Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001
A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?
In Thunder’s Pocket is the first of a trio of novelettes for younger readers. Set in Cornwall and featuring Ned Thorne, it is described as ‘a St Boan mystery’ — but it is equally a ghost story, a supernatural tale, as are the two sequels; in fact the official Joan Aiken site categorises the trilogy as Magic & Mystery.
Thunder’s Pocket is an epithet for the town of St Boan because of its storm-prone microclimate. We’re told St Boan is based on the fishing village of St Ives, perhaps as it was in the mid-fifties when the author and her young family lived in Cornwall. Even then it will have been not only a haunt of artists and the occasional holiday visitor but also a place set apart from the rest of the world. It’s a feeling it retains to this day.
St Boan (dedicated to a non-existent Cornish saint, perhaps a meld of Welsh surname Bowen and the prehistoric stone circle at Boscawen-Un) was the home of Malot Corby, a cantankerous sculptress of abstract forms who took offence against Ned’s Aunt Lal. After her death Lal has never been quite the same, letting her hair grow and displaying a vacant manner. It’s up to Ned to find the connections between Malot and her cousin Lal and just what needs to be done to remove the curse on his aunt.¹
At the most obvious level this spooky story is firmly focused on the magic and mystery promised. But Joan Aiken also knows what ingredients to include and how to mix them up to make her concoction feel authentic. The evil entity that survives in an egg is straight out of Russian folktale; malevolent birds emerge straight out of North European lore but are here brought up to date, with the feathered bane of seaside tourists replacing carrion crows and ravens; keys, especially when made of iron, were not only a means to reveal secrets but also to guard against malign influences; and combing hair is supposed to be a sure way to ease trauma, just as cutting it is said to excise negativity.
Ned’s relationship with his Aunt Lal opens the way to shared psychic experiences, a bond that is followed up in the sequels. Ned’s more intellectual side is perhaps encouraged and emphasised by his Uncle Adam who runs the bookshop in the town. And yet overall there is a dreamlike atmosphere pervading the narrative, a parallel reality suggested but never made explicit, which perfectly suits the brevity of the tale.
Without a doubt it firmly appealed to the child in me, a child who totally identified with Ned, the sensitive yet resourceful protagonist.
¹ Perhaps Malot was partly based on the artist Barbara Hepworth, who had returned to St Ives in 1954; this was a year before Joan Aiken had to move back to London from Cornwall so it’s quite possible their paths crossed.
My local bookshop’s Reading Challenge for July was to read a book that can be finished in a day. And thus it turned out