I’m not the only one with these book ghosts, a friend of mine once had been looking for a book from her childhood and all she could remember was that there was a witch that lived on an island in the middle of the lake, and a girl who floated up the stairs. Title? Nuh. Author? Nuh. I had no idea what the book was either. I file other people’s book ghosts like this away in my head, and always try to find them when I’m in the children’s section of a second-hand book store. I did find this one – quite by chance at a launch of a Mirka Mora book in Richmond, by picking up a book by an author I'd liked as a kid and reading on the back that it had a witch who lived on an island in a lake. Excitement!
It was A Visit To Folly Castle by Nina Beachcroft. Which I should have thought of, really. I’d thought of Nina Bawden…points for the Nina bit.
One of my own book ghosts that I’d been trying to remember for years was a book I borrowed from the Bendigo library, so I must have been under 8. All I could vaguely remember was that the face on the cover didn’t have proper eyes, it had something about a weather-friend in it, and there was an evil goblin that lived in a stove. But the feeling I had carried from it (which was what had weirded me out) was one of everything being out of control and frustrating and scary. I still hadn’t had any luck finding it until a few weeks ago in Alice’s Bookshop. Browsing through the children’s section I saw the name Joyce Dunbar on a spine. I sort-of recognised the name, so I pulled out the book:
Mundo and the Weather Child. WIN! I was so excited I did that ludicrous thing where you hold onto the book really tightly and look wildly around you as if someone is going to take it away. There’s really no way of sharing that moment with anyone. Found! Found!
Then I had to re-read it, to see what the deal was. I had completely forgotten that it was about a boy Edward who moves to a new town and then suddenly becomes deaf after an illness. Stuck at home, he feels trapped and frustrated by his friendlessness and new silent world. And everything about the new house is threatening – the tangled garden rips at him with thorns, the decayed summer-house houses an evil goblin inside an old stove. One day when he is sent out into the garden to play, Edward meets the Weather-Child, a mysterious creature who names him Mundo and shows him how to ride the weather and find new worlds hidden in his garden.
As is sometimes the case with book ghosts, it’s not a particularly brilliant book. But while reading it again I was still shot through with that same feeling, like it had pierced through from 1988 to 2008. The goblin is a threat but not in a concrete way, and the Weather Child may be a magical friend, but he is in no way tame or particularly human (he doesn’t understand emotion and when Edward cries asks "show me how to rain"). Like his deafness, all his magical experiences are well out of Edward’s control most of the time. And that was the unsettling thing for me – you find a new magical world filled with amazing experiences and creatures, but it’s not safe or reliable or always particularly enjoyable. A scary thought for an 8-year-old who fully expects to find a door to another Narnia around the corner.
Some other books that weirded me out as a pre-teen:
Dorp dead by Julia Cunningham - my all-time freakout this one. Just look at it! It's creepy! He looks like a child in a Balthus painting. In the book, Gilly is left an orphan after the death of his beloved grandmother, and at the orphanage he craves a life of quiet and order that living with hundreds of other boys just can’t provide. His pretence of stupidity (despite being ‘brilliant’) is ensured by his deliberately never learning to spell. When Gilly is sent to live with Kobalt, the town ladder-maker and eccentric, it seems as if his prayers have been answered. Kobalt’s life is lead in a series of precise hourly rituals, and Gilly at first slides into the grooves of this ordered life with relief. I wrote about re-reading this one for an assignment in library school, and nailed down the freakout to the boy Gilly's insidiously gradual loss of self - once again the kind of threat that was too obscure for me to pinpoint as a young 'un, but left a huge impression in my memory. The copy I eventually bought was a cast-off from the Warrnambool Library! Sometimes the books are still there.
The Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen (great name) - about a kidnapping victim held in a cellar with (for a reason I can't remember) a typewriter. Weirded me out not just for the unresolved ending, but for the fact that as the room was so dark she never even knew if she was hitting the right keys on the typewriter.
Why Weeps the Brogan by Hugh Scott - A famous one. My only memory, until I found it, was that they had mysteriously appearing warm rolls for breakfast. Where did the rolls come from???? Creepy. It now kind of reminds me a little of Margo Lanagan's short stories.
The Fortunate Few by Tim Kennemore - A futuristic-ish world where gymnastics is the brutal super-sport and ruthlessness makes money. The ending is so coolly horrific I seriously thought at the time that my school library copy was missing pages, and that gymnast Jodie didn't know what had happened to her team-mate Beth. Discovered on finding and re-reading that no, that was the end, and went "ooooh."
And there's a bazillion more (if anyone has a spare copy of Peter Dickinson's A Box of Nothing lying around, let me know). They'll keep turning up, unexpected and with dodgy cover artwork.
This is what second-hand book stores are for, in my opinion. Nailing where your freakouts come from, and laying to rest old book ghosts.