Full of life


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

18 thoughts on “Full of life

  1. earthbalm

    I’ve never even considered reading Pratchett until today.
    I’m currently on a Susan Cooper trip but shall add this book to an ever growing list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m trying to decide if that “Thanks” is written in tones of sarcasm or gratitude! No matter, I’m a late convert to Pratchett too but prefer to ration him out — you may wish to as well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        I’m never sarcastic unless it’s face to face. 🙂 I’m grateful for the recommendations you’ve made. I wouldn’t have read Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper or others without your posts. UKLG remains my favourite author though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. earthbalm

        I have to say that I’m looking forward to retiring from teaching more each second that passes – I’m done with it! I can’t wait for the chance to get out and play the wood and steel contraptions that haunt my room.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There came a time for me too when the rewards of teaching were unduly outweighed by the sheer administrative, bureaucratic burdens placed on one’s shoulders by a restless and relentless system that had nothing to do with the joy and true rewards of learning and discovering. I too was heartily relieved when my 60th offered a passkey to doing more of what I enjoyed. Your time will surely come, Dale!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic book, as are all the Johnny books. Pratchett lost his mojo later on, I suppose as his illness eroded parts of his imagination, but his middle period books are cracking. I’m glad you mentioned the humanity in his writing – it’s always so warm, so keen to champion the underdog and empathise. Glad you liked it Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read a couple of other comic fantasy writers, Lynn — Tom Holt for example — which seemed to be of the same stable as Pratchett but rather missed those vital ingredients that characterise Sir Terry: fierce anger coupled with a warm humanity.

      With TP I’m also jettisoning my preferences for reading series in either chronological or publishing order, just taking each book as it presents itself whenever I’m in the mood for serious silliness.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Serious silliness is a good description. And although there are character arcs running through the books, all of them stand on their own too. I remember reading in a writing magazine the sound advice to not bother writing comic fantasy as Terry Pratchett had the sub genre covered. Not sure that’s entirely right, but it would be tough to be compared with his legacy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent view of a book I found most enjoyable. By that time I had acquired a Pratchett taste after dismissing the first book I read (his first) as total nonsense and missing most of the humour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Col! Haven’t yet got round to ‘The Colour of Magic’ but as the Discworld stories can be read in any order I’m in no hurry to tackle what many tell me is one of his weaker efforts.


  4. I must read this. I recently read Shepherd’s Crown, and got quite tearful at certain parts. That book reads like a first draft at times, and no wonder, but I think fans would have no problems filling in the blanks, as it were. I’m sad that I won’t get to read more about Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, my favourite characters by TP, along with DEATH, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Before I read this I’d assumed that all his fiction was was set in the Discworld; having since read the odd short story (and now this) I find of course that I was mistaken!

      I think the last published work by an author often has a sense of melancholy and loss to go with the knowledge of finality. (The same was true of DWJ’s Isles of Chaldea.) The melancholy may only arise from a certainty that ‘this is it’ more than anything inherent in the text itself.


      1. I couldn’t get into the ones in which there are little people living in a carpet or something. And I can’t get into some of the Discworld books. In fact, I only like the ones with witches and DEATH. Have you read Good Omens? That’s pretty good. I’m not a Gaiman fan but I like that, and Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

        I agree that that sense of melancholy in an author’s final book is mainly being projected by the reader. With Shepherd’s Crown though, because TP knew it was the end, I feel there’s a deliberate attempt to say farewell, and make certain points. It was very like having a conversation with someone on their death bed, but not a sad conversation, more like one in which you explore all your beliefs and come out inspired. It’s not the best written of his books, but it’s a good read nevertheless.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll look out for it now; I ‘enjoyed’ (I use the word advisedly) the collection of essays, articles and talks he gave that were published a little before he died.


        2. I’ve read and reviewed ‘Good Omens’ and ‘Coraline’ but never got round to reviewing ‘The Graveyard Book’. I’ve now got the graphic novel version of the last so may review that instead. Or not. 🙂


          1. I thought the graphic novel of Coraline was well done. I preferred the way she is portrayed in it to how she is in the animated film. Have not encountered TGB graphic novel.

            And I must look for that book by TP – the talks and essays one. Thanks for the heads up.


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