Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Beach House Read no.5: 'Who's Afraid?' by Philippa Pearce

WHO’S AFRAID? By Philippa Pearce (1978)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Eleven subtle ghost stories – some more supernatural than others – and each one wonderfully expressing the mixed and complicated feelings of their characters.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
The pencil-marked ‘79p’ on the top corner of the first page leads me to suspect that I bought this in the Magdalene Street Oxfam in Norwich, eleven years ago. I bought a great many elderly Puffins from this shop, and they were all (rather eccentrically, I thought) priced at 79p. Many of them I bought on the day that the river broke its banks and the place had flooded. The staff set all the convector heaters and radiators they could find blasting away at full tilt and the whole shop was like a mouldy swamp in a steamy, mildewy, tropical rainforest. I was undeterred and came away with dozens of books that I’d loved as a kid, and others I had missed completely.

Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
I’ve no idea why I didn’t read it immediately. A collection of ghost stories is something I might keep for Hallowe’en, or for Christmas, and somehow this one – slim as it is – has kept slipping through the net.

What year or edition?
It’s a very 1980s Puffin. Though it’s a nice cover illustration they’ve put it in a border and the whole thing is so much less evocative than Puffins of early periods. What was it about their design in the 1980s? Everything became a bit tidy and pastel and hedged around in borders.

What’s your verdict?
This was a real treat. It’s an extremely short collection, but so skilled and clever and subtle. There’s such variety, too. There’s folk tale-type ghost tales and there are comic, silly ones. There are stories in which – on second glance – involve nothing magical or spooky at all, and others that are steeped in genuine, undeniable manifestations and hauntings. Like the best collections of stories – it was hard to stop. I kept promising myself, ‘just one more, before I put it down.’

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
More than that. It made me wish there were more single-author story collections being published these days. Especially for the children’s / YA market.

What genre would you say it is?
Ghost stories, but of the type I particularly liked as a kid: ghosts that can haunt by day, in any old ordinary place, as well as old castles and mansions. Ghosts in the modern day, amongst ordinary things.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
The fact that ‘Black Eyes’ is so subtle and moving – and might not really be about anything ghostly at all. A less clever piece would be all about the creepy eyeless teddy bear and the terrible things it does – but Philippa Pearce does something much more emotionally complex. Also, the lurking nastiness of ‘His Loving Sister’, and the sheer, strange sadness of ‘Auntie’ – who bravely goes out to meet her destiny halfway – were both greatly surprising to me.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The final story, ‘The Yellow Ball’, which seems so straightforwardly about a ghostly dog, will stay with me a long time, I think. It’s extremely touching.

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
I read the wonderful ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ when I was a kid, and then again – when I bought it in that flooded, swampy, over-heated Oxfam in 2003. That time, I read it in one night, in a B&B in Whitby and it was completely magical all over again. But apart from that classic, I don’t think I’ve read much more by Philippa Pearce. Possibly I’ve read stories by her in anthologies over the years… and perhaps this shadow-memory of having read them before is a further kind of haunting… It’s a sensation I recognize from reading other single-author collections, and it’s a very specialized, readerly kind of frisson.

What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a keeper. Erm… most of these things I’m digging out from the TBR are turning out to be keepers. I’ve got to be more stringent. Though I’m glad to announce that today I’ve just packaged up ‘The Darkened Room’ by Anna Clarke for a friend who said she liked the sound of it. Perhaps I will be able to shake off my book-hoarding ways…

Is it available today?
I don’t think it is! I believe there’s an unabridged audiobook out – but apart from that, it’ll have to be secondhand.

Give me a good quote:
From ‘The Yellow Ball’:
“’…someone wanted the ball not to be thrown again, because it was a haunted ball, you might say. It would draw the dog – the ghost of the dog – to come back to chase it and search for it and never find it. Never find it. Never.’
         ‘You make everything sound sad and wrong,’ said Con. ‘But it isn’t, really.’
         Lizzie did not answer.’”

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