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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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

Art by Jonny Duddle

…So, maybe bathrooms aren’t that important in the Harry Potter series, as they don’t feature at all in the third book. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) feels different in a number of ways from the first two books. The basic elements of a Harry Potter story are here — the eruption of magic into the Dursley’s ultra-mundane lives at the start, leading to a spectacular magical-form-of-transport escape (this time the Knight Bus), a visit to Diagon Alley (the Harry Potter equivalent of James Bond’s visits to Q before a mission), a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher first encountered outside of Hogwarts, Quidditch, Quidditch, and more damned Quidditch (too much Quidditch in this one), a dark character assumed to be the cause of the main evil but who turns out not to be (previously Snape, then Malfoy, now Sirius Black), an underground chamber (or at least one reached by an underground tunnel) where we get a long exposition before a showdown with the actual evil… But some of the other elements I listed as part of the Harry Potter “formula” in my entry on The Chamber of Secrets are getting a lot more tenuous. The magical item unknowingly acquired in Diagon Alley that turns out to drive the rest of the plot, here, is Ron’s rat. He’s been around for a lot longer, of course, but his oddity (his long-livedness) gets highlighted in Diagon Alley for the first time. Ron and Harry don’t, as they do in the last two books, venture into the Forbidden Forest to meet a dangerous-but-neutral magical creature and gain a vital clue, but Sirius Black has been living in the Forbidden Forest for most of the novel; he just comes out to meet them. And the usual resolution, where Harry pulls a magical object out of an item of clothing — a pocket, a hat — might in this case be fulfilled by Peter Pettigrew, who emerges from Ron’s pocket.

Cliff Wright cover

Perhaps most different to the previous two books is that this is the first in the series (the only one, I think) not to feature a personal appearance by Voldemort (or even a fragment of him). This easily might not have worked — normally, you’d expect each book in a series to up the stakes each time — but actually it allows for a much more satisfying and complex resolution, as it can’t all be explained away as the actions of pure evil, but of human beings in all their complexity of flaws, failures, and virtues. By not featuring Voldemort, the third Harry Potter book actually takes the series up a notch in terms of moral and emotional complexity.

I do think that this book — which is half again as long as either of the previous two — feels a bit baggy in the middle, with a lot less focus, and a few scenes on the soap-opera-ish side that add a little colour to the characters but nothing to the plot. Plus, it’s particularly Quidditchy, and Quidditch — whose matches are, in a way, echoes of the main story’s Eucatastrophic endings, with Harry snatching the Snitch out of nowhere to win the game, just as he pulls a Philosopher’s Stone from his pocket, or the Sword of Gryffindor from a hat — feel a bit manipulative in story terms, as it’s all about Harry feeling bad (when his team loses) or good (when he wins), but without gaining any knowledge or interesting experience en route. (Except for the usual mid-match attempts on his life, I suppose.)

But the ending, as I say, is the best so far — helped no end by being a double ending, as the final events are replayed by Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner, giving them a much-needed nudge towards another (but not wholly) happy ending. That’s satisfying on a plot level (and it’s done even better in the film, where they have a lot more fun with it), but there’s also deeper emotional satisfaction in Harry’s finding he’s gained a godfather and thinking at one point he’s seen his father.

Brian Selznick cover

There’s a lot more of a personal connection between Harry and the past events that drive this book, too. There’s always the connection of Harry wanting to get his own back on Voldemort for killing his parents, of course, but here we learn a lot more about Harry’s father and his friends at school, and how one of them betrayed him, and how another took the blame. We also learn that Harry’s father and his friends weren’t entirely “good”, as they played a prank on a young Severus Snape (who, in this book, is at his most venomous and mean) that could have killed him. For added poignance, we get to witness a moment whose significance it’s easy to miss, as it’s not underlined in the text, as Harry finds himself in a position very similar to that of Voldemort on the fateful night when his parents died. Voldemort wanted to kill baby Harry, but Lily Potter stood in the way; now, we see Harry wanting to kill Sirius Black (who he thinks is responsible for his parents’ death), only to have Crookshanks the cat leap in the way. It’s like a test of how different Harry is from Voldemort — or, maybe, it’s a living flashback. And Harry’s been having plenty of those, thanks to the Dementors bringing back in vivid detail his mother’s screams on the night she died.

Olly Moss ebook cover

I said in my entry about The Chamber of Secrets that memory and memory-related magic were important to the series, and it’s even more true in this book. Rowling finds all sorts of ways of bringing the past alive as a living force. It can be in characters who were thought to be dead coming back to life (Peter Pettigrew), Harry’s Dementor-driven flashbacks (traumatic memory as a source of weakness), or the counter to them, where positive memories can power a Patronus (memory as a source of strength). Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner to revisit their own close past and make a few changes is like another version of the series’ use of relived memories (the Mirror of Erised in Stone, Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber, and Dumbledore’s Pensieve later on). Meanwhile, the malleability of memories and stories about the past are highlighted by Peter Pettigrew’s faking his own death to frame Sirius, but also perhaps in this book’s other memory-themed thread, Divination, where prophecies are a sort of memory of the future, and just as deceptive as memories of the past. (And just as powerful in their ability to reshape the world, too, as comes clear in a later book, where we learn Voldemort’s motive in seeking Harry that night — and thus bringing about his own demise — was down to his believing one particular prophecy.)

Recovering — and correcting — memories and stories of the past, in this book, are part of Harry’s role as a truth-seeker, which can lead not just to a sense of the truth revealed but to a righting of wrongs. Given the chance to kill Pettigrew, the man who brought about his parents’ death, Harry decides to hand him over so his story can be told, meaning not only will Pettigrew get his proper punishment, but Sirius Black can be absolved. As Dumbledore says, in one of his wise summings up at the end of the book:

“Didn’t make any difference?” said Dumbledore quietly. “It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.”

Kazu Kibuishi cover

And it’s no surprise that a book with such a title as The Prisoner of Azkaban is full of prisons both literal and metaphorical, as well as escapes from them. There’s Harry’s escape from the Dursleys in a burst of magic (and a certain amount of wild-talent psychokinesis, too, which makes this now-teen resemble Stephen King’s Carrie, in a way — both get locked in cupboards by their parent/guardians, after all). There’s Sirius’s escape from Azkaban. There’s Harry’s being told to stay at the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley till he’s released by the arrival of the Weasley clan. There’s Buckbeak’s escape from a sentence of death. There’s Pettigrew’s escape from a self-imposed imprisonment as Ron’s rat. Hogwarts becomes a sort of prison for Harry when he doesn’t have the signed form to let him visit Hogsmeade — until he escapes with the aid of his sneaky magical possessions, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Marauder’s Map. Hermione gets herself trapped in a self-imposed prison of too much schoolwork, till she sets herself free by admitting how much she’s expecting of herself (which is also part of the theme of mental illness that runs through the book, including Lupin’s self-injuring when he struggles with his wolf-side, Harry’s traumatic flashbacks, Sirius Black’s purported “madness”, and Hagrid’s despair at Buckbeak’s fate). Harry learns to escape a little from his own past, too, by learning to counter the traumatic memories the Dementors bring out in him. (And I can’t help likening Harry’s fainting fits before the dark-hooded Dementors to a wounded Frodo’s wooziness before the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings.)

Along with this theme of imprisonment and freedom is one of punishment and retribution. As usual, it’s introduced in comic form in the Dursley section, with Harry having to pretend he goes to school at “St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys”, which leads Aunt Marge to ask if he’s “beaten often”. Uncle Vernon, meanwhile, on hearing the Muggle-friendly version of Sirius Black’s supposed atrocities, asks:

“When will they learn,” said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?”

Back cover of UK paperback, art by Cliff Wright

While the series has had dark moments from the start, they become less comic and more oppressive in The Prisoner of Azkaban, with its decidedly Gothic tinges of trauma, betrayal, depression, and madness. This is all part of the series’, and its main characters’, growing up. (Their entry into adolescence — the start of their transformation from childhood to adulthood — is perhaps heralded by the four key figures from the past, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, all being animagi, wizards who can transform themselves.) Harry is more outspoken against the Dursleys, and experiences a killing hatred in this book, something I don’t feel would fit in the previous two. Perhaps the ultimate sign of his growing up is that he at one point mistakes himself for his own father. Hermione, meanwhile, learns not to expect so much of herself, and indulges in a little uncharacteristic rule-breaking. Ron, um… Well, Ron learns to get over the loss of his rat.

(And it’s nice to see that, as Harry’s Patronus is a stag, he’s joining other YA protagonists covered on this blog — Stag Boy, A Monster Calls — in allying with the horned god Cernunnos.)

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