Do you believe in ghosts? I discount many of the ghost stories I hear, but can’t quit discount the whole phenomenon. That is, there is a spiritual world outside our comprehension (see Ephesians 6:12), and while I think it unlikely that spirits of the dead are capable of haunting, other spirits (i.e., demons) might be. It’s not something we’re to obsess over, but ghost stories occupy a well-defined niche in world literature. And great writers from Dickens to Henry James, not to mention Shakespeare, have tried their hand at them. Two highly-respected authors in the world of children’s literature have recently taken the genre out for a spin, as we see today:
Salisbury Cathedral School is where Jon Whitcroft has been sent after making life difficult for his widowed mum and Mum’s new boyfriend (whom Jon snidely calls “the Beard”). SCS, which was established around the time of William the Conqueror, is his Dad’s alma mater, but soon enough Jon learns that just about any boarding school would have been better. Salisbury is haunted by the ghost of Lord Stourton, who holds a grudge against his ancestors, the Hartgills. Bad enough to encounter ghosts, but worse if it’s personal, and Jon soon receives the scare of his life. But he finds a helpful ally in Ella Littlejohn, whose grandma conducts ghost tours at Salisbury and takes the specters very seriously. If Jon wants help against Lord Stourton, his best bet is to call on the ghost of Sir William Longspee, the illegitimate (text uses the word bastard) son of Henry II and half-brother to Richard Lionheart. Also, as Jon discovers upon meeting him, a knight with a guilty conscience lingering in an afterlife limbo: “Time passes slowly when you fear hell, and don’t yet deserve heaven.”
Defeating Stourton is only part of the quest, in a story with enough twists and perilous situations to please any juvenile pneumaphile. Jon is a whiny kid at the beginning, always kvetching about his mom’s boyfriend and kicking himself for “stupid” actions and reactions, but Sir William proves to be a good character model. There are some inconclusive discussions about heaven and hell; none about God, which is rather telling in itself. Cautions include a few occurrences of the word “damn,” and Mum and the Beard living together prior to their wedding. Even prior to their engagement. The extensive glossary is a bonus, through which a dutiful reader could learn quite a lot of English history and geography.
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5
- Literary value: 3.5
The author, creator of the Bartimaeus series, is back in an alternate London at a roughly contemporary time devoid of computers and cell phones. For the last fifty years, the country has experienced an outbreak of hauntings called the Problem (much as the Irish rebellion of the 1970s was called the Troubles). The population has more or less accepted ghosts as a fact of life, though the spirits aren’t friendly and they are too often a cause of death. Particularly to young people, who alone possess the extrasensory perception needed to track down “Visitors” and deal with them. So, who you gonna call? Anthony Lockwood, 16-year-old heir of a fallen family who works independently of the big ghost-hunting syndicates, and his fearless partner Lucy Carlyle. The research arm and comic relief of the operation is portly George Cubbins. All three are in for a night of horror when asked to investigate a lethal apparition who has taken up residence in the country home of a wealthy iron baron.
There’s a rather large plot twist that I spotted easily, but the main characters are engaging and the story moves along at a nice clip. Stroud’s world-building isn’t as comprehensive and compelling as in the Bartimaeus series, and he’s a little more liberal with the mild profanity (such as “what the hell”). But the milieu is more implicitly Christian, with the inclusion of a group of heretic monks and Lockwood’s observation that “You’d think the Problem would make people consider their immortal souls.” As in Ghost Night, however, the implications of a spirit world are not explored, and the worldview partakes more of the stoical pagan than the hopeful Christian: Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid . . . you’ll never be able to turn the tide. That statement comes at the end, making me wonder what the author has planned for the rest of the series. There are a couple of genuinely scary chapters that may give sensitive readers nightmares, so let the parent beware.
- Worldview/moral value: 3
- Literary value: 4
While we’re on the subject of scary books, see my posts from last Halloween on “horror” literature vs. “terror” literature. And while we’re on the subject of ghosts, see our review of Doug TenNapel’s graphic novel, Ghostopolis.