Time no longer

Philippa Pearce:
Tom’s Midnight Garden
Illustrated by Susan Einzig
OUP 2008 (1958)

When the dreamer dreams who dreams the dreamer? Do people change their essence as they age? And can Eternity be contained in a dream? Big questions, imponderable maybe, but ones raised by a reading of Tom’s Midnight Garden, first published over sixty years ago but retaining a freshness whilst reflecting the angst of childhood.

Though set in 1958 — when, incidentally, I was roughly the same age as young Tom — the story also harks back to the late Victorian period, specifically the late 1880s and 1890s. This is the time of the midnight garden, when orphan Hatty is growing up in a Cambridgeshire villa, reluctantly taken in by an unsympathetic aunt and largely left to her own devices.

Meanwhile — and it is a curious ‘meanwhile’ — Tom Long is sent to stay over summer with his aunt and uncle, in quarantine while his younger brother Peter recovers from measles. Like Hatty he is isolated from his contemporaries, and his yearning for company of his own age chimes in with the mystery of the grandfather clock that incorrectly marks the hours. At one witching hour, when thirteen is struck, Tom finds his way through the back door leading to a plot out of time.

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Interlace and the gimp

Kathy Hoopman: Lisa and the Lacemaker
An Asperger Adventure
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2002

Lisa lives largely in a world of her own, tolerating a select few friends and family members but otherwise extremely sensitive to sensory over-stimulation. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a strong imagination or a rich mental landscapes; and it doesn’t mean she is unable to focus on things that matter to her, or to say things as she sees them. For Lisa, as is immediately made clear, has Asperger’s Syndrome.

One day, in the backyard of her only friend Ben—who also has Asperger’s—she unexpectedly comes across a door obscured by undergrowth. This turns out to be the lost and forgotten servants’ quarters of the Victorian house in which Ben’s family now live. In exploring it she starts to uncover its secrets, leading to family histories involving long lost loves, the ancient art of lacemaking, and the ghost of one of the dwelling’s former residents.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992

Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.

The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

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Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Susan Hill Printer’s Devil Court
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill. The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

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