I’ve been listening to a lot of Ghostbox releases lately, and I’m happy that a fresh load are ready to drop next month. I don’t suppose we’ll ever have a clear definition of what “hauntology” or “hauntological” are supposed to mean, and it doesn’t matter. I will always repeat the point that “dehauntological” first appeared in Amalgamemnon by Christine Brooke-Rose in 1984, in context it was a play on “deontological”, from ethical theory. Since CBR was friends with Jacques Derrida that might be how the term entered his lexicon and thence that of his followers, but maybe all of that is simply irrelevant to the actual meaning in use: weird and eerie things and moods from the 70s, dredged from childhood memories. That’s the sense in which the term was applied to The Apparition Phase and nobody is complaining, or at least we can’t hear them over the sound of radio static recorded in 1975.
I liked reading some old 70s children’s books a little while ago, but none of them had any supernatural or weird elements. I do remember those kinds of stories turning up a few times on Jackanory as well as the now much-celebrated children’s drama serials of that era. So I looked up a few of those I half-remembered, in addition to the other stories I’d gone on to from Squib and Albeson And The Germans. And here we are.
The Secret Passage by Nina Bawden (1963)
Although this was published in 1963, I think we can include it in the hauntological 70s through the detail that an adaptation was read by Ray Brooks on Jackanory from 1st to 5th March 1971. The episodes were entitled “The House Next Door”, “Discoveries”, “Victoria”, “Ben’s Plan” and “Miss Pin’s Treasure”. Nina Bawden had 5 of her books adapted for Jackanory.
I read this in the Faber Finds edition from 2008, which has the standard cover design of that series, so above is a collage of the covers of some previous editions, including the one retitled The House Of Secrets. Like all digitised-for-print-on-demand editions, the Faber version has a few obvious typos that came in through scanning errors.
John (12), Mary (11) and Ben Mallory (7) have come to England to live with their Aunt Mabel. They were previously living in Kenya, where their dad worked at an Agricultural Research station.
They ran about half naked like the African children… Although they were made to wear shoes so they wouldn’t get jiggers in their toes, no one grumbled when they got dirty or tore their clothes. This was partly because they had servants to mend them, of course, but it was also because their mother and father were sensible as well as kind.
Mum and dad want their kids to have a carefree liberal upbringing as an alternative to the grimly regimented traditional ones they endured. There is no reference at all to any problems in Kenya at this time, and our children are happy with their young African friends. When they have to stay briefly with the Epsom family, they encounter different attitudes:
”Mummy doesn’t like us to talk to the servants,” Giles said.
”Why not?” John said.
”Because you never know.”
”You never know what?”
”You just never know,” Sara said, tossing back her limp, long hair and looking like a rather smug little doll.
”I think you’re silly,” John said.
”I’m not silly.” Her eyes went round and scared. “Mummy says they’re not to be trusted.”
”They might chop us all up with a panga,” said Giles, who, in spite of his pale, girlish prettiness, was very bloodthirsty.
But otherwise they were in an innocent Eden without school or rigorous routines: “…they had never heard anyone speak in an angry voice either to them or to anyone else.”
Life in Kenya came to an abrupt end when torrential rain and flooding destroyed their house, and then soon after their mother died of an infection developed during the disaster. After being billeted with the Epsoms, they now have to be sent away to England to live with the aunt they hadn’t met before. She keeps a boarding house in the seaside town of Henstable, and can only just afford to take on the burden of her niece and nephews.
Ben said, as if something had just struck him , “have you got any children, Aunt Mabel?”
Aunt Mabel looked at him. There was a very odd expression on her face. “No,” she said. Then the blood came into her cheeks and she looked very red and cross.
Other residents of the house are Mr Agnew, a sculptor whose work is not selling, and strange old Miss Pin.
There was someone in the room after all, watching him with eyes that were dark and shiny as boot buttons. The clothes horse was being used as a screen, and inside the screen, in front of a tall oil stove, sat a little old woman in a brilliantly coloured shawl and a queer hat that was all feathers. Beneath the hat her tiny face peeped out; it was wrinkled all over and a pale, yellowish colour. Although she was wearing a shawl and the feather hat, her feet were bare and resting in an enamel bath steaming with hot water. She held a kettle in her lap; another sizzled on top of the oil stove.
On another occasion we find her singing to her pet tortoise.
The children are soon wondering after the history of the house and the life their aunt lived when she was young along with their mother. The Mallory family seem to have come down in the world in several drops since their girlhood, though no one ever puts it so bluntly. They see a strange face at the window of the house next door, but Miss Pin inducts young Ben in to the world of the House Of Secrets.
”…I have always wished to travel but my Dear Papa never allowed it, though he, of course, spent much of his life in India. Until his Enemies hounded him out, of course. When that happened, we fled to Henstable.”…
”Who are the Enemies?” he said.
”Hush.” Miss Pin leaned forward in her chair, hunching herself up until she looked like a crooked old witch. “Don’t speak so loud. They are all around us – watching and listening. You need not be afraid, though. We are quite safe, here in this house. That is why Dear Papa named it The Haven. Even should They force their way in, there are places to hide. Places where They would never find us….”
…”I was a very lonely child – Dear Papa would not allow me to mix with other children in case I should meet an Enemy, you see. I had everything a child could want, we were very rich, you seem, because of all the treasure Papa had brought home from India, but for most of the time I was very dull. Then, one afternoon, when Cook was out, I discovered the secret passage. I was exploring the cellar…”
I don’t know if we’re supposed to take “The Enemy” as having a specific ethnic connotation, though it is implied that Dear Papa had financial problems with them. I don’t think Nina Bawden shared any such prejudice, though it is curious that when we meet Mr Reynolds, the rich man who owns the house next door he is described as having “a thin, hooked nose like an eagle’s beak.”
Soon the children have discovered the titular passage from one cellar to the next and a way to explore the strange world where the adults were once young, and to search out the secrets hidden at the bottom of cases full of old photographs. They also encounter the strange girl Victoria hiding out in this world and practising on the piano.
The narrator of this story is always close by the children and only occasionally notices a detail they would not have known. “After the children had left, an odd thing happened.” Oddness is not any instability in the fabric of nature, but humans behaving against expectations, including expectations formed from conventions of romantic fiction, and evolving their narratives to fit together the broken pieces around them.
She looked suddenly bad-tempered and cross but Mary felt, suddenly, rather sorry for her. It was their fault in a way, they’d wanted her to be mysterious and exciting. And it was silly of John to be angry when all Victoria had done was to pretend to be someone else – and John himself was always pretending. But of course, though it was alright to pretend, it was wrong to tell lies; sometimes it was very difficult to tell which you were doing.
I don’t know if Nina Bawden had any interest in psychoanalysis, but there is a rather obvious symbolic structure in the secret passage from the end of childhood through into the House Of Secrets, where the young adolescent Victoria is already bored with the youngsters and their innocent games. The secret sadness of adult lives, with their loss and disappointments that can’t be explained, and the fear of The Enemies lurking around nearby. Young Ben had to leave his pet chameleon Balthazar behind in Kenya, but in England he learned that humans are chameleons as well, shifting their presentation to suit their surroundings and concealing any signals of distress.
Tig’s Crime by T.R.Burch (1979)
This book was not adapted for Jackanory, and I do not know if they would have ever considered it suitable material. I got a copy because it was in the same series as My Mate Shofiq and also Z For Zachariah by Robert O’Brien.
The setting is a provincial English town in November, in the final days before Bonfire Night. Kids are going around collecting money for their usually terrible attempts at constructing Guys for burning. In the foggy and miserable twilight, an old newspaper seller is knocked over the head and robbed in a side street.
We never have any reason to think our hero, 14-year old “Tig” English is the culprit for this or any other serious crime in this book. However he’s an object of suspicion to everyone else, since he’s going off the rails with his constant truanting and bad behaviour. He doesn’t really have any great criminal ambitions. Trying, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to get in to an ‘X’ film at the cinema is the most dangerous stunt he might do. He just gets picked on too much. He doesn’t get on very well with his mum nowadays, after Dad left. She doesn’t get on with the stream of official busybodies turning up regularly to ask about her son.
’Okkerd’ Oakham addressed him as ‘little man’, and though Tig knew it was meant to be friendly, he was not too sure the other kids in the class took it that way. There was just a hint of ‘teacher’s pet’ in it, and that, at Hill Lane Comprehensive, was the worst thing you could say about anybody.
Tig does come across the dead body of the newspaper seller and also sees the theft in progress at the White Lion Hotel nearby. But of course he can’t get anyone to take his testimony seriously, and it doesn’t help that he relies too much on his rather dim best mate Pete. But he needs the someone who can put him up at short notice, if he’s going to walk out on home after another row and need to sleep in someone’s shed for the night.
Tig put out a hand to throw back the blankets, and the feel of the coarse sacking brought memory flooding back. He twisted over onto his knees and sat back on his ankles. The dusty light forcing its way through the cracked window-pane of the shed showed him the piles of secondhand tyres which Pete collected and hoped one day to turn into good money. There was one pane of glass missing from the window, below which a shelf held an assortment of jam jars, paint brushes and rusty nails. There was also a brown mug. Tig noticed with surprise that there was also steam rising gently from it.
Tig realises he recognises some new people in the town centre: the musical duo busking in the high street are the people he saw near the hotel window that night. Unfortunately, they recognise him as well.
The memory of the musician with the staring eyes came back to him. There had been no smile in those eyes, and no smile behind that straggling beard.
In fact the best you can say for these men is that they stop short of actually killing a child, but they will still tie him up and leave him in a distant building, having to figure out the rather tricky problem of how to escape even though the knots were left loose on him to make it easier. Luckily Tig is quite intelligent and resourceful, and he is hitting his stride in solving the case. In fact this is a proper old Agatha Christie mystery in which our main man has it figured out from incidental details which the reader can see were being alluded to later on.
Names. They were the things that puzzled him now. The more he thought, the more he knew that there was only one answer to the problem of the names. He felt betrayed.
But there’s also another, rather different story emerging, as he closes in on the remaining mysteries. A rather strange gang, children under the influence of a strange teenage girl, wandering the streets and cutting across the other conspiracies that were cooking. A gang with their own little den in the woods, and their own rituals and reason.
Four little figures entered the clearing. They were busy and purposeful. They all had something to do. Some sort of practised ritual of domesticity was being carried out, and in a minute, the fire was bright, and four boxes stood in a square round it. The kettle swung on a pole over the flames, the mugs were placed ready, and a spoonful of some brown powder was placed in the bottom of each. There was a certain amount of chatter, but nothing irrelevant to the business in hand. A religious efficiency ordered all their movement and speech. Four little figures sat on four boxes, gazing into the fire.
Then the chanting began, slow and quiet at first, gradually increasing, but never reaching a height. The tune sounded like a variation of ‘London’s burning’. The words were difficult to hear, but as the sound grew louder, it became possible to make them out.
”Boil the kettle, boil the kettle,
See it boil, see it boil!
Pour the water, pour the water.”
It was an innocent sound, a childish chant. Tig felt embarrassed to listen to it. Had he been wrong?
The girl with red hair organised the making of whatever it was they had in their mugs. Steam rose and mingled with the column of smoke. Four little figures sat with their fingers curled round their mugs, but they did not drink. They seemed to be waiting for some sort of signal, the nature of which escaped Tig’s eyes.
The four mugs were put carefully on the ground, the four figures stood, raised their arms to shoulder-height, joined hands. It was all like some ancient religious rite which had to be performed exactly if the gods were to be pleased.
There was five seconds silence, and then, with a heart-stopping suddenness, they howled. Just one short stab of barbaric high-pitched noise, and they sat down again, satisfied and unconcerned.
The girl with the red hair looked straight at the tree where Tig was concealed.
”You can come down,” she said.
The police do eventually wrap everything up, after the teen tearaway explains it all to them. Then they have to supply their own bit of cultural theory to show they’re still on top of the case.
”H’m. So you think it rings true. Frankly, I don’t. A gang of kids, I ask you! Ages between nine and eleven. They’re only babies. Children don’t behave like that.”
”Don’t they, sir? I can remember going around with a gang at that age. Some pretty odd things we got up to.”
”More revelations from a copper’s past?” Roberts enquired sarcastically.
Steadman looked at the grey hole of the window, lit by an orange glow of street lamps outside.
”It’s a funny thing, sir. I’ve noticed it with my own kids. The difference between fact and fantasy, sir; it’s an indistinct line. I’ve seen it said that comics have a lot to do with it, and cartoons, and that sort of thing. You see a man batter another on the head with a brick, and the next picture is full of stars – wham! – and after that he’s OK. No ill effects whatever. So you translate that into real life, thinking that the same results will follow, but life is a bit different from the comics.”
The Snake Whistle by Margaret Greaves (1980)
Read by Christopher Blake in 5 episodes on Jackanory from 10th-14th November 1980. The 5 episodes (“Belas Knap”, “The Servant Of The Snake”, “Master Of Magic”, “Challenge” and “The Master Of Men”) correspond to the 5 chapters of the story, and in fact this edition is marked as a BBC product with the Jackanory connection stated at the front. I didn’t realise they had stories written-for-broadcast but it seems this is pretty much the script that went out, as it is short enough to be read in the time available. Margaret Greaves was credited with 5 Jackanory works in total. The printed version includes illustrations that show it is set in more-or-less contemporary Britain, these may have been shown on screen during the reading.
The jacket tells us:
Margaret Greaves’s story is full of the strange magic which haunts ancient places, and she combines fantasy and reality in a manner which wholly convinces.
I remember this story from the time of broadcast and I can confirm it certainly did fascinate me at the time, which is why I was furious at missing episode 3, after episode 2’s superb cliffhanger: “Servant of the snake, bring down a cloud from the sky”.
The location: the Cotswolds, near Belas Knap, “the long barrow that had weathered four thousand years or more on top of its lonely hill.” The story: M.R.James meets Penda’s Fen near a playground and offers it satanic majesty (M.R.James’s Mezzotint was read as a part of a season of ghost stories on children’s BBC in the early 80s, but it doesn’t seem to have been under the Jackanory label).
Moody near-adolescent Magnus is pondering the scenery on the barrow, along with his younger siblings Pen and Barney. The Warrens are not noticeably well-off. Mum is a busy housewife but Dad is hardly present as he’s away at work all the time. The children attend local schools, which may include a Grammar School but it is not clear or important. Magnus finds a strange object.
”You go,” said Magnus. “I’m thinking”.
”Lazy, you mean,” said his sister scornfully. She ran down the slope to join Barney in his search.
But Magnus really was thinking – or perhaps it was only day-dreaming. He could hardly help knowing he was clever. He could get top marks in all his school subjects without having to work very hard and was good at games as well. Whatever future he chose would lead to success – he had only to reach out and pick it up. Sir Magnus Warren, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics! Or perhaps Warren, the great explorer, electrifying the Royal Geographical Society with his latest discoveries. The dreams all had one thing in common – admiration, fame and power waiting to fall into his hand. Power. Power to command, to make people do as he wanted.
He stretched like a contented cat in the sun, scrabbling idle fingers in the grass. Unexpectedly they closed on a small hard object. He raised himself on one elbow, vaguely curious, to look at his find. It was about three inches long, brown, dusty with caked earth. He rubbed at it and found it wasn’t bone, as he’d first thought, but horn. A twisted bit of horn like a tiny piece broken from a branch of a stag’s antlers, hollow at one end. The blunt closed end was flattened and someone had carved it roughly into the head of a snake. It was like a queer little whistle, except that there was no hole to blow through. Perhaps it had indeed been meant as a whistle, but the maker had never finished it. He had an odd moment’s vision of a half-naked boy with a mat of wild hair, his head bent as he chipped patiently away at his work, idling away the long hot hours as Magnus was doing now. He blinked the picture away, surprised at his own flight of fancy.
The thing lay in his palm, harmless, infinitely old, the diversion of some long-lost afternoon. But the primitive carving was astonishingly alive. He could almost have sworn that the flat head moved, cold against his skin. He dropped it, sharply revolted, as if a real snake had touched him. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. Really, he was getting as absurd as Pen with her talk of ghosts. Anything as old and unusual as this would interest the museum. It might even be valuable. He slipped it into his pocket.
As he did so, a cold voice whispered close to his ear, “You have chosen. What do you ask of the servant of the snake?”
The whistle whispers suggestions of power to its young discoverer, and he is soon using it for all kinds of interventions, and quickly learning about unintended consequences. The greatest unintended consequence, of course, being the final destination of his soul.
”Servant!” he called again. “Do as I say.”
Say-say-say went the echoes, running together in a long wicked hiss that chilled the heart.
”Why?” he asked. And this time he spoke softly, afraid to make that sound again. “Why do you not obey? You promised. You are my servant.”
“You are mistaken.” Mocking and cold, the familiar voice was very close. “I told you only that I am the servant of the snake. Never yours, Magnus, never yours.”
Oh dear, what an unfortunate mix-up. Reading all this from the post-post-post-ironic world of 2021, as a Generation X leftover who can only glimpse at 1980 from the other side of the End Of History, I struggle to remember that children’s BBC once offered a jolly sitcom actor narrating material like this:
”I have done nothing that you did not choose. The servant of the snake is the master of men. I am ambition and the dust that it ends in. I am fear. I am the hollow of the dark. I am the end.”
Magnus was ebbing, dissolving, falling. Desperately he clutched at his own sense of himself, hardly knowing what words he said.
”I am Magnus, I am myself. Show me what you are. Let me see you.”
”How can emptiness show itself?” The voice was whispering now. “I am as hollow as you are hollow. Hold up your hand to the light.”
Slowly Magnus stretched it out and looked, and all words dried in his throat. In that faint corrupted light it seemed to glow. He could see every bone in it distinct and clear, as if in an x-ray photograph, and round it a shadowy covering of flesh.
Adult viewers couldn’t see Brimstone And Treacle, but this was ok for kids?
The Multiplying Glass by Ann Phillips (1981)
Published by Oxford University Press, this was adapted into 5 episodes for Jackanory and read by Ann Morrish from 8th – 12th March 1982. The 5 episodes (“The Antique Shop”, “Claudia”, “rehearsing”, “The Grotto” and “Goodbye, Liz”) would presumably take up chapters 1-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9, and then 10-12. I do remember seeing the very beginning of this story and thinking the set-up sounded very weird and Sapphire&Steel-ish but then I never followed the rest of it. I suppose the characters were just too smug and wordy and comfortable, even if a lot of this material was cut down for the TV reading. The book includes illustrations but I don’t know if they were shown on screen.
We begin straight away with Elizabeth, who is about 12 or 13, opening the hinged mirror in the room at the back of Mr Hillier’s antique shop. She has already noticed something strange about it, and wants to put the idea to the test.
With an attempt at courage, Elizabeth took hold of the mirror with both hands.
’If it’s impossible, I can’t have seen it,’ she sadi to herself. ‘And if I didn’t see it, why should I be scared?’
With or without reason, she was still afraid. She stood staring at the looking-glass, the empty room quiet all around her.
It was a handsome glass, with three mirrors, all framed with wood carved in small patterns and painted gold. The two side mirrors swung on hinges, so that they could be pulled out at right angles to the main glass and you could see your face three times, once straight ahead, once from the left and once from the right.
…The mirror showed her three faces, all recognizably herself. But they were not all quite alike.
What the mirror reveals are 2 alternative versions (“shadow people”) of the figure in the centre. One of the alternatives will be more selfish and immature, the other will be more priggish and generally less fun. Once seen, the shadows can be commanded to COME OUT and materialise in the real world. There are a lot of rules about how the Shadow People interact with their counterparts, but before I list them we should note one curious omission: it is never stated or even suggested that they are mirror images of the real, and of course if they were then they would be easily identified as impostors, because birthmarks and other distinguishing features would be reversed. It’s odd that Ann Phillips didn’t think of that, as she did put quite a bit of thought into the rules of this world, though in a few places she has to add to them parenthetically, so maybe she was making it up as she went along.
The rules of shadow people:
- They have to commanded to Come Out, and Go Back in the mirrors, and they always obey, provided the wings of the mirror are open.
- When other people are present, they can only see one version of the personality, either the Real or one of the Shadows. Visibility and audibility shifts to the version that is most authentic at that moment (it is not really clear how this works or if it’s applied consistently).
- When a version becomes invisible it nevertheless continues to interact materially, and can knock over things or get in the way. When invisible Elizabeth sneaked into a cinema, she had a lot of trouble having to constantly vacate seats which normal people wanted to sit in.
- The focus-shift effect also means that strange jumps and slips occur which normal people are baffled by, if they notice them.
- If the mirror is closed up whilst the shadow-people are still out-and-about, then the visible figure remains visible until the mirror is opened again. They can only be commanded to Go Back when the mirror is open.
- The shadow-people share all the memories of their principal, but they are not in constant telepathic link; nevertheless the principal seems to pick up the thoughts and impressions of their shadows as they pass in to memory.
- When the currently-visible version puts on or takes off clothes, the invisible partners are updated accordingly, regardless of where they are. So they get cold if they are outdoors and suddenly lose clothes. However they don’t also gain duplicates of useful objects the visible shadow put in their pockets, such as keys.
- Shadow people only eat and drink for pleasure, they don’t need sustenance. Their principals still need to, even when invisible, and presumably also need other bodily functions, which the shadows don’t need.
- When the shadows are trapped in the mirror they seem to be in a state of suspense; it’s not clear if they are having parallel lives in mirror-universe (or if the 2 side-mirrors are joined in the same mirror-universe). They were never born, they only have a dependent existence, only when viewed in the mirror or allowed out of it.
- Anyone who looks in the mirror will see their shadows and could order them to come out. One of the adults seems to understand the idea of multiple personalities, but does not refer directly to the mirror-shadow people. Maybe it is an experience only children are open to, and is lost in adulthood (this last point is surmised, it is not clear in the text).
No sooner has Elizabeth worked out the trick of the shadows, and met her new rivals Liz (more mischievous) and Liza (more prim), than she finds out that the shop-owner’s nephew Robin also knows the secret and often lets his counterparts out as well. Robin is cannier and more practiced, however, and can even work up clever schemes to utilise his shadow side-men when taking part in amateur dramatics, bringing off sensational special effects. This will be great in the forthcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Elizabeth also volunteers for.
All this is occurring on some south coast location, where Elizabeth is staying with relatives whilst her parents are off on holiday in France and her brothers are away at scout camp. It is not stated exactly how posh this family might be but they don’t seem to be doing too badly; Elizabeth has mixed feelings about being nudged towards independence.
’Where have they gone?’ asked Claudy.
’France,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I’d have loved to go, but they wanted to go on their own. They said they were sure I’d understand, but I don’t think I do. It isn’t that I don’t like being with my grandparents – I think they’re the nicest grandparents there are. But they’re very sensible people – you know, not the cuddling sort, although I think they’re fond of me. I suppose my parents spoil me, and I miss it when they aren’t there.’
They gave her £5 holiday money, which is still a decent amount in 1981, even though inflation is going to erode it over the next few years.
I would also note that none of the characters who know about the mirror and its shadow people ever wonder if it is a general phenomenon that could have noticed elsewhere; only at the end is there the briefest speculation that poltergeists and other paranormalities might be due to the effects of other multiplying glasses. These are not stupid children, but they are all passing through a terribly self-conscious stage of their lives. The choice of Midsummer Night as the play is nudge towards symbolism of dream and illusion and parallel figures. The antique shop, and the grotto in its cellar has some similarities with Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, but the adults are too unengaged. We can easily see the glass and its shadow people as a metaphor for adolescent anxiety and shifting sense of selfhood, but this is still a very innocent world of games and hobbies. The final banishing of the glass is a decisive break in favour of maturity. The way they dispose of it isn’t very sensible or mature at all, I hope it’s only a symbolic presence and not a material one at that point.
The mood of this book has some similarities with Marianne And Mark, the wonderful and rather overlooked sequel to Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. That took the characters out of childhood and in to early adolescence and the challenges of adulthood up ahead. It had a very graceful way of dealing with the question of the reality of the “paranormal” events in its plot; everything is left as a suggestion. The Multiplying Glass gets stuck in the materiality of its multiple presences, and then wants to quit it all too quickly.
’Are you real or not real?’ Elizabeth asked.
’A daft question,’ said the angry boy. ‘What is there that isn’t real?’