Wednesday, 27 June 2012

'Come Back, Lucy' and 'Black Maria'

These two novels were the first books of the summer for me this year. Two vintage kids' books about ghosts and mysterious transformations - by Pamela Sykes and Diana Wynne Jones respectively - perfect for that start-of-the-hoildays feeling. Especially with the on-off kind of weather we've been having - with blazing sunshine turning suddenly to torrential downpours. A bit of uncanny mystery was exactly what was needed in early June!

Pamela Sykes' 'Come Back, Lucy' seemed familiar straight away - from the tv tie-in cover I felt as if I'd watched it when it was broadcast in 1978. The book bore that out, in those early scenes of the slightly claustrophobic, old-fashioned house that Lucy shares with her Aunt Olive. It all seemed very familiar - as did the displacement and resentment when she is packed off to live with her 'noisy, casual' - and very modern - cousins. It's the story of a girl who has been brought up as if in Victorian times, suddenly having to live with 70s kids, and then being haunted by a genuinely Victorian ghost.

It's set at Christmas, too, which seems perfect for summer reading, to me. I seem to want ghostly, cold stories in the middle of the blaring sun and the muggy rain.

"She swished the curtain as she spoke in order to see better, and for the peering Lucy the light was suddenly changed so that instead of the dark garden she saw only a reflection of the room behind her and of her own face. Yes, of course it was her own face. It had to be. But even as she reasoned, the owner of the face raised a pale hand that beckoned.

"Lucy, with a thrill of fear, shook her head. But the other head nodded. The lights in the room swung, the lights in the reflection swung, wild half-formed ideas swung in Lucy's head. She saw the mouth on the other side of the window frame the words, 'Come with me!'

"For a moment she hesitated.

"Then, unnoticed by anyone else, she slipped from the room and ran out into the snowy night."

Of course, what I'm always looking for is a book that will deliver me that same sense of dark magic and nostalgic mystery that Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' always does. I think the books most likely to do that are those that defy logic, and that contain gaps and baffling bits and parts of the story that only start to line up and make sense on a second or third reading. And by then, other parts of the story, seemingly straightforward before, start to seem puzzling once more.

Perhaps more by luck that chance, both the Pamela Sykes and the Diana Wynne Jones I picked out in June had that feeling. i want to return to both - because both have that feeling of density and darkness (as if mysteriousness was a quality that you could put a value or a figure to!)

Diana Wynne Jones the more so. 'Black Maria' is a very strange book indeed. On the surface - a holiday-at-the-home-of-an-eccentric aunt book - but one that becomes mythical, macabre and dangerous-seeming as it progresses. This is a book in which nice old ladies reveal horrendous, spiteful inner selves; boys are turned into wolves; mothers are brainwashed and dead fathers are revealed as merely hiding themselves away. Oh, and there's a 'Wild Hunt' in this one, too - just as there is in Susan Cooper, and just as there is in the Penelope Lively i read a little later. And in the Mary Webb I read after that.

I love Diana Wynne Jones' sly, macabre humour. It's the sort of humour that's always pointing at deeper, darker things.

"'Well, dear? Did they get him?'
"'They shot an old she-wolf,' Elaine said.
Aunt Maria fell back into her chair and stared. 'Naomi,' she said, in a feeble gasping voice. 'Not my Naomi!'
"'Well, you told them to shoot a wolf,' Elaine said, and she turned on the heel of her green gumboot and marched out of the house again. I heard her slam the back door through the noise Aunt Maria was making.
"She was screaming by then in a way that made Mum and me feel sick. 'Naomi! Oh, Naomi!' she yelled."


  1. So interestin, Thanks Paul for bringing these again back into the reader's view. W.x

  2. Cheers, Wendy! I do think some of these Puffins from the 60s and 70s have been unjustly neglected. Pamela Sykes needs bringing back into print. (All of DWJ is in print, i think.)

  3. Come Back, Lucy sounds extraordinary. Just yesterday I found an odd novel by Ursula Moray Williams with a similar ish theme, Castle Merlin, but Pamela's novel sounds much more about unstable ideas of identity, strange people in the mirror and so on. Very richly uncanny.

    I love Black Maria - I knew I would, but it was perhaps less camp than I'd expected. I have the complex oddness of the green magic, and the work she puts in on making her characters believable, about making the novel in some ways about Mums.

    I think all of DWJ has come back into print (I heard some interesting news on that yesterday, though) but she’s still not exactly high profile, although so rewarding– it’s lovely that her and Pamela are both getting talked about on your blog.