and that their best weapon against her is reason; later, it’s their very belief in her — that she represents a supernatural threat, rather than just a physical one — that means they can combat her in the proper way, and so save their village.

If there is a right way to deal with the sacred in these three books, it seems to be to revere the idea of it, while keeping the reality hidden away. This is most obvious in the attitude of Kester Lang’s uncle, the blacksmith of Hagworthy, towards the Wild Hunt. On the one hand, he says:

‘It were a great thing, once, the Hunt. Nothing to be afraid of. It were a splendid thing…’

But, at the same time, it was ‘not for a man to look on with his eyes’:

‘Because once you seen them you’re a part of them, aren’t you, girl? You’re with them under the same sky and treading the same ground. And they’re a Hunt, aren’t they? They have to hunt something, or someone, don’t they?’

This ambivalence may explain what I found to be the main fault of the first two books (and present in the third, but not as a fault), in that, in each case, once it was obvious, quite early on, what the problem was — a missing chalice, a summoned witch — the teen protagonists don’t really do anything, but sit around watching events unfold, and only right near the end suddenly clock that some action needs to be taken. The Wild Hunt has a similar delay, but in this case the time when nothing happens is used to build tension and deepen the characters’ relationships. Perhaps it’s significant that in this book the building supernatural tension causes a split between the two main characters, Lucy and Kester, and they have to heal that rift before they can act, together, against the supernatural.

Red Shift by Alan GarnerThis idea of a threatened sacred ‘thing’ (chalice, village life, dance) reminds me of the similar ‘sacred thing’ in Alan Garner’s novels — usually a nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but in fact deeply important object which comes to stand for a precious relationship, or a person’s identity, or the sacredness of the landscape itself — but in these three of Lively’s YA books, this ambivalence, this need to treat the sacred as both easily endangered and supernaturally dangerous, adds an interesting layer of complexity, even if it isn’t explored as deeply as in Garner’s novels.

The teens in these late-60s/early-70s ‘folk-fantasy’ style YA books are liminal creatures, existing on the border between the past and the future, tradition and progress, rational knowledge and irrational imagination, just as they’re hovering on the verge of adulthood. They listen to the old folks’ superstitions and take them seriously; they believe in the strange things they themselves see and hear; but they also believe these things can be changed, challenged, and faced, which (usually) the overly superstitious old folks don’t.

There’s a real feeling in these books (both Lively’s and others of the time) of being at an important cultural crossroads, with the possibility of genuinely sacred things being put at risk from a galloping, money-minded modernity, severing life from the quiet meaningfulness symbolised by village life, while also needing to take a properly rationalistic attitude towards the prejudices and superstitions of the past. It’s not, in any of these books, a clear-cut choice, and all of them end with a feeling of real peril as the forces of the irrational are let loose in a series of wild hunts (be they motorbike gangs, ancient witches in modern limousines, or stag-antlered faerie men with green-flame-eyed dogs) across stormy but beautifully-described landscapes.

To me, there’s something haunting about that cultural crossroads. Is it just nostalgia on my part? Or was there something genuinely sacred — some idea or ideal — which was lost in a battle with modernity midway through the 1970s?

(I was prompted to read these three novels after listening to The Heartwood Institute’s two albums inspired by them, both available at Bandcamp, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Astercote.)

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