Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)
This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.
The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.
Imagine a plague of gryphons in central London, or an infestation of mushrooms in a suburban home; picture a talking dog who takes advantage of his owners or ghosts who, like annoying guests who drop in for a visit, refuse to leave a house.
How would it be if, for example, you combined the grandfather clock of Tom’s Midnight Garden and the concept behind Groundhog Day? (Of course, this isn’t how it’s described here.) And what would happen if you got on the wrong side of a magician and found you were in the middle of a fairytale, with a princess to rescue and a dragon and an ogre to confront?
Two stories stick in my mind. ‘A Martian Comes to Stay’ may in outline sound like the plot of ET the Extraterrestrial but Peter and his grandmother treat the arrival of a polite “small green person with webbed feet and eyes on the end of stumpy antennae” as nothing much out of the ordinary. The film had come out two years before this was published but the author seems to imply that the British way would be to take it all in one’s stride and somehow muddle through in a matter of fact way. (I’m not sure this is necessarily a good or sensible strategy these days, or any day.)
The final story concerns the discovery of a hungry dragon down a disused well. Like many of the other fantasies this borrows a folk- or fairytale motif but updates it to a modern setting. Joe and Pete’s parents block off the shaft discovered beneath their old scullery but it’s up to the boys to discover how to deal with what turns out to be an omnivorous creature out of legend; theirs is a novel but elegant solution born of a modern age.
With ordinary names like Joe and Pete, or Peter, Paul, Marian, Simon, Sue or Alan, and living in ordinary terraced houses or ordinary villages, the author’s youngsters survive against the odds, whether they narrate their own stories or it’s done for them. Behind it all is a writer with a sense of fun and of the ridiculousness of everyday life, into which a little rain does fall but is followed smartly by a rainbow.