Archives for category: Ghost Story

As we’re still within the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I’m going to continue the theme of Christmas ghost stories by recommending “The Inn at the Edge of the World” by British author, Alice Thomas Ellis. This novel was first published in 1990. Second-hand paperback copies are easy to find and it has recently become available as an ebook. Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) was renowned as a literary editor and novelist so she may not seem an obvious choice for Fantasy Reads. However, she often drew inspiration from British folklore and many of her novels feature elements which can be interpreted as supernatural.

“The Inn at the Edge of the World” is set on an (unnamed) island off the west coast of Scotland. Eric has left the “horrid comfort” of a boring life in England to fulfill his romantic dream of running a small hotel “at the edge of the world”. It isn’t going well. The inn is unprofitable, Eric doesn’t get on with most of the locals and his bored wife, Mabel, longs to return to city life. In a last effort to drum up custom, Eric places an advert suggesting that people who are dreading the Festive Season should come to stay in his remote hotel in a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas – the islanders get drunk on New Year’s Eve instead.

Mabel thinks that the advert is silly but it attracts five guests from England. She flounces off to Glasgow just as these visitors arrive on the island. They are Jessica, a charming actress best known for doing voice-overs for commercials, Jon, a handsome young actor who claims to be much better acquainted with Jessica than he actually is, Ronald, a psychoanalyst whose wife has just left him, Anita, who runs the stationary section in a London department store, and Harry, a retired soldier who once lived on the island. Eric manages to look after his guests with the help of local handyman, Finlay, and his silent, web-fingered sister-in-law.

The five guests socialize with the regular customers in Eric’s bar, who are mainly well-off people from the mainland with holiday homes on the island. The true islanders prove harder to fathom. Several of the guests join in a ghost-hunt and Jessica learns about tragic events in Harry’s past. As everyone tries to ignore the season of goodwill, there are disquieting incidents – a fence is repeatedly torn down, a mysterious boy keeps appearing near the inn and the local seals behave strangely. It gradually becomes apparent that one of Eric’s guests is in danger and another is probably insane. Who will survive Christmas at the edge of the world?

Alice Thomas Ellis was the pen-name of Anna Haycraft. Like Alison Uttley (see my last post), Haycraft was a woman of fascinating contradictions. Though she came from a family of atheist intellectuals, she grew up to be both a devout Roman Catholic and a fierce critic of the Catholic Church. She nearly became a nun but eventually married a publisher and had seven children. She spent most of her time in cities but seems to have felt most of home deep in the Welsh countryside. Her lifestyle was famously Bohemian but her writing was highly disciplined. Her novels are black comedies which deal with serious moral and spiritual issues. Haycraft claimed to reject Feminism but the heroines of her novels are often strong, free-thinking and free-loving women.

None of Haycraft’s elusive novels fit neatly into established genres. I might classify “The Island at the Edge of the World” as Literary Fantasy but it could also be called a social comedy, a ghost story, a moral tale, or even a “woman in peril” thriller. Let’s take the comedy first. Haycraft’s accounts of her chaotic domestic life, collected as “Home Life” volumes I-IV, are among the funniest books I know and a great consolation to hopeless homemakers everywhere. Her novels are comic in a much darker way, so don’t expect sweetness, sentimentality or conventional happy endings. Haycraft enjoyed taking urban sophisticates out of their comfort zone and subjecting them to boredom and bafflement in the countryside until their certainties are stripped away. In this novel she shows little mercy towards comic characters like pompous Ronald and pretentious Anita. Ronald is depicted as a man stuffed with academic knowledge about the human psyche who hasn’t a clue about how to relate to actual human beings. I do feel that Haycraft is a bit hard on poor Anita, who pretends to be a fashion-buyer because clothes are more glamorous than stationary and longs to be thought of as a “real woman”.

Critics have often found the mix of comedy and tragedy in Haycraft’s novels unsettling but part of the point of “The Inn at the Edge of the World” is that most of its characters don’t know what kind of story they are in. For some, their stay on the island will be a comedy of errors; for others a shocking tragedy or a longed-for release. Jessica mocks the melodramatic plight of the heroine of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (the only novel she has with her)  not realizing that she herself has been cast as the central figure in somebody’s grand obsession. Only Harry, a man who has lost two loved ones in the prime of their lives, expects the island’s ghosts and journeys clear-eyed towards his destiny. Haycraft herself had to endure the deaths of two of her children. She writes about life-long grief in a precise and understated way that I find intensely moving.

The supernatural elements in “The Inn at the Edge of the World” enhance both the tragic and comic aspects of the story. The novel’s viewpoint characters – Eric and his five guests – are all outsiders in the context of the island. Cynical Eric is scathing about the bogus crafts and customs which the islanders sell to tourists but is unaware of the deeper level at which ancient ways and beliefs continue. Most of Eric’s customers think of themselves as superior to the superstitious locals but it is the visitors who aren’t seeing things clearly. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the visitors’ failure to recognize ghostly encounters while they are having them or to notice the extraordinary, even when it is serving them breakfast. Like Margo Lanagan in her brilliantly written novel, “The Brides of Rollrock Island” (see my Fantasy Reads post of November 2013), Haycraft has updated the legend of seal-woman (Selkies) who marry humans, with emphasis on the domestic drudgery they are subjected to.

One of the things I like about Haycraft’s work is the way that she transforms unsympathetic characters by giving them what I would call luminous moments. Eric’s barely suppressed hatred for his customers is played for laughs but he has moments when he is still overwhelmed by the wild beauty of the island. Something he glimpses in the final part of the story alters his perception of the boundary between life and death. Actress Jessica is sometimes vain and shallow but she is redeemed by kind impulses and flashes of self-awareness. Jessica experiences both physical and spiritual danger on the island and realizes that turning her back on Christmas is a symptom of turning her back on life. There is no tinsel or jollity in this Christmas story but “The Inn at the Edge of the World” still makes you believe in the importance of celebrating human contacts and the renewal of hope at the darkest time of the year. Until next year….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

My seasonal recommendation this year is a time-slip story which ends with Christmas celebrations in two different eras. “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley is a very English Children’s Classic which was first published in 1939. I don’t think it has ever been out of print so there are numerous editions out there. This novel has been illustrated by many different artists but I like the detailed drawings of Faith Jaques (1977). You can also get “A Traveller in Time” as an ebook or an audio book and a BBC television dramatization from the 1970s is now available on DVD.

“I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl.” Penelope begins by looking back to her childhood in the early 20th century when she lived in London with her parents and her older brother and sister. This sickly and imaginative child alarms her mother with stories about people no-one else can see. All three siblings are sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Cicely (Tissie) and Great-Uncle Barnabas Taberner in rural Derbyshire. The Taberners live at Thackers Farm, an ancient building which was once part of a grand manor house belonging to the Babington family. The children enjoy learning about old-fashioned country ways and helping their great-uncle with his farm-work.

Penelope is the only one to discover “the secret of Thackers”. She glimpses a strange girl in her bedroom mirror and when she opens an upstairs door she encounters four women in elaborate period dress playing a game with ivory counters. Penelope is convinced that the women were real and that they could see her too. Great-Aunt Tissie tells her that some females in the Taberner family are able to see and interact with people who lived at Thackers in past centuries. From time to time, Penelope finds herself slipping back into the 16th century. She meets various members of the Babington family and their housekeeper, Dame Cicely, who is the image of Great-Aunt Tissie. Penelope is accepted as a niece of Dame Cicely, who occasionally visits from London.

Though she cannot control her travels in time and fears being trapped in the past, Penelope becomes deeply involved in the lives of the Babingtons and their devoted servants. The Babington family are Papists (Roman Catholics) living under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They are forced to practice their religion in secret. The head of the family, Anthony Babington, is a courtier of Queen Elizabeth but his true loyalty is to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Anthony risks the safety of everyone at Thackers by plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Penelope becomes a witness to a daring plan to free Mary Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Castle. As the year 1584 draws to a close, the Babingtons are in danger of being arrested for treason and Penelope herself is at risk from an accusation of sorcery….

When you were a small child, did your parents read you any of Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” books? Mine did and I adored these gentle stories – the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Later, I identified strongly with the heroine of Uttley’s “A Country Child”, a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up on a farm. Most of all though I loved “A Traveller in Time”, a book I borrowed over and over again from my school library. Until recently I’d never known much about Uttley herself. When I looked up accounts of her life, including one on the website of the Alison Uttley Society (www.alisonuttley.co.uk) I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her character.

She was brought up in a Derbyshire village and remembered every detail of her rural childhood with astonishing clarity. Uttley seems to have clung to country ways, such as belief in the existence of fairies, yet her passion was science. In 1906 she was one of the first women to get a Physics degree from Manchester University and she became a science teacher. Uttley married and had a son but her husband’s mental health never recovered from his experiences fighting in the First World War. After he committed suicide, Uttley started writing children’s books to support herself and her son. Much of her fiction is sweet and tranquil but she had the reputation of being a difficult woman to get on with. I like difficult women.

Knowing something about Uttley’s life has helped me to understand why I have always found “A Traveller in Time”  so convincing. Uttley spent her early years on a farm close to the manor house which she calls Thackers and she grew up hearing stories about “the Babington Plot”. She gives Penelope a childhood similar to her own and the domestic details of country life are lovingly described. Penelope may be frail and bookish but she enjoys feeding chickens and pigs and helping with the haymaking. Uttley’s account of everyday life in the 16th century manor house rings just as true. She is particularly good at gardens – “Pale lilies-of-the-valley and blood-red primulas were out with bees hovering round them from the straw skeps perched on stone stools” and food – “ham baked in honey syrup and spiked with cloves, and brawn and pigs’ pettitoes soused, and tansy puddings.” Uttley makes her readers into time-travellers by transporting us back to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the 16th century.

In her preface to “A Traveller in Time”, Uttley made the startling claim that, “Many of the incidents in the story are based on my dreams” in which she “talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence.” Many of the time-slip episodes do have a dream-like quality, especially when Penelope sees people from different eras occupying the same space – “Each set of figures kept distinct, neither was aware of the other, and the farmer walked through them as if they were films of smoke”. However, it’s also clear that this story has been influenced by scientific theories about time and space which Uttley must have studied as part of her Physics course. Time travel isn’t just a plot device in this novel and the heroine isn’t just a plucky girl who has adventures in a more exciting era than her own. Penelope thinks very hard about what is happening to her and what it might tell her about the nature of reality.

I nearly recommended this book during “Ghost Month” (October) on Fantasy Reads because, essentially. “A Traveller in Time” is a reverse ghost story. Modern girl Penelope is haunting the 16th century characters, sometimes frightening them with glimpses of their future. In the most poignant scene in the book, Penelope tries to warn doomed Mary Queen of Scots against agreeing to Anthony Babbington’s plan but Mary only sees her as a sorrowful phantom and complains that, “The world is full of ghosts for me. There is no peace or happiness left.” The more time Penelope spends in the past, the harder she finds it to remember her knowledge of the future. This seems logical and adds tension to the story. When she is in the 16th century, Penelope is charmed by the captive queen and it almost seems as if history can be altered but when she returns to her present, Penelope is reminded of the terrible consequences of Mary’s reckless behaviour.

Penelope’s account of her childhood experiences is tinged with sadness – she cannot stay in the past with people she has come to love and she cannot change their ultimate fate – but this isn’t a depressing book. The story leaves the Babbingtons enjoying their last “glorious Christmas”, complete with Yule Log, garlands of fir, holly and bay, a Wassail Cup, a Boar’s Head and a model of Thackers made out of marchpane (marzipan). History remembers the Babbingtons as wicked or tragic but Penelope has shared their hopes and joys. The novel suggests that somewhere in the layers of time these golden moments continue to exist. Penelope comes back from the past able to live more intensely because she has learned that life itself has “a power behind it that carries folk on to struggle and not give in.”  If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking Christmas read, “A Traveller in Time” may be the book for you.

My treat this Christmas will be reading a new time-travel story in Jodi Taylor’s delightful “Chronicles of St Mary’s” series. Whatever you are doing over the holiday season, I wish you many golden moments.

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.

As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.

In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.

I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.

Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of  “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.

An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused.  The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.

Geraldine

www. chalcedon.co.uk

 

Fantasy Reads is back from its holidays and ready to celebrate Ghost Month. I’m going to break my own rule about featuring a different author in every post so that I can recommend my favourite ghost story – “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde. This novella was first published in 1887 and has been in print ever since. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are easy to find or you could download the text for free. You may have seen one of the numerous film or TV adaptions but nothing compares with reading Wilde’s original prose. “The Canterville Ghost” is the funniest ghost story I know but also one of the most poignant.

The tale is set in the English countryside and begins when wealthy American, Hiram B.Otis decides to buy Canterville Chase, the ancestral home of the aristocratic Canterville family. Lord Canterville, “who was a man of the most punctilious honour” feels obliged to warn Mr Otis that the house is severely haunted. Mr Otis doesn’t believe in ghosts so he moves to Canterville Chase with his family – wife Lucretia, elder son, Washington, fifteen year-old daughter, Virginia, and the twin boys known as “The Stars and Stripes”.

On their first evening, Mrs Otis notices an unpleasant stain on the library floor. The housekeeper explains that this was the very spot where Sir Simon de Canterville murdered his wife in 1575. Sir Simon disappeared a few years later but the bloodstain has always proved impossible to remove. That is until Washington cleans it off with “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover”. The next morning the stain is back. It keeps on reappearing in the locked library everytime Washington removes it – though not always in the same colour. The family won’t listen to the housekeeper’s warnings about the ghost but soon they have all seen and heard him – “an old man of terrible aspect”  with red eyes, matted hair and clanking chains.

The Canterville Ghost is proud to have terrified generations of the house’s inhabitants in ghastly guises such as “the Suicide’s Skeleton”, “Martin the Maniac” or “The Headless Earl” but he has no luck with the Otis family. The adults refuse to be frightened by him and the twins delight in ambushing and persecuting him. Only kind Virginia shows the distressed ghost any sympathy. On the library window is painted a prophecy about how peace will come to Canterville “When a golden girl can win, Prayer from out the lips of sin”. In order to help Sir Simon, Virginia must discover the gruesome secret behind his disappearance and risk her own life to plead with the Angel of Death…

“The Canterville Ghost” was one of Oscar Wilde’s first published works. Enduringly popular, it has inspired two operas and been turned into a graphic novel, a stage play, a musical, live-action and animated films, and radio and television dramas.  Among the famous actors who have played Sir Simon de Canterville are Charles Laughton, David Niven, John Gielgud, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart. These adaptations tend to emphasize the humorous aspects of the story and many of them fail to do justice to the subtle shifts of mood in the original novella.

Parts of “The Canterville Ghost” do read like a spoof of a Gothic Horror story. The Otis family display robust common sense – a quality rarely found in characters in Horror stories. Mr Otis’s first confrontation with the ghost descends into farce when he offers Sir Simon some lubricating oil for his noisy chains. The ghost’s previous haunting triumphs are narrated in a deliciously heartless manner. We are told, for example,  that pretty Lady Barbara broke off her engagement to a Lord Canterville after seeing the hideous phantom at twilight and eloped with handsome Jack Castleton. “Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common and Lady Barbara died of a broken heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out, so, in every way, it had been a great success.”

The stately homes of Britain are famous for their ghosts. One near to where I live boasts a phantom hearse with a headless driver (Chavenage House). Wilde clearly enjoyed creating a “Horrible History” of hauntings for the Cantervilles in which generations of the family and their guests are scared in inventive ways. Some of these incidents, such as the experience of the French lady “who having wakened up one morning early and seen a skeleton seated in an arm-chair by the fire reading her diary, had been been confined to her bed for six weeks with an attack of brain fever” manage to be both funny and chilling. Finding anyone reading your private diary would be disturbing but a skeleton… That’s truly creepy.

Wilde didn’t label his novella as a ghost story but as a “Hylo-Idealistic Romance”.  The Romance part is easy enough to understand. This isn’t meant to be a realistic tale and there is a charming inset love story – courageous golden girl Virginia deservedly wins the heart of a young Duke. I must confess that I had to look up Hylo-Idealism, which turns out to be the concept that reality only exists by virtue of our belief in it. At the start of “The Canterville Ghost” it looks as if Wilde is mocking nouveau riche Americans who know nothing about European culture. He isn’t – or only in the most affectionate way. Mr Otis may be wrong in thinking that “there is no such thing as a ghost” but he and his family prove to be smart and adaptable when faced with new experiences. Centuries of local belief have kept the Canterville Ghost going but because these free-thinking, forward-looking Americans aren’t chained to the past, Sir Simon has no power over them.

For a ghost, Simon de Canterville is a surprisingly nuanced character. Wilde doesn’t allow him to be a romanticized villain – Sir Simon didn’t murder his wife in some great fit of passion but because she “never had my ruffs properly starched and knew nothing about cookery.” He is vain, cowardly and insecure but puts real artistry into his hauntings. Like any creative artist he is devastated when his performances are jeered at. Wilde gradually makes you feel sorry for lonely Sir Simon, who longs to sleep for the first time in three hundred years. In my post on the collected Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013) I praised Wilde’s poetic use of language and the way that his stories blend comedy and tragedy. The same is true of “The Canterville Ghost”. There are wonderful descriptions of the idyllic grounds of Canterville Chase and the quiet beauty of the Garden of Death. I know that this story will make you laugh but it may also cause you to shed a tear at the fate of the Canterville Ghost. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My recommended Fantasy read is something short and romantic. Short because I’m feeling guilty about recommending such a long book last time, and romantic because I’m writing this close to Valentine’s Day. Peter S. Beagle’s novella `A Dance for Emilia’ is both a love story and a ghost story. It was published in 2000 as a small hardback book of 87 pages with a beautiful cover drawing of an Abyssinian cat by Yvonne Gilbert. As far as I know, this is the only edition but copies are quite easy to find. Beagle is most famous for his 1968 novel `The Last Unicorn’ but his shorter works are well worth exploring.

Among other things, `A Dance for Emilia’ is a touching portait of a friendship. Sam and Jacob have been best friends since they were teenagers in Brooklyn. Drawn together by a mutual love of the performing arts, they both once had high ambitions. Sam intended to be a classical dancer and Jacob a great actor in serious theatre. Things did not go to plan. Told that he wasn’t good enough to get into a ballet company, Sam gave up dance completely and became a music critic. Jacob did go into the theatre, but has never been more than moderately successful as an actor. In middle age, Sam shares his small apartment in New York with an Abyssinian cat called Millamant, while Jacob is a jobbing actor in California with two failed marriages behind him. The two friends speak on the phone every week and joke about their `Museum of Truly Weird Relationships’ with `improbable women’. Then, on one of his visits to California, Sam confesses that he has met someone special – a young writer he calls Emilia.

Just as life seems to be on an upswing for the two friends, Jacob gets a phonecall to say that Sam has died of a heart attack. Jacob meets heartbroken Emily/Emilia at the funeral and for nearly two years they talk and write to each other about their memories of Sam. Emilia had taken in Sam’s cat and one day she arrives in California insisting that Millamant is behaving oddly. Jacob doesn’t understand until he sees the Abyssinian cat dancing in the way that Sam always longed to. Soon Jacob and Emilia are convinced that Sam has come back in Millamant’s body and is able to talk to them. At first they are both overjoyed but then they begin to ask disquieting questions. Has Sam become a dybbuk – a wandering soul that needs a body to hide in- and should they have snatched him back from death by `wishing for him so hard’?

I’ve felt free to reveal quite a lot of the plot of `A Dance for Emilia’ because the story starts with the haunted cat and works backwards. Sam’s death is announced as early as page 3. Then Beagle spends more than half of the novella describing how much Sam meant to his friend Jacob and his lover Emilia and how shocked and damaged they are by his sudden death. It is one of the most convincing depictions of grief that I know of. Sardonic Sam, with his mock English-accent, his `Italian gangster’ suit, and his wild flights of imagination, comes vividly alive as Jacob and Emilia remember him. The detailed realism of Sam’s life in New York helps to make the Fantasy element  of `A Dance for Emilia’ more credible. Even the magical way that Millamant, a cat with `the slouchy preen of a high-fashion model’,  dances in the moonlight is easy to believe. I’ve owned a number of long-haired Abyssinians and their balletic leaps and twirls are amazing.

Once the cat begins to speak, the tone of the story shifts back and forth between scariness and humour. As Jacob says, `Nothing in life – nothing even in Shakespeare – adequately prepares you for opening a can of Whiskas with Bits O’Beef for your closest friend, who’s been dead for two years.’  For once in a ghost story, the characters have really interesting conversations about the process of death and what it means to be a ghost. The intensity of Emilia’s love for Sam has brought him back to her but part of her knows that this isn’t fair to the cat whose body he is inhabiting. Emilia and Jacob are trapping Sam in their memories and preventing his essence from going on to a state he can’t describe in words – only in dance.

This is a story which asks when it is right to let go of lost loves and impossible dreams and make the best of what you do have.  Sam and Jacob’s one major quarrel was over whether Sam should have walked away from his dream of being a great dancer. Beagle leaves it up to the reader to decide who deserves the most respect – Sam who wouldn’t go on doing the thing he loved if he couldn’t achieve a high standard or Jacob for his life-long struggle to be the best he can. Emilia says that she always knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for her and Sam but in a wonderfully romantic speech ghost-Sam promises that, `There’s no way in this universe that I could be reduced to something so microscopic, so anonymous, that it wouldn’t know Emilia Rossi’.  `A Dance for Emilia’ is a sad story about letting go but I promise that there is a beautiful twist right at the end. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

When Halloween is approaching I usually recommend a collection of ghost stories but this year I’ve picked a `haunted house’ novel instead. `An English Ghost Story’ is by film critic and Horror/Crime author, Kim Newman. It came out in 2014 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. `An English Ghost Story’ is set in the 1990s but draws on centuries of West Country legends. There are more spirits involved in this haunting than you normally find in an entire anthology of ghost stories. Prepare to be charmed, shocked, and kept guessing about just how dark this particular ghost story will turn out to be.

Things haven’t been going well for the Naremore family – parents Steven and Kirsty, teenage daughter, Jordan, and ten year-old Tim. Steven has decided that the family should move to the countryside to get away from London and from Kirsty’s toxic friend, Vron. The others disagree until they are shown an old house in Somerset called the Hollow. The previous owner of this property was a famous children’s writer: Louise Magellan Teazle. She has recently died and most of her furniture and belongings are still in the house. All four of the Naremores are enchanted by the Hollow and its beautiful garden and orchard. The house and its contents are soon bought and the family moves in.

The Naremores enjoy their first few weeks in their new home and get on better with each other than they have done for years. Jordan and Kirsty read some of Louise’s stories, including Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, and they learn more about her from the eccentric president of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society. Kirsty is thrilled to discover that a chest of drawers in the house has the same magical properties as it does in the Weezie stories. The others also notice curious things, such as a circle of standing stones which can only be seen from a certain spot in the gardens, a chair that rocks by itself in Jordan’s bedroom and the small presents left inside a hollow tree that war-game obsessed Tim has chosen for his `Green Base’. None of this seems sinister, even after Vron sends Kirsty a book of West Country ghost stories which describes the Hollow as `the most haunted spot in England’.

Gradually though the Naremores relapse into their old ways. Steven becomes domineering again and Kirsty more resentful about putting her family first. Tim struggles to stay neutral in the conflict between his parents and when Jordan’s boyfriend fails to turn up for a promised visit, she reverts to her angry, self-harming persona. Then the Hollow seems to turn against the Naremores and horrific versions of Louise’s characters walk the house and grounds. There will be terror, violence and a shocking death. At the Hollow `what you give is what you get’. Can the Naremore family give each other the strength to survive?

Kim Newman is an expert on Gothic Literature and the Science Fiction and Horror genres. He seems to have watched every Horror film ever made and read a vast quantity of novels and stories, relishing the bad stuff almost as much as the good. `Ghastly Beyond Belief’ – the book on pulp Science Fiction which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman – gleefully plumbs the depths of the genre. In his own fiction Newman often takes famous characters, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, and devises outrageous new story-lines for them. His books are gruesomely inventive and scabrously funny but often read more like extended parodies than original novels.

`An English Ghost Story’ has all of Newman’s usual qualities and a few more besides. His talent for pastiche is certainly in evidence. The book includes extracts from the `Journal of a Victorian Gentlewoman’, who is determined to defend the orchard at the Hollow even at the price of murder; a chapter from `Ghost Stories of the West Country’ detailing some of the mysterious deaths and supernatural phenomena associated with the Hollow, and a short story by Louise Magellan Teazle recounting how a clever little girl befriends a gloomy ghost. I’ve already noted in my post on `Diving Belles’ (January 2015) how rich the folklore of England’s West Country is. Newman makes good use of some of its more sinister elements: such as the beliefs that fruit trees have spirits which must be appeased and that ancient standing stones can leave their places to dance by moonlight. He also has fun creating a body of work for his invented children’s author. Louise Magellan Teazle’s books offer a supernatural twist on the traditional girls’ boarding school story and seem to have borrowed elements from writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett (`The Secret Garden’) and Lucy Boston (the Green Knowe series).

When I recommended Boston’s charming `The Children of Green Knowe’ last October, I noted that many of its elements could have been used to create a scary ghost story rather than a benign one. Newman obviously had the same idea. The Hollow has a lot in common with Green Knowe – an ancient house haunted by generations of its previous inhabitants. This helps to create an atmosphere of seductive enchantment in the early chapters of `An English Ghost Story’. The Naremores ought to be spooked when their removal men mention seeing a little girl inside a fireplace but they are not and that is chilling in itself. Newman lets the suspense build up slowly and indulges his sense of humour during the first hundred pages. There is plenty of satire on the foibles of middle class Londoners and the fanatical members of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society are wonderful comic characters.

Can a humorous ghost story also be genuinely scary? In this case, yes, because Newman deploys two special skills. Firstly, like M.R.James (see my post of October 2013) he has the ability to make objects frightening. A child’s catapult becomes a potentially lethal weapon and a window-pane that looks as if it is smiling suddenly shows fangs. The best example is an ordinary looking chest with a top drawer that is always empty, a bottom drawer which gives a different present every time it’s opened and a middle drawer that contains `a jumble of surprises’. While the chest produces small presents, like a rose or a single glove, its magic seems benevolent but as Kirsty gives in to the most selfish part of her nature she begins to experiment with its darker possibilities. When Kirsty puts living beings in the chest to jumble up or disappear them, it is one of the most horrific scenes I have ever read. This is partly due to Newman’s second skill – matching the haunting to the individual. The faults and weaknesses of the Naremore family generate specific temptations and apparitions, so anorexic Jordan is haunted by an ever smaller series of dresses hanging in a wardrobe that only she can open. This technique works because the novel allows the reader time to get to know the central characters really well.

If `An English Ghost Story’ was turned into a standard Horror film, the audience would probably be encouraged to jeer at the Naremores’ hopes for a new life and cheer when they start to suffer. Newman’s novel is more subtle and more compassionate. The Naremores are deeply flawed people and we get to see each of them at their worst but that doesn’t make them evil or deserving of a horrible fate. Which mother hasn’t occasionally day-dreamed about how free her life would be if she didn’t have children to look after? Newman made me care about this dysfunctional family and empathise with a little boy trying to take on adult responsibilities and a fierce young woman battling her inner demons. So be warned, this is a ghost story which may make you feel more than just fear. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

In time for Hallowe’en, I’m recommending a gentle ghost story – `The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy Boston. Published in 1954, this was the first in a series of six children’s novels about an ancient house set in a magical riverside garden. The fictional Green Knowe was based on Boston’s own home, the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England. An ebook edition of `The Children of Green Knowe’ is now available but I’d advise you to find an old hardback or paperback copy in order to get the full benefit of Peter Boston’s atmospheric illustrations. This is a book I loved as a child but interpret rather differently now that I have re-read it as an adult.

The story opens with an unhappy seven year-old boy travelling to stay with a great-grandmother whom he has never met. Tolly has been sent to an English boarding school because his mother is dead and his father has remarried and is living in Malaysia. Now Tolly has been invited to spend the Christmas holiday at the isolated home of Mrs Oldknow. After a disorienting journey through the flooded East Anglian countryside he arrives at the ancient house known as Green Noah or Green Knowe. Tolly is warmly welcomed by Mr Boggis the gardener and by Mrs Oldknow  but he soon notices that Green Knowe is a house full of strange shadows and noises. The rocking horse in his attic bedroom moves when no-one is touching it and Tolly starts to hear music and children’s voices.

When the floods recede Tolly is able to explore the gardens with their wonderful topiary figures in the form of animals. Mrs Oldknow tells him stories about three children who lived in the house during the 17th century, Toby, Alexander and Linnet Oldknow and about Toby’s horse, Feste who is said to haunt the stables. Tolly longs to see Feste and to meet these ghostly children whom he can hear whispering and laughing. Mrs Oldknow promises that he will find them soon but she also tells him a darker tale of the gypsy curse on Green Knowe. When the garden wakes into life, Tolly must beware of the evil fingers of the Demon Tree called Green Noah…

This is a shorter plot summary than usual because `The Children of Green Knowe’  is more about atmosphere than plot. Essentially, the house and garden are the main characters. The story simply follows Tolly as he gets to know the living and dead inhabitants of the house and the natural and supernatural creatures to be found in the gardens. Green Knowe is a mysterious place where there are no firm divisions between past and present, yet it seems far more solid and believable than most fictional houses. It is very obvious that Lucy Boston was writing about somewhere she knew and loved. Even the toys that Tolly finds in the nursery, such as the rocking horse and a carved ebony mouse, are based on objects played with by her real-life son, Peter. Lucy Boston, who died in 1990 at the age of 98, was a remarkable woman. She restored the semi-derelict Manor House, created a beautiful wildlife-friendly garden, sewed intricate American-style patchwork quilts, and published her first novel when she was 62. She’s definitely one of my role-models.

Lucy Boston was a newcomer to her ancient house, so perhaps it was a desire for a deeper connection that led her to invent the Oldknow family, who are supposed to have lived at Green Knowe for centuries. The theme of  finding a place where you truly belong runs through all her fiction. In `The Children of Green Knowe’  Tolly aches to be part of family again while in later books in the series Green Knowe becomes a sanctuary for outsiders such as a black ex-slave (`The Chimmneys of Green Knowe’), displaced children from Poland and Burma (`The River at Green Knowe’) and even an escaped gorilla (`A Stranger at Green Knowe’). The author seems to extend the same invitation to her readers, asking us to make ourselves at home at Green Knowe and gradually discover its secrets.

As a child I gladly accepted her invitation. I loved to imagine myself sitting by a flickering fire in the Knights Hall or playing hide and seek amongst the yew trees. I thought that Mrs Oldknow was an ideal granny when she let Tolly wander by himself or made him do half-crazy things like covering his hands in butter to attract small birds to come and feed. I envied Toby, Alexander and Linnet as they walked in their paradise garden with their tame deer, hare and squirrel. Now though Mrs Oldknow’s treatment of her great-grandson seems rather sinister to me. Instead of trying to find real friends for this lonely child, she encourages Tolly to see and interact with `the others’ – children who sometimes remember that they died horribly three hundred years in the past but seem unable to leave Green Knowe. Taken out of cosy context, there are many passages in this book which read as if they are from a far more chilling ghost story – `in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.’ Tolly feels that the house `is full of shiny black eyes all looking at me’ and on another occasion `he could feel breathing beside his ear. He put his hands up and felt two very little ones and some curls, soft little cobwebs.’ Cobwebs – a very M.R. James moment (see my October 2013 post on his ghost stories).

This darker view is undoubtedly influenced by my own experience when visiting the house on which which Green Knowe is based with a group of children’s authors. I had greatly looked forward to being shown round by Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law but by the time we got to the Knights Hall I could hardly bear to stay in the house. Normally, I do not find old buildings spooky. I have been in numerous Ancient Egyptian tombs without feeling a flutter of fear but on a beautiful summer afternoon at Hemingford Grey I was overwhelmed by horror and dread. Perhaps there is some truth in the story of the gypsy’s curse after all. Have a haunting Hallowe’en.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

Inspired by the brilliant `Ming’ exhibition at the British Museum, this week I’m choosing a Chinese Fantasy novel with an irresistible central character – a naughty monkey who wants to live forever. Monkey’s story was written down in the 16th century, probably by a poet called Wu Ch’eng-en. The original title of this novel is `The Journey to the West’ but I’m specifically recommending the abridged translation by Arthur Waley which is just called `Monkey’. You can get this in paperback or as an ebook. There have been numerous adaptations of `The Journey to the West’ including a jokey Japanese television series `Magic Monkey’, which was a surprise hit in the late 1970s. This kitsch classic, available dubbed on DVD, is still fun to watch. Set in Tang Dynasty China, `Monkey’ tells how a priest and his three monstrous disciples made an epic trip to India to fetch some Buddhist scriptures. You may think that sounds worthy and dull. Don’t worry, `Monkey’ is riotously entertaining.

`Monkey’ literally starts with a bang as a magical monkey bursts out of a stone egg on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This stone monkey soon becomes king of the local monkeys. He seems to have everything a monkey could want but King Monkey knows that one day he will weaken and die and then be born again in some other form. He yearns to cheat Death and `live forever among the people of the sky’. Monkey seeks out a Taoist holy man who who teaches him how to ride clouds, transform himself into 72 different things and change every one of his 84,000 hairs into a warrior monkey. Next he forces the local Dragon King to give him a magical weapon, an iron club that can be as big or small as Monkey wishes. When the Judges of the Dead eventually come for Monkey, he’s ready for them. He makes so much fuss about dying that the Jade Emperor who rules the sky agrees to admit Monkey to heaven as a minor Immortal.

Monkey isn’t content with a lowly job in the Jade Emperor’s stables and continues to make trouble even after he’s awarded the grandiose title `Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. When he eats the Peaches of Immortality, which he’s meant to be guarding, and steals the Elixir of Long Life, brewed by Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism, Monkey becomes almost indestructible. Whole armies fail to subdue him but he’s finally caught by the Buddha of the Western Paradise and imprisoned inside a mountain.

Five hundred years later, Buddha decides that the people of China are in desperate need of spiritual enlightment. He sends the compassionate Kuan-yin to China to find a priest brave enough to travel to the Western Paradise in Gandhara and fetch the scrolls which contain Buddha’s teaching. She chooses a virtuous priest with an unusual family history who takes the name Tripitaka. It’s clear to Kuan-yin that unworldly Tripitaka will never survive his dangerous journey without supernatural help, so she picks three extraordinary disciples for him. Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey are all monsters who have been thrown out of heaven for bad behaviour but now they have a second chance. Tripitaka is destined to suffer 81 tribulations on his journey, including dragons, ogres, demons and ghosts. Can Monkey get his new Master all the way to the Western Paradise and achieve true Enlightenment?

`The Journey to the West’ is a marvellous literary mish-mash -an intricate quest story spanning the human and divine worlds, told in both prose and poetry (Waley doesn’t translate much of the poetry). It is part satire and part religious allegory, and incorporates a wealth of myths, folk tales, ghost and horror stories. In modern terms you might call it Dark Comic Fantasy; if you enjoy Pratchett’s Discworld novels you will probably find Monkey’s adventures appealing. There is a lot that seems surprisingly modern about Wu’s narrative. He plays with the conventions of traditional story-telling ( another disaster has to be arranged for Tripitaka at the last minute when Buddha notices that the priest hasn’t had the correct number of adventures); he throws together characters from different eras, cultures and belief-systems (the Buddhist goddess Kuan-yin arrives for a dinner-party with the Queen Mother of the West from traditional Chinese religion and the Taoist Immortal, Lao Tzu and only intervenes in the struggle to overcome Monkey when she discovers that `no drinks are going’); he makes grand and powerful beings such as Dragon Kings and Emperors speak in everyday language (`You lying quack,’ bawled the Dragon King `Your divining is a fraud and all your talk is lunatic twaddle.’), he affectionately addresses his central character as `Dear Monkey’ during moments of high emotion and he provides a teaser at the end of each chapter to keep his readers turning the pages (`If you do not know how the Emperor came to life again, you must read what is told in the next chapter.’)

The tale of Tripitaka is based on an actual journey along the Silk Road made by a monk who lived in the 7th century CE but you don’t need to be any kind of expert on Ancient China in order to enjoy the novel. Many of the things that Wu pokes fun at, such as useless government officials in pointless jobs and greedy priests and pompous or fraudulent holy men, have equivalents in most cultures. Wu didn’t let himself be constrained by real geography when writing about Tripitaka’s journey. Instead, he created a series of Fantasy kingdoms inhabited by creatures from the darkest corners of the Chinese imagination. The dragons, ghosts, and demons encountered by Monkey and Tripitaka don’t necessarily behave in the way that their Western equivalents would. The underwater domains of various dragons are described in delightful detail (one Dragon King has shrimp soldiers, whitebait guards and crab generals) but the dragons themselves don’t fare too well – one gets beheaded for not making enough rain and another is humiliatingly transformed into a horse for Tripitaka to ride. The ghost stories inset into the main narrative are pleasingly unpredictable. Let’s just say that you can’t always rely on the dead staying dead. Tripitaka and his disciples get to fight a wide range of monsters and demons. The key to defeating these monsters often lies in discerning their true forms and discovering their stories. If you want to find out how a pet goldfish was able to terrorize an entire district you’ll have to read `Monkey’.

Waley’s sparkling translation is a joy to read but he did leave out many of Tripitaka’s adventures on the road to Gandhara, including some of the naughtier encounters with seductive demons. If you fancy tackling all one hundred chapters of  `The Journey to the West’ (after all it’s not much longer than `The Lord of the Rings’) try the four-volume translation by Anthony C. Yu. If, like me, you are an arachnophobe, you may want to omit the chapter about the cave of the spider demons. Waley’s short version will still give you a clear picture of the four leading characters – Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey. The virtuous Tripitaka is a bit of drip, as Monkey is fond of pointing out. Tripitaka’s standard  response to dangers and difficulties is to burst into tears but he’s terrific at meditation and scripture-reading. It’s a nice irony that Tripitaka forces Monkey to be non-violent by reciting the pain-inflicting `Headache Sutra’. Pig-faced Pigsy is a creature of insatiable appetites who was expelled from heaven for groping one of the celestial maidens during a Peach Banquet. He’s a formidable fighter who wields a magical muck-rake and constantly quarrels with Monkey. Reformed water-ogre Sandy is a rather self-effacing monster who wears a necklace of skulls as a reminder of his cannibal days.

Monkey himself is a `little guy’ who acquires superpowers – leading to some cracking battle scenes. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm and for much of the book he refuses to let anyone tell him what to do. In a culture which values deference, politeness and concealment, Monkey says exactly what he thinks and feels and he’s recklessly rude to everyone from woodcutters and monks to kings and deities. Monkey’s faults are mainly loveable ones. He does get too big for his `cloud-stepping shoes’ and his desire for instant gratification often lands him in trouble – it wasn’t smart of the Jade Emperor to put a monkey in charge of a peach-orchard. Monkey may be vain and impatient but during the journey to Gandhara he frequently battles monsters in order to save innocent or oppressed people. He is beginning to display the most important of Buddhist virtues – compassion. Some of the satire on religion in `The Journey to the West’ is still quite shocking. When the four pilgrims finally reach the Western Paradise even Buddha’s most famous disciples are on the take, demanding a bribe before they will hand over the scriptures. Wu does not mock the Buddha’s teaching, only the people who fail to live up to its spiritual ideals. His novel can be seen as a plea for religious tolerance. He allows `Dear Monkey’ to explain to a foolish king that China’s three great religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) are really one and that wise or holy men and women should be revered whichever group they belong to. By the end of the story, Monkey almost lives up to his once ridiculous title of `Great Sage’. Wu ends his book by wishing that anyone who reads it may be `born again in the Realms of Utter Bliss’. With a promise like that, how can you resist trying `Monkey’? Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk