Apprentice psychopomp

roof boss
Grotesque roof boss, Southwark Cathedral, London

Chris Westwood Ministry of Pandemonium
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2011

A sensitive boy who frequents graveyards. Who sees the spirits of the recently departed. Who displays extraordinary artistic gifts. Who finds it hard to make friends when he starts a new school. And a boy whose father has mysteriously disappeared and a mother who is seriously ill. In other words, a youngster who fulfils many of the prime requirements for the outsider protagonist of a novel. This is Ben Harvester, who is drawn into a world of ghosts and demons and, in the process, discovers the latent abilities he has arising out of that sensitivity, a sensitivity that encompasses both his artistic gifts and his concern for those less well off than himself.

Through a rather odd stranger, Mr October  — whose name conjures up that witching period of Halloween or Samhain, with its feasts of the dead — Ben is introduced to the secret Ministry of Pandemonium. As you might expect from a word coined by Milton for Paradise Lost, this synonym for disorder and chaos simply means “all the demons”. It transpires that the Ministry’s job is to locate lost souls and open the door to another world for them before demons gets to them — no easy task given the magnitude of the task. Will Ben manage to put off his inquisitive new friend Becky Sanborne before she discovers his unlikely calling? And what is the secret of his mother’s exhaustion and the explanation for his father’s disappearance?

Ministry of Pandemonium is set in a modern London with a supernatural underground familiar from China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The boy who haunts cemeteries recalls Bod from Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The brick wall near Camden Lock giving access to the Ministry is reminiscent of Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station from Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And yet, despite some of the parallels one can easily make, there is a largely a consistent but individual use of these motifs. It’s not a perfect book — Ben, who himself narrates his tale, seems extraordinarily literate for someone of his age (twelve or thirteen, I would guess) and, despite loose ends (this is apparently the first novel in a series), the ending is a little pat, albeit redeemed by some pragmatic touches such as a solution for his father’s absence.

I wasn’t totally satisfied by Ministry of Pandemonium: I didn’t find the terrors very horrific for example, and supporting characters often seemed either a little predictable (Ben’s friends and foes always manage to find him wherever he runs to in the capital) and, for a boy who supposedly cares about people, he seemed singularly prosaic about the several deaths that are occasioned by the novel’s apocalyptic ending (there always is an apocalyptic ending in books such as these, aren’t there, usually set at Halloween). Why too does a West Yorkshire lad like Chris Westwood need to fall into the media cliché of London as the centre of all things?

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4 thoughts on “Apprentice psychopomp

  1. It does seem he has all the right ingredients – the question seems to be whether his mix or oven temperature are successful.
    An interesting point on drawing parallels with gimmicks in successful stories is that they are often arrived at spontaneously, without influence conscious or unconscious from the books in question. I know this because some of my own inventions predated manifestations of them later appearing in other novels – but as mine were not published yet the other authors were NOT influenced by me!

  2. Doesn’t James Lovelock or someone similar call it morphic resonance, Col, that near simultaneous appearance of similar but independently arrived-at ideas? Zeitgeist, I suppose.

    On the other hand, the similarity of themes from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — perinatal prophecy, witch figure, magic spells, coma and awakening by prince — doesn’t imply one borrowed from the other or that one or the other is better, merely that motifs can be common to different works of art.

    Which may be what you’re saying or at least implying!

  3. I read this back when it first came out so my memory of it is a bit hazy, but I seem to remember liking Ben as he was quiet, observant and artistic. I remember the horror aspects as being well done – or maybe I was easily scared back then.

  4. I regard supernatural horror as largely unfrightening but psychological torture and physical cruelty especially I find hard to take in fiction, let alone in real life. Demons from hellfire leave me cold, and supernatural menace in fiction has to be well done to affect me (the pairs of villains in ‘Kraken’ and ‘Neverwhere’ are cases in point.

    But I agree with your observation about Ben: nice, sensitive, artistic — don’t we think of ourselves as such?

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