Sunday, February 9, 2020

Clocks and Colleges

 A Cambridge walking-tour of Ann-Marie Howell's 'The House of One Hundred Clocks'

The 'real-life' inspiration for
The House of One Hundred Clocks!
Ann-Marie Howell's first novel 'The Garden of Lost Secrets' met with critical acclaim when published in 2019 and now, only a few months later, we are gifted the wonderful second novel, 'The House of One Hundred Clocks'. 
Mixing modern sensibilities with the classic feel of the works of Philippa Pearce and Helen Cresswell in particular, Ann-Marie's tales immediately draw you into their closed-off worlds. Her first novel, in fact was was walled-off with only a few scenes stepping out of the intense gardens and hothouses; in 'One Hundred Clocks', the oppressive atmosphere of a house haunted by the past and the terrible secrets of its owner, Mr Westcott, helps to create an enthralling story that grips to its very end. 
Ann-Marie is clearly an author who loves to take a germ of an idea and twist it almost endlessly, layering mystery upon mystery, to present the reader with what at first seems completely baffling but which eventually unravels towards satisfying revelations.
In 'One Hundred Clocks', the 'outside' world of Cambridge in 1905 is quietly but deliberately observed: along with the ever bustling tick-tock of students, the streets begin to chime the hour for women's rights too. 
Although there is sadly no 'Clock-House' quite like Mr Westcott's to visit in Cambridge today (once you've read the novel, you would desperately want to see what it looked like inside!), Ann-Marie has taken inspiration from the narrow streets and glorious buildings of the city. I hope that this walking guide will hopefully introduce you to some of the secrets of the city and enrich your reading experience of the novel. 

Please note that the tour includes busy roads. Cars, buses and bikes (!) get very close to pavements in Cambridge, so do take extra care. 

The Map

All the best books begin with a map and this is no exception. The lovely picture-plan of Cambridge drawn by Saara Katariina Soderlund shows the city centre in 1905. All of the places on the map - even if slightly fictionalised, like Mr Fox's establishment - are easily found in the city today.
Map illustration © Saara Katariina Soderlund; used by permission of Usborne Books

Peterhouse College

Peterhouse College (from Trumpington Street)
We start the tour at Peterhouse, on Trumpington Street. Peterhouse is the oldest college in the University of Cambridge; it dates back to 1285 so that makes it nearly 750 years old! Today the college, like all the others which make up part of the University, is home to lots of students and 'Fellows' - the men and women who study and teach. In 1905, the University of Cambridge had two colleges which allowed women: Girton and Newnham. Peterhouse began to admit women from 1984 and in 2016 the college elected their first female Master (Head of the College), Bridget Kendall. According to Ann-Marie Howell, the Master's Lodge (pictured at the start of the blog) was the inspiration for Mr Westcott's house itself.

Silver Street Bridge

Silver Street Bridge plus punts
With the Peterhouse main gate behind you, facing the Master's Lodge opposite, turn left and walk along the street into the town. Soon you will come to the corner of Silver Street on your left. If you follow this road down a little way you will come to the Silver Street Bridge, the site of Chapter 19, where you can stand and watch the punts floating up and down the river Cam. This bridge would not have looked like this in Helena's day: it would have been the iron bridge that was built there in 1843. The current stone bridge was designed by the famous architect, Sir Edmund Lutyens, and replaced the old one in 1958. 

Walk back the way you came, up to Trumpington Street again, and continue left. You might see the magnificent spires of King's College ahead of you...but don't rush ahead just yet! On your right, just as you enter King's Parade, there is a peculiar and rather special clock to see - not in Ann-Marie's book, but Helena's father would have loved it: this is...

The Cambridge Chronophage

The Chronophage
The Chronophage (a.k.a. the 'Grasshopper Clock', or 'Time-Eater') works by a mechanism invented by John Harrison (the great clockmaker mentioned in 'One Hundred Clocks') called a grasshopper escapement. If you spend some time watching the clock you will see the creature on top pull and push the mechanisms and open and shut its jaws, as though eating the seconds that pass. Occasionally it will blink - watch closely! - and on the hour a special mini-light show occurs. Can you see how the lights on the clock face tell the time? This clock is quite incredible - it needs no winding, is operated by a simple electrical motor...and it is estimated that it will run for 200 years!  

King's College

King's College (with the Chapel behind the gate)
Kings College is the next place to stop. Look at all the grand spires and architecture! This is probably Cambridge's most iconic building. The College was founded in 1441 by Henry VI but the famous chapel (where you can hear one of the world's finest choirs sing services almost daily) was not completed until the reign of Henry VIII. Many famous people have been associated with the College, including the famous ghost story writer M.R. James, who held his first spooky storytelling session here in his rooms in the 1890s. James would have been resident at Kings during the time of Ann-Marie's novel and indeed had only just published his first collection, 'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' (1904).  I wonder if any of the characters in Ann-Marie's novel bumped into him on his way to a reading of one of his ghostly tales..!  

Continue past the College with the Chapel on your left and head past Senate House and Gonville and Caius College straight on into Trinity Street. Walk a little way further and you will see Rose Crescent on your right. 

Rose Crescent

As you head up Rose Crescent, you will notice the unusual curved walls. The street is dark and confined and Ann-Marie's selection of this, one of Cambridge's dark, tucked-away streets, was the perfect choice to become the site of the rather mysterious shop belonging to the clock-master Mr Fox. There is no such building  here today, unfortunately, but Mappin and Webb just on the around the corner of Rose Crescent on Market Street does sell watches!

Walk through the Crescent to the other end. 

Market Square

The Clock at Market Square
As you emerge from Rose Crescent, you will find yourself in the busy Market Square. Here there are lots of different stalls selling everything from old records and books, to delicious curries, cakes and breads. There has been a market here since the middle ages and has always been a busy place. It used to be the site of the public punishments and the jail. It's easy to get lost among all the stalls but look up at the big building that towers over the square and you will see another famous Cambridge clock at the top of the Town Hall. In 'The House of 100 Clocks', Mr Westcott owns many well-decorated timepieces and mention is made of some with symbolic paintings of the moon and sun on the faces.  If you look closely at the clock above the Market Square, there are two birds (but not parrots!) carved on either side of the clock-face: a cockerel and an owl. Why have these two particular birds settled there, do you think..? 

Cross to the other side of the Market from Rose Crescent, towards the Town Hall clock, and turn left into Petty Cury.
At the end of Petty Cury, turn right and follow the road round past the taxi bay and the main gate of Christ's College. If you walk up this road for about five to ten minutes you will soon see...

The University Arms Hotel, Regent Street

The University Arms Hotel
This grand building with its great columns and elaborate architecture is certainly impressive. In 1905, it may have been the place where Katherine Westcott resided (so as to get away from the noise of the ticking clocks in her brother's house) but over 100 years later, Time Magazine still named it one of the 'Top 100 places to visit in the world' in 2019.  The hotel was redesigned in 2018 and the interior is a modern recreation of the Edwardian style with which Mr Westcott's sister would have been familiar: Katherine certainly knew luxury when she saw it! 
The Hotel, from Parker's Piece

 The hotel has always been at the cutting-edge: it was one of the very first hotels to have electricity and lavatories on every floor. In 1904, just before 'The House of 100 Clocks' takes place, the owner of the hotel turned the stable block into a garage: times were changing then and the motorcar was becoming the more fashionable way to get around rather than the horse and carriage. (You can see drawings of early motorcars on the map from 'One Hundred Clocks'.) I wonder how Katherine made her way to Cambridge: by horse or by car? 

If you continue a little way on, past the Hotel, you will see a large grassy park open out on the left, just behind the Pizza Hut on the corner!  This is...

Parker's Piece 

Barr Ellisons
The site of a banquet in 1838 for 15,000 people to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria (Ralph Fox mentions in Chapter 29 how his grandfather remembered being present), and - perhaps even more famously - the place where the 'Cambridge Rules' of the game of football were originally decided,  Parker's Piece is today a place for picnics, walks and playing sports and games.

On the far side of Parker's Piece, where there are now a series of bus-bays, you will notice a long terrace of tall town houses. This is where Harriet, Florence and Ralph pay a visit to Marchington and Sons, Mr Westcott's lawyers, and indeed there is a law firm here today - Barr Ellisons - the name of which echoes very faintly the sound of the company in 'One Hundred Clocks'. 

I won't include any spoilers in this tour, but if you continue up the road where you found Ellisons, away from the town, past the Fire Station and onto Mill Road, you will soon come to...

..which is a building that holds special importance to a few of the characters at the end of 'The House of One Hundred Clocks'. 

This site ends our tour of some of the main locations in Ann-Marie's wonderful novel, but I would very much recommend that you go back into town now and just a little further along from Rose Crescent, in Trinity Street, you will find Heffers bookshop - my favourite bookshop of all! - and perhaps pick up one of the following exciting books, which you are sure to love if you enjoyed Ann-Marie's novel. Happy reading!

Moondial (Helen Cresswell): Mysterious goings-on, centering around a peculiar kind of clock in the gardens of a stately home.

Clockwork (Philip Pullman): Good stories work like oiled clockwork, says Pullman: find out what happens when a story-mechanism is set off in this Faustian tale of clocks and devils! 

Tom's Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce): the classic time-slip story where a clock strikes thirteen and Tom opens the back door into another world... 

The House with a Clock in the Walls (John Bellairs): the creepy - but fun! - adventure story of a cursed house and a  demonic time-piece that causes problems for the hero, Lewis Barnavelt.

And not forgetting, of course...

The Garden of Lost Secrets (Ann-Marie Howell) - more mysteries in this, Ann-Marie's first novel, inspired by the real-life unearthing of a kitchen diary at Ickworth House. 

Huge thanks to Fritha Linqvist, Usborne Books and Ann-Marie Howell herself in the preparation of this blog.

Friday, February 7, 2020


I'm so pleased to welcome you to my blog, 'A Few to Read'.

Every time I read, I want to talk about it. I've been meaning to set up a blog for ages, so that I can put in words what I think and feel about my reading.

Much of the time, it will be a way for me to find some sort of shape for those thoughts, and if at times those thoughts are shapeless or rambling, then I apologise. But reading is a mysterious and strange and wonderful thing, and I quite like the fact that my thoughts - maybe yours too - are disconnected or not always anchored in plain sense.

As one_to_read on Twitter and as a primary school teacher in real-life, I love sharing and remembering the books that can become somewhat eclipsed by the torrent of extraordinarily good children's literature being published at the moment. Books particularly loved as a child, for many of us, hold special significance, but for me I think that children's literature of the 70s, 80s and 90s was doing something very interesting, too. It's these sorts of books that I will consider a lot in my blog.

New books that come out will appear too - they're too good to miss discussing and occasionally establish or hint at dialogues with those earlier books.

I hope you enjoy the blog and amongst all the books discussed, find 'A Few to Read' yourself.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

The 'Orion Lost' Baker's Dozen

Book cover: Orion Lost
Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm has to be one of the most fast - paced and vivid SF novels for children that I have ever read. I've just finished reading it to my class of Year 6 and it was, without a doubt, hugely popular with them too. 

I've written a set of 'Reading Group'-style questions here. [SPOILER alert: don't read them if you haven't read the book yet!]. I hope they will prove useful to promote the great discussion and thinking that this book completely deserves. 

Just start by saying 'Tell me...'

The Questions 

1.  You are master of your own ship.

Beth remembers these words over and over again in the story. Why is the phrase so important to Beth and to the story as a whole?  

2.  Who are the 'goodies' and who are the 'baddies' in Orion Lost?Did any of the characters seem to change in the story? Which ones? How did they change? 

Lauryn (Limit)
Captain Kier
Captain Murdoch

3.  Is what happens to Kier an appropriate outcome after his crimes? What do you think happens to him next? 

4.  Think about the Videshi: how did you feel about the Videshi at the start of the book? What about at the end? When did your feelings change in the course of the story, if at all?

5. Many chapters end with an exciting cliffhanger. Which was your favourite one and why? 

6. The five children each bring their own strengths together to triumph over Kier and Murdoch. What is each child's crucial skill? Was any skill not needed? 

7. How would the book have been different had Captain Joshi and Lieutenant McKay not been in Sleep after the Event? How does having children in charge of the ship change the feel of the story?

8.  Ship doesn't really 'think'; it 'follows protocols'. How does following the rules without thinking protect the crew? How does following the rules without thinking also cause trouble in the book? 

9.  What lasting friendships do you think emerge after the children's adventures? Do you think Beth and Vihaan become friends or is their relationship - although positive in the end -  different in some way to friendship?

10.  What other books, films, music or games do you know which remind you of Orion Lost? What connections did you make?

11. Look at the fantastic front cover by Dan Mumford. Which are the children in the picture do you think? Why did the artist choose these children to draw? Where are they? What are they looking at? What would you draw if you could design a cover for the book?

12. Go back to the Prologue and read it through again. How does it prepare us for the story? What clues does it have with what happens later in the book? 

The 'Baker's Dozen'th question (and most important one of all!): 

13. What questions do you have, now the book is finished? Find a friend who has read the book too and talk about it with them.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Jan's Version

The One That Got Away: Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
by Jan Mark
(available at

Finishing the last story in the book containing thirty of Jan Mark's short stories - thus ending this year's #JanMARKuary - has left me a different person. The experience of spending every day listening to Mark's voice, always unmistakeable, brisk, honest and bracing, in a variety of guises,  was one that sticks: it's difficult to express quite the precise levels of joy and excitement that these stories have brought me in this, the dingiest month of the year.

#JanMARKuary was set up last year as a personal attempt to get to know a bit more of Jan Mark's work. I read the short story, 'Nothing to be Afraid of', when small and its atmosphere was the thing that made me go back to the stories in the eponymous collection. I read each story during January last year, tweeted a bit about it, then left JM for another year.

In the meantime, Jon Appleton self-published a bumper collection of thirty of her short stories, arranged in alphabetical order by title. (The arrangement is a brilliant success: ordered, clearly, but also 'random' in that no two stories sit side by side by deliberate editorial decision.) Reading one story a day from the second of January and tweeting a general question, so that everyone reading any of JM's books could join in and share the fun, became the ritual. Many of us were reading the short stories volume and the responses, though various, were all drawn together by one large patch of common ground: that JM was an author we all hugely respected and loved. For some this had already been a long-standing attitude, for others it was brand new; for me, it was a wonderful surprise. Surprising, because I realised time is needed to fully appreciate JM's genius. These are stories to be lived with and lived through: there is no short-cutting, and the riches with which Jan rewards her patient readers are, I can now honestly say, life-changing.

Time, though, is something that JM does not waste; you can read one of the majority of these stories in about ten to fifteen minutes. At the same time, neither are words wasted nor indulged, so it's inadvisable to be tempted to rush on to the next. Everything is so sharp, crystal clear, direct: even on a first reading, I found myself feeling that I had just read something utterly perfect. But this perfection never becomes 'clever' (a fairly extensive flurry of tweets around this word, halfway through the month!) nor samey. She never repeats herself: each story a kind of sorbet, intensely and characteristically flavoured -  no need for repetition or expansion, nor any necessity to demonstrate the perfection in the same way again. Each day, I was refreshed by the day's tale, then life would bring me its next course. I could still sense that clarity revealed to me by that bit of JM's wisdom as I went about things: I began to notice more, most strongly the absolutely bang-on ear that she had for speech patterns. The way children speak and the things they say is very close to JM's writing, not just in the dialogue itself, but in the non-sequiturs and elliptical nature of her prose. Sometimes, it's not quite clear - no, that's the wrong word...Sometimes it's not quite usual in the way the story is told, yet everything makes perfect sense when you tune in: JM's stories have their own internal and true logic.

Each tale is a 'version' then of stuff many of us adults know well: disputes, obsessions, family ups-and-downs; but also the things that children know well too: teachers, rituals, stories. Every time you think you've read a story like this before, you are thrown, the carpet pulled very delicately but also very deliberately from under your feet. Many of us #JanMARKuarians delighted in the off-kilter final lines which often make you want to go straight back to the start and read all over again, just for the fun of it!

In this way, Jan is William, the little boy in the very last story of the collection, who will NOT let his gran tell the story of the three little pigs yet again in her boring, 'usual' way. He needs the everyday to be seen through his eyes, owned by him. This is what JM does, every time. Even when you've 'grown cunning' like gran and seem to think you're on to what she is doing, Jan reveals that the story she was telling was actually inspired by her Practical Guide to First Aid or something - at least on the surface - equally  unrelated.

This, of course, is Jan's genius: Jan's Version.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Book of Delights

There are stories that held you as a child; they probably hold you even now. 

The Best Book in the World

When I was eight, my grandfather gave me a book for Christmas. I loved reading as a child and before and after that particular Christmas I was and have always been given books. But this book remains peerless in the lit-gift pantheon.  Its title was ‘The Box of Delights’. 

Masefield’s novel is beloved by many - doubly, triply, a hundred times so because of the 1984 dramatisation of the story by the BBC. Many of us late-thirty-/forty-somethings are still spellbound by its enchantment. And despite some voices today that decry the outdated technology and antique-synth soundtrack, I still see, hear and feel the production to be an absolute masterpiece of film.

But when I was given a hardback copy of the book - specially abridged to tie in with the TV drama, and with lustrous, glossy, full-colour plates – I was completely overwhelmed. How important it was to me: holding it and – oh! – opening those pages to reveal the picture of the Christmas Tree burgeoning with light and gifts, the glorious flight of Kay as he rides a chariot-wreath pulled by swarms of butterflies, and – best of all – the painting of Herne the Hunter deep in his Wild Wood, was a Christmas treat that has kept on giving for my whole life.

So when I lost it only two weeks after I had been given it, I was devastated. We lived in Scotland at the time and in that early January I had walked home from School with a little plastic bag containing The Book and my PE kit. Somewhere on the way home, I had put down the bag, maybe to do up a shoelace, or to talk to a friend, and I ploughed on homeward continuing my way into the very dark and the snow. 

My mum still remembers my serious distress. I can still feel it too. But I can also remember vividly staring out of the back window of our car as mum drove me back along the road I had come, and seeing poking out of a snowdrift - and almost completely covered - the plastic handles of the bag containing The Best Book in the Whole World.

We took the bag home. Snow had filled the bottom of the bag and had turned into icy water. The corners of the book had become mush, the cloth cover scuffed and worn. I was mortified by the state I had allowed it to become through my own negligence, but at least I had The Book. It had come home.

It was sacred to me; I can’t describe it in any other way. A  genuinely spiritual sacredness. It contained something which was absolutely, intensely Magic. I don’t mean ‘magic’ in the sense of ‘Oh what a magical story’ or ‘This story is about magic'; I mean something much more than that. 

The Box of Delights stands proud amongst those children’s novels that hold their readers in wintry thrall: Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe...yet unlike these books, its story rambles and meanders wildly through all kinds of implausibility and mythic reference, and reads more like a surreal improvisation by an overenthusiastic storyteller. This is why I love it above all other stories: it is massively flawed and at times quite off-putting to some (I would imagine) with its pages of seemingly pointless narrative asides, stories within stories that barely hang together, and its outlandish characters and settings that gel together about as smoothly as oil and water.

At its very depths though, in its very core, The Box of Delights taps into the roots of English Magic and Folklore. It shapes the ancient forest tales of the soil, it invokes spirits malign and fearsome and evokes the country’s bloody history; it sets up a mummers’-play-tribute to the rustic, to the eccentric, to the nostalgic. And to the lost.

What place does Arnold of Todi's lost Box of Delights have in the modern day? Whatever Masefield's motivations were for bringing old folklore bang up to date in the 1930s with flying automobiles, robbers and pistols, the clash between the old and the new is clear. The author seems to delight in overloading the story with other stories: the Green Man, Herne, the Lion and the Unicorn, the phoenix, Punch and Judy, the Trojan War...over and over and over, a palimpsest layering upon layering, until the weight of story has nigh quashed the real world.

Kay's modern slang 'I haven't a tosser to my kick' belies his true fascination with the fantastic when he 'frightfully' wants to see a Phoenix.  Except, he says, 'it doesn't exist'. (I do like to think that over this Christmas vacation, Kay managed to slough off his tougher schoolboy skin to becomes his true, wondering, eyes-wide-open self!) Masefield shows youth that what they can imagine, what they somehow just know was once real and true, is still an actuality: spin the stories, dig about a little deeper, and you'll find the truth.

The last lines of the book are almost too pat to be true after all this richness...'it was all a dream'! But it's not the totally duff anticlimax some say it is. A dream is exactly what it is. Like Shakespeare's dream-vision where myth and magic collide with the mundane to create something fresh and anew-formed:

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’

Each one of us is part of the long line of Dreams that have formed our lineage; the stories that have made, and continue to make, our histories. Ramon Lully (aka Cole Hawlings) travels through time to be in all times: he shows that Story is told, retold, played out again and again, eternally refreshed and drawn upon.

As a child, I literally lost The Book . Then, for a time as a young adult, I lost sight of the book spiritually – I was reading other things, and the book stayed on the shelf, untouched for a while. But it was found again.  And now I read it every year at Christmas, in memory of my grandfather who gave me this gift all those years ago, and also in living memory of how such stories (and Story) can have a very special - transformational - place in all our lives.

Story is never lost. It holds us forever.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A Haunted Haunted-House

HAUNTED HOUSE by Jan Pienkowski (Heinemann, 1979)
THE HOUSE OF MADAME M by Clotilde Perrin (Gecko Press, 2019)

As thunder peals, a swathe of bats darts in front of a dilapidated Queen-Anne-style house, its darkened windows lit up by a flash of lightning. A Hammond organ cranks into life to accompany scenes of secret panels creaking open while evil eyes glow from the shadows...

This - the opening titles for Scooby Doo - is for many, the quintessence of the haunted house: a creepy old pile in the middle of nowhere, festooned with dust and cobwebs; and very enjoyable such tropes are - you know where you are with this sort of house.

But if our youthful interest is piqued we might explore a bit more as we grow older, and eventually find ourselves on the doorstep of Bly or Paramore (Henry James), Hill House (Shirley Jackson), or Hundreds Hall (Sarah Waters). In these 'grown-up' haunted houses, the oppression is palpable - they have a hold on someone in the story and will not let go. Bly and Paramore stifle a governess and an heir respectively, both of whom are obsessed (though for different reasons) with the family's seat; Hill House is vitalised by the psychic energies of its damaged visitors; and Hundreds Hall casts its spell via a malign Englishness, nostalgia and class tensions translated into the victim's obsession. People who visit these houses are already haunted by themselves; the houses give physical substance to their spiritual anxiety. Like Rebecca's Manderley, the atmospheres of the buildings  become deeply impressed on our psyches; they cast long shadows; you don't quite know where you are with this sort of house.

There is a pop-up book, Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski, that I think does for the child's mind as do those 'grown up' houses described. It may seem at first glance to be the usual haunted-house-for-kids fodder, with its sheeted ghosts and spiders and a gigantic (vampire?) bat, though it lingers stickily in the mind long after childhood; there is an atmosphere to it. Don't get me wrong, it's a very entertaining and darkly humorous book: I adored it as a boy (and still do!) and continue to see children today discovering its amusing weirdness with the same sense of delight. But it's also a disconcerting read.

Maybe it's something to do with the narrator. They are talking to a visitor - a doctor - and claim to be suffering from some kind of illness, though this is never properly defined. There's also a conflict between the words and the pictures (as in Pat Hutchins' Rosie's Walk): the narrator seems blithely unaware that their symptoms may be a result of the weird goings on in each room. The reader feels that something is wrong straight away and is complicit in the knowledge that the hauntings are the reason for the tummy problems, sleeping sickness and aching bones. The reader travels through the house, observing all the time, wanting to shout out to the owner "It's behind you!"...until they finally reach the attic. Now the doctor has disappeared. Where have they gone? Who is in the trunk? The book is closed; questions are left unanswered.

A disturbing ending. The house seems to have had the last laugh. As Bly did too, in its turn - and Paramore...Hundreds Hall...Hill House....they all have that last, hollow, satisfied laugh: there is no evading - or escaping - their grip.

This year, Clotilde Perrin has produced another haunted house, another interactive picture book, for a new generation. The House of Madame M, is doubly haunted - it strongly evokes the feel of the earlier Pienkowski title (and even echoes the cover with a slimy tentacle appearing from within the front door of both) as well as adding its own macabre take on the genre. This is not a stereotypical spook-house; it's weird, not altogether friendly nor comfortable, and all the better for this.

In The House of Madame M we are on another tour, this time of a witch's house. Our guide is an odd creature -  a mixture of reptile and bird -  who appears to reside there with a host of other strange inhabitants. Like Pienkowski's visiting alien and resident gorilla, they are not the stock characters associated with a traditional haunted house. There are the usual skeletons and ghosts, yes, but these things loom out of the pages with oversized eyes, gigantic hairy arms and leering grins. Their surreal presence is just as unnerving. 

The last page, as with Haunted House, leaves us with questions that will never be answered. In this book, though, it's the ultimate question - Eternity. The ailing owner of Pienkowski's house is now, forty years on, reflecting on death and the afterlife and a black humour stalks the rooms: there's a Vanitas  hanging on the sitting-room wall, mocking the emptiness of video consoles, hamburgers and mobile phones; the toilet door sports graffiti that speaks of a distinctly existential angst; the Totentanz is demonstrated by the cavortings of human skeletons. Additionally, the goddess Kali is found glaring from a bathroom cabinet beneath a picture of Persephone; anti-wrinkle cream, an elixir of youth and a 'calendar of eternity' all point to the inevitable; while a Decomposition chart in the kitchen gives a pretty accurate (but bleak) message: 'Let it happen'!

Here, there's no softening of what a haunted house really is. The jokes may be dark but, hey, the supernatural is not meant to be light work! Very few children's books manage that knife-edge balance between sly humour and outright horror that characterises some of the greatest horror fiction. There's a double caution too in children's literature by way of the question of appropriate-ness for its intended audience, so it's an even rarer beast that manages to entertain and unnerve children in equal measure. It is books that do this that are likely to spark the inclination to read horror fiction in later life; the kind of stories that linger in the mind long after reading, that shift the status quo in one's inner world, that make one question the everyday, and open the eye to those hitherto 'undreamt-of things in Heaven and Earth'.

So, if I may: don't just stick with 'fluffy' ghosts, hairy spiders and skeletons that wiggle their eyeballs for a cheap laugh this Hallowe'en - in literature, it's the truly haunted haunted-houses that you want to search out and visit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Christopher Maynard: All about Ghosts 
(Usborne, 1977/2019)

Childhood is a kind of half-world, where real-life often blurs into the imaginary and fantastic. I can't remember a time when I was young when I didn't believe that everything read or seen in books was true: witches, demons, Norse mythologies, the gods and monsters of Ancient Greece and Egypt were all just as plausible as the everyday-ness of pencils, toothpaste and cornflakes - I just hadn't seen any such supernatural beings. But, boy, that never stopped me from being totally in awe of them or from believing in them.

I was about ten years old when I first came across the book that helped to shape a huge part of my life. It was a dark Tuesday evening, autumn- or winter-time. I'd had my fishfingers, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight (child of the 80s!) and I was ready for that regular, glorious trip to the local library, pleasurably searching for something to read at bedtime. As I arrived, the fluorescent lights of the library and the gentle murmur of other bibliophiles going about their bookish business lulled me into the usual happy sense of security. Tonight, however, that feeling was to prove false.

Wandering through to the children's section, I found myself gazing up at a book face-out on a high shelf. 

Ooooh! That looks rather good: 

I like spooky things. 
It looks quite 'safe' too - 
a picture book...
actually an information book: 

it's good that it's an information book - 
FACTS don't mess 
with the imagination so much. 

Let's borrow it!

Let's look inside!

No...I'm not sure I'm liking this. 

A freaky dog with one eye 
that looks very weird...
a picture of a hanging man...
those skulls they've drawn 
look like they are watching me...

The pictures, as I turned the pages, started increasingly to alarm me: more than that, actually - they were deeply, viscerally frightening. I felt real fear and something very much out of my control: I could not stop looking at the book. The greatest horror appeared near the end - a photograph of a monk, three metres tall, stretched out in some inhuman way, with a sheet over its face and two dents marked in the cloth, baleful eye-sockets glaring. Even now I look at it and think there's something very wrong about it.

I don't think I ever took the book out of the library: in all honesty, I believed it was cursed.  I did however, manage to read (and enjoyed reading!) the whole thing a number of times over the following few years, until I had moved on in my head, when I'd finally discovered mundane reality was more obviously 'real'.

That book, 'Ghosts' by Christopher Maynard, still scares me. Why? I'm now a 'grown up', not a terrified child. It's not like I live in Borley Rectory or in a remote marshland - my home is a warm, modern semi- on a new estate. Yet that house is filled with volumes and volumes of spook stories, folktales, mythology and the like that I have collected over the many years since that ten-year-old boy found that original book of ghosts. By being terrified of their ilk as a child, I now give them shelter and physically live alongside my fear. They are talismanic; their horrors comfort me.

There are only a very few supernatural stories which manage to scare me nowadays. But addicted to this search for that rare feeling - and why on Earth do I want to experience it anyway?! -  I go on looking for another source of that intense literary fear I first experienced in 'Ghosts'. If you were a reader as a child, a book will almost certainly have frightened you too. For some, it is Grimm who manages it, or maybe it's the death of Aslan, or Dahl's Grand High Witch. None of those scared me (although the moon-like, staring eyes of Sendak's Wild Things come high in my list of literary horror) - no, for me it was that monk. And I wish I knew why...maybe if I could pinpoint that, then I'd learn something about myself.

Does growing up ever diminish the power that childhood reading has on us in the long-term? I'm not sure it does, and certainly not if we embrace the fact that those things we read as a child form indelible and intricate, vital mechanisms of our 'grown up' minds and senses. And of those senses, fear is a potent and very necessary animal instinct.

I'm not going to say that books are a safe way to experience that fear and work through it - because they aren't. Books aren't safe and nor should they ever be. For the child me, what I read in books was perfectly real: if there was horror in it, it was danger; if there was danger, it was a warning; if there was a warning, I should heed it. It was that simple: books helped teach me to be afraid.

And I'll be forever grateful to the one book in particular that - for me - did it first.