There is a vast range of ghosts in children’s fiction. I’m going to leave out all the comic ones, on the assumption that a comic ghost story is hardly a ghost story at all. Even Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ doesn’t become spooky until the end – when the comedy vanishes into pathos. Such stories, one presumes, work mainly to stop young children being frightened of ghosts – rather as the brilliant Ahlberg ‘Funnybones’ picturebook series helped prevent my kids being frightened of skeletons: (“In a dark dark room in a dark dark house on a dark dark street – three skeletons lived…”)
That ghost stories can be spooky without being truly frightening is proved by the beautiful Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston, the first of which, ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ was published by Faber and Faber in 1954. I grew up with these books, buying the last, ‘The Stones of Green Knowe’ as a teenager in the late 1970’s. A lonely little boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his grandmother Mrs Oldknowe in her ancient house (modelled on the author’s own beloved twelfth century manor house at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire) and slowly comes to meet the other children who have lived in the house down the centuries. Lucy Boston wrote pure, elegant prose, with a light but sure touch. Here, Tolly and his grandmother have finished decorating their Christmas tree:
As they rested there, tired and dreamy and content, he thought he heard the rocking horse gently moving, but the sound came from Mrs Oldknowe’s room… A woman’s voice began to sing very softly a cradle song that Tolly had learned and dearly loved:
“Lully lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by Lully lullay…”
“Who is it?” he whispered.
“It’s the grandmother rocking the cradle,” said Mrs Oldknowe, and her eyes were full of tears.
“Why are you crying, Granny? It’s lovely.”
“It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but it sometimes seems so.”
The singing began again. It was queer to hear the baby’s sleepy whimper only in the next room, now, and so long ago.
Scary things do happen in the Green Knowe stories, but always with a background of reassurance that goodness is greater than evil. Tolly never time-travels – he meets the ghosts in his own ‘now’, although at the very end of the series the Norman boy Roger, whose father built the house, does briefly travel forward into his future: our twentieth century. The theme of the books is that of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets: ‘Time past and time present/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’ Lucy Boston’s books echo with the voices of children: ‘hidden excitedly, containing laughter’.
Plenty of other books do take the child hero or heroine back into the past to share in other lives. In fact, the little Victorian ghost in smock or pinafore, looking out of the windows of the big house, whose history the modern child gradually uncovers, is almost a cliché. A constant theme in children’s ghost stories is that of loneliness. A solitary child feels a misfit, or has no friends, and finds ghostly companionship. Tolly is just one example, although he develops a strong relationship with his delightful grandmother; another is Anna, the lonely little girl in Joan G. Robinson’s ‘When Marnie was There’ (1967). Anna has never had a friend: her relationship with the strange child Marnie gradually prepares her for real live friends when Marnie goes away. This book is one of many where the reader can decide for him or herself whether the ghost is ‘real’ or some kind of dream playmate. And of course there is Tom in Philippa Pearce's classic, 'Tom's Midnight Garden', who finds his way into a garden of the past, and a playmate in the little girl there.
Penelope, the heroine of Alison Uttley’s classic ‘A Traveller in Time’ (Faber 1939) is another shy, quiet, imaginative child, who sees ghosts or visions of the past almost without trying. On being sent to fetch a rug,
“Upstairs I went again, but when I got to the landing I looked at the closed doors and did not know which was Aunt Tissie’s, for there was something strange and unfamiliar about them. I hesitated and opened a door, and then stopped short, for in the room before me, down a couple of steps, were four ladies playing a game with ivory counters. They sat round a table and a bright fire was burning in an open hearth. They were young and pretty, except an older woman whose expression was cold and forbidding… All this I saw in the moment I stood transfixed at the door. Then a little spaniel rushed across the room and they turned and stared at me with startled eyes. They were as amazed as I, and sprang to their feet, yet there was never a sound…
“I beg your pardon,” I muttered, and quickly I shut the door, my heart pounding and my hands trembling.
Penelope soon grows as intimate with the 16th century inhabitants of the old Derbyshire farmhouse ‘Thackers’ as with its 20th century inhabitants. She becomes an anxious yet powerless witness to the ill-fated Babington plot to free Mary Queen of Scots; and the book is also a poignant love story.
All of these are ghost stories which explore the transience of time, rather than the finality of death. They are typically sensitive and beautiful: eerie rather than scary. And perhaps it's a theme that children on the cusp of growing up are particularly fascinated by: the realisation that old people were once young, and that children like themselves will one day be old
Another time-slip ghost story, with a slightly harder edge and bags of atmosphere, is ‘Playing Beatie Bow’ by the Australian writer Ruth Park, in which the prickly Abigail, resentful of her parents’ divorce and being made to move to a high-rise area of Sydney, witnesses children playing a creepy game:
‘Oh Mudda what’s that, what can it be?’
‘The wind in the chimney, that’s all, that’s all.’
There was a clatter of stones being dropped. Some of the younger children squawked and were hushed.
‘Oh Mudda what’s that, what’s that, can you see?’
‘It’s the cow in the byre, the horse in the stall.’
Natalie …put her hands over her eyes. ‘Don’t look, Abigail, it’s worse than awful things on TV!’
And the climax of the game comes with the cry: ‘It’s Beatie Bow…risen from the dead!’ Into this book too comes a desperate love story – for how can love span the centuries?
Like all of us, children - older ones especially - enjoy a good scare. Moving on from the beautiful and the poignant, we come to more malevolent ghosts. There’s an extremely sinister one in Katharine Briggs’ famous ‘Hobberdy Dick’ (1955) – the appearance of a ghostly child, informed by the evil spirit of the woman who killed it. One of the characters, Anne, wakes in the night:
She sat up in bed with a beating heart, aware of a wicked thing in the room. There seemed a faint light at the end of the bed; more she could not see, but the room was icily cold, and cruelty and remorse and pain pressed on her like a weight, so that she could not move.
Help comes, but at the cost of the death of the good woman who exorcises the spirit. This book is a brilliant exploration of the folklore and customs of the seventeenth century, by an expert who knew and loved the stories better than anyone else.
Peter Dickinson’s “Annerton Pit” (1977) is the story of a blind boy, Jake, whose grandfather, a ghost hunter/debunker, has disappeared near Annerton Mine, site of a dreadful mining disaster a hundred years ago. Entwined with an adventure story, is the creepy build-up of supernatural tension, as, trapped with his brother and grandfather at the bottom of the mine, Jake becomes aware of a strange presence in Annerton Pit:
There was another noise, even fainter than the sea. Jake couldn’t decide if it was real, or was only an effect of the fall – a low, continuous, throbbing hoot. Sometimes it seemed to be coming from further up the tunnel, sometimes from all around him, and sometimes from inside his head. Once he’d noticed it, it bothered him.
Low key, but spine chilling. Less is often more with a good ghost story.
Ann Halam, whose books for children range from fantasy to ghosts to sci-fi to horror, actually managed to break the rule I mentioned at the beginning of this piece by writing a totally brilliant ghost story for children which is funny as well as terrifying. “King Death’s Garden” (Orchard, 1986) is the story of the impossible and self-pitying Maurice, obsessed with his asthma and allergies and with the vain hope of attracting the attention of elegant Jasmin Kapoor. Maurice has refused to relocate with his parents to the Gulf, and is boarding with an elderly aunt until the end of term. He is of course another loner – and ends up spending far too much of his time in the Victorian cemetery beside his aunt’s house… Here he is, reading the tombstones:
The Best Mum and Dad in the World… Never a Cross Word….And in the morn the angel faces smile, That I have loved long since and lost awhile…Love’s last gift, remembrance…
Suddenly he realised that someone was watching him. It made him jump, because just then he was well off the path and actually standing on a grave. He was only putting back some plastic flowers that had pathetically fallen out of their urn, but he knew it wouldn’t look good. A big elderly man was standing by a bench just a few yards away. He was glaring like someone in authority – maybe a gardener.
And maybe not...
I’d recommend any book by Ann Halam, but another of hers’ with a creepy ghost is ‘The Nimrod Conspiracy’ (Orion 1999). Completely different, just as good. And I have to mention Robert Westall, whose taste ran to more Gothic ghosts and horror, always rooted in his beloved North East: ‘The Scarecrows’, ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’; ‘The Watch House.’ Definitely for older children, and not for the faint-hearted. And speaking of Gothic, how about Leon Garfield, whose novella 'Mister Corbett's Ghost' ought to be better known?
A windy night, and the old year dying of an ague. ... In the apothecary's shop in Gospel Oak, the boy Partridge looked up through the window to a moon that stared fitfully back through the reflections of big-bellied flasks, beakers and retorts. Very soon now he'd be off to his friends and his home to drink and cheer the death of the old year - and pray that the new one would be better. And maybe slip in a prayer for his master, Mister Corbett, the apothecary himself. Such a prayer!
"May you be like this year that's gone, sir, and take the same shivering ague! For your seasons weren't no better."
Having wished his master dead, poor Benjamin Partridge soon has cause to wish him alive again, as he has to accompany the poor phantom over Hampstead Heath - on a journey through guilt, terror and pity to eventual
An exception to the rule that ghost stories for children always have solitary heroes or heroines is Catherine Sefton’s charming ‘The Back House Ghosts’ (Puffin, 1978). Ellen’s mother, who runs a seaside boarding house, accidentally overbooks. The enormous Mooney clan arrive (eleven children!) and, to make space, Ellen moves out into the ‘Back House’ – a disused cottage at the bottom of the garden. That night:
She went to sleep watching the sky through the window. The stars were stabs of light against a dark blue cloth, and the moon was yellow and round…
When Ellen woke up in the morning, the first thing she saw was the window.
Through it she could see the back wall of Bon Vista, and the window of the back bedroom… and nothing else.
Just the grey wall and the rose which grew across the window.
All the books I’ve discussed so far have been full length novels (although the Green Knowe books are fairly slim.) To write a really good novel-length ghost story is a fantastic achievement, because stringing out the tension for so long is really difficult. Most literary ghosts – for adults at least – tend to arrive in the form of short stories, and many of the children's writers I've talked about in this post also wrote brilliant - and often dark - short ghost stories. Philippa Pearce could weave terrifying tales about inanimate objects: an old wooden tallboy; a Christmas pudding ('A Christmas Pudding Improves With Keeping', from 'Who's Afraid, and Other Strange Stories' 1986). A master of the form was the late great Jan Mark. Perhaps her best collection is ‘In Black and White’ (Viking, 1991). Every story in this book is so wonderful, it’s hard to pick just one, but one of Jan’s own favourites was the story called ‘Nule’ - in which Martin’s little sister Libby makes a character out of the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. She calls it ‘Nule, and dresses it up with a pointed hat.
The hat definitely did something for Nule. When Martin came in later by the front door, he thought at first that it was a person standing at the foot of the stairs. He had to look twice…
Entering into the spirit of the thing, he helps Libby to dress it up more, with an old coat and gloves, and a pair of football boots at the bottom. Not a great idea, as it turns out…
(Illustration copyright Neil Reed, 1991)
There are ghosts in two of my own books: an Icelandic-style vengeful corpse in ‘Troll Blood’, and a harmless but still rather unnerving White Lady in ‘Dark Angels’ (US title: ‘The Shadow Hunt’
.) As you can see I love ghosts – one day, maybe, I’ll try and write a novel length ghost story of my own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Peer and Hilde, beginning to wonder about an empty house on the shores of Vinland.
The sun had sunk below the hills, and the wooded slopes looked dark and mysterious. Down by the ship, the men had lit a fire on the shore. Around the flames, the evening turned a deeper blue.
“We should go and help,” said Hilde. “Look, they’re bringing things up already.” Someone was coming slowly up the path, as if stiff from weeks at sea. His face was indistinct in the dusk. He turned aside, heading for the other house. Hilde called out, “Hello! Is that one ours?”
Whoever it was made no reply, but turned in to the porch of the second house. Hilde shrugged. “He didn’t hear me. It must be that one.”
They walked across. Flat stones made a short path outside the door, which was shut. Peer lifted the latch. The
darted between his feet – and sprang back like a startled cat, all arched spine and splayed limbs. Peer saved himself by clutching at the doorpost. Nis
“What are you doing?” he cried.
was creeping backwards, bristling. “Not nice,” it squeaked. “Not a nice house at all, Peer Ulfsson. The other one is better!” It shook itself and shot decisively away. Nis
With an odd feeling under his ribs, Peer shoved the door wide open and looked in. He didn’t step over the threshold. Hilde craned over his shoulder.
It was just like the first house. Same long fire pit, same smoke holes, same dusty-looking benches and line of dim posts leading to a doorway at the far end.
This house was colder than the first. The air felt disturbed, as though someone had recently passed through.
But it was completely empty…