Cursed by a lack of imagination

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Ghost Stories.

Age range 8 to 13 The Weekly Ghost. By Toby Forward Andersen Press #163;9.99. 86264545 X

The Hidden Tomb. By Jenny Oldfield Hippo Ghost #163;2.99. - 590557998

The Railway Phantoms By Dennis Hamley Hippo Ghost #163;2.99. 590 559249

Stonestruck. By Helen Cresswell Viking #163;10.99. - 670 85890 0

Good ghosts make poor subjects," said Henry James. He was, of course, describing his own powerful practice. He was also thinking of the need for fictional spectres to violate scientific proprieties yet to be expressive, dramatic figures in an action. They can inhabit suggestive landscapes and haunt receptive victims, but their own presence must be truly felt. The writer must show, not tell.

It's a hard standard for a story to reach. The Weekly Ghost makes a lively attempt without really achieving it. The ghost in question comes from 1881, and makes her presence known to four children from Class 6M who are editing the school's news sheet. They are energetic and talkative, come from different ethnic groups, and cheerfully bait their abrasive but good-natured headteacher. Amazed when copies of the paper are mysteriously altered and filled with predictions of accidents that really happen, they are led to old archives and an elderly ex-pupil called Arthur Clenham.

As well as having an irrelevant Dickensian name, he summons up folk-memories of a child who died in a fire. After a night filled with some mildly exciting chronological ambiguity, the mystery is solved. But it's not very believable. Spectral Sarah's Victorian photograph looks much too 1990s and the headteacher spends far more time worrying about school sock regulations than about dwindling budgets or OFSTED plans.

The Hidden Tomb reaches back to the 17th century and a feud between two brothers. Dying curses afflict subsequent generations. Sadly, the story is little more than a predictable and unconvincing corollary of its accumulated gothic props. The haunted house is "massive" but set "in a clearing deep in the woods". A local boy lives within distance but appears never to have been near the place. A library book with the promising title The Ghost of Middleton Hall seems to tell the entire legend in one brief chapter.

The new owner, who inherits the house in an unexpected legacy, becomes ever more savage and unshaven but the neighbouring children and the visiting heroine - her parents conveniently away on business - continue to work as volunteer builders. After the house's spectacular collapse and the lifting of the curse, the new owner, though unemployed, has elaborate architectural plans available in three days. Words like "terrible", "frantic" and "hellhole" stud the page but carry little conviction. This doom provides no frisson for the attentive reader.

The Railway Phantoms is more thoroughly realised and more disturbing. Rachel is a victim of her parents' marital warfare and is sent against her will to a Yorkshire village where her father works fanatically at reviving a steam railway. At first he seems just another sad obsessive - in his uniform "my father looks an absolute prat" - but soon it becomes clear that he too is disturbed by the undertones of Victorian tragedy of which Rachel is constantly dreaming. These insinuations, whispers of presences as she hears the lonely whistle blow, are well done.

The "process of adumbration" described by Henry James is underwritten by a potent sense of grief, anger and guilt. Unauthorised love cutting across class distinctions was once enough to cause a murder whose power resonates today. Dennis Hamley lovingly reconstructs the detailed life of his long-dead characters - the gritstone cottages and their red-mufflered inhabitants - with the clarity of the imagination rather than the sentiment of the heritage industry.

Helen Cresswell is a practised enough writer to get both her settings and her minutiae right. Her heroine in Stonestruck is Jessica, sent to the Welsh borders to escape the Blitz. The wild hill country is assigned a mysterious role in the prologue, and by the time Jessica is among deer and people speaking a strange language she's already dwelling in the Other.

She gets caught up in a mythical landscape whose air and mist breathe the insidious sibilants of her name. Children's games become threatening, a Green Lady like the Erlking seeks playmates whom she forces to leave the living world. This all works, partly because of the distinction of Cresswell's writing - she sees the cast-iron bath "like a huge white pig" and the yew trees like "great leathery beasts" - and partly because the conflicts between flea-bitten evacuees and close-knit Celts are unsparingly presented.

Despite their deformed speech, all "fanks", and "bovver" and "nuffing", it's the Londoners whose streetwise solidarity wins against intangible evil. Their grubby triumph is more evocative than a volume full of incomprehensible howls and curses.

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