Terry Pratchett Johnny and the Dead
Corgi Books 1997 (1993)
With hindsight it’s all too possible to read more into this YA novel than the author intended more than a score of years ago. Is Pratchett’s obsession with death, here and in other of his novels, some kind of premonition of his debilitating illness or, as I suspect it is, merely his continuing exploration of and creative attempts to deal with one of the big questions that we all contemplate at some time or another — namely, is there any kind of life after our departure from this world? And how do we cope with that while we still have this life?
Johnny and the Dead is the second in a loose trilogy about teenager Johnny Maxwell who lives in a Midlands town called Blackbury. Alone among his three friends — Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less — he finds he is able to see the dead in the local cemetery. More than that, he is able to speak to them. They are livid — well, as much as the disembodied can be said to be livid — when they discover that the cemetery has been sold to some developers, the distinctly anonymous United Amalagamated [sic] Consolidated Holdings.
Will big business rip the heart out of a somnolent community unaware that the cemetery is not only a reliquary of its past but also a place for quiet retreat and contemplation? The scene is set then for a David and Goliath confrontation between Johnny, his friends, the Dead and a sympathetic adult on the one hand, and an apathetic public, a conniving council and UACH on the other. Within this familiar narrative trope, embedded in a matrix of typical Pratchett humour — puns, asides and topical allusions — is a living organism reflecting the author’s affection for honest social values and his own genuine humanitarianism.
As the action speeds towards Halloween the Dead start to take control of their own destiny, and Johnny starts to realise that cemeteries, far from merely being a repository for spent bodies, are a registry of a communal body’s history which they lose at their peril. Here lies a pillar of the community, there a suffragette, here a stage magician and there a trade unionist, here a taxidermist and there a failed businessman, each with a story to tell providing there’s someone to listen. These days, with family history almost a growth industry, grave plots can often provide the plots of ancestral narratives but not if — neglected and unvalued — they’re allowed to disappear, as may happen to Blackbury’s cemetery.
I mentioned Pratchett’s humour, very British but seemingly no barrier to his legions of fans abroad. When characters like Tom Bowler and William Stickers are introduced not everyone may realise the underlying wordplay with tombola (where winning names or numbers are randomly picked from a revolving drum) or the joke inherent in the once familiar sign Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted; but the punning is always incidental, never crucial to the storyline. The same applies to cultural references: the convolutions of TV series Cobbers are obviously modelled on Aussie soap Neighbours (still running, thirty years later) but the genre is so universal no familiarity with the original is necessary.
I also alluded to the author’s humanitarianism; this is especially evident in his introduction of the Blackbury Pals. His prefatory note reminds us that in the First World War “there really were such things as Pals’ Battalions” in which “a whole generation of young men from one particular area” could be wiped out with cannon shell, and though this recruitment practice had ceased by the Battle of the Somme in 1916 it was too late for the communities which it had already devastated.
Pratchett clearly had affection for earlier more innocent forms of schoolboy fiction. The fractured language and tortured logic of Johnny’s little gang recalls nothing so much as Richmal Crompton’s Just William books which appeared from the 1920s onwards; Johnny, Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less are the spiritual descendants of eleven-year-old William Brown and his pals Ginger, Henry and Douglas as much as the youngsters in Pratchett’s Good Omens (co-authored with Neil Gaiman).
Johnny and the Dead is full of life and joie de vivre. So it will not surprise the reader to discover that the ferryman who comes to transport some of the cemetery’s erstwhile denizens has a line in deadpan humour familiar from other of the author’s novels such as Mort.
* Review first published 2nd June 2015, reposted here in the run-up to Halloween