1982: Mary chooses to be silent. The bullying is relentless and nothing she can say to the adults who manage the Institute for Children in which she lives, would enable them to see the cruelty of the shining, smiling, golden girl who torments her. So she says nothing.
Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is one of the most extraordinary creations that has arrived at the bookshop this year. It challenges many of the boundaries that publishing convention has put into place, and raises many questions about genre, age recommendations and the role that illustrations can play in a narrative. Thornhill is a perceptive piece of storytelling, and an intelligent addition to ghost and gothic literature; but it also an extremely important book, and calmly presents several serious challenges to the British book industry. In this age of celebrity-driven hype, and in which the power of the arts is diminished by contrived music, ghost-written stories and an overload of images, it is difficult to be the avant-garde. But somehow Thornhill pushes through all that and stands out as original and innovative. Thornhill is a ghost-story; a proper haunted house story with a dark seam of psychological drama woven into its fabric. The motifs of strange and deserted places, diary entries, clashing time periods, forgotten and unfinished business, mouldering guilt, a play of power and constraint, duality, revenge, isolation, ambiguity, and constant and crippling doubt, that define the English gothic genre are found here in abundance. Indeed, the book is full of references to the work of English gothic writers from Charlotte Bronte to Ann Radcliffe and Susan Hill. With its silent, solitary and quietly observing ghost always sitting in the half-light, never quite coming centre stage for us to see her clearly, it is also absolutely in the tradition of English ghost story writing. This is no fairy tale, there is no happily ever after and glowing resolution. Again, in the tradition of our ghost and gothic fiction, the ending is dramatic, but leaves the story unresolved and is open to interpretation.
Thornhill tells us two stories, one story we know solely by the words written into a diary; the other we read entirely in images; the two stories are set three decades apart and, pulled together through time by the threatening presence of a building; the stories touch at moments before colliding at the end. It is perfectly possible to read each story separately – which I did.; I read the book as one story first and then read it again as two stories.
In 1982 a girl called Mary is living in Thornhill, a troubled and largely un-governed orphanage; it is her diary we are reading, and uncomfortable reading it is. It tells us a story of intense psychological bullying, the sort inflicted by irrepairably damaged children that goes unnoticed by adults. Anyone who has had experience of bullying at school knows full-well that children can be cruel, adults can be both stupid and disbelieving, and that damaged people actively and furtively seek out possibilities to damage other people. Through her diary we watch the tragic story of Mary progress. She seeks peace by creating beautiful creatures; with infinite care and attention she makes little dolls, finely-crafted little figures, often characters from her favourite books. To the rest of the world she utters not a word, Mary is a selective mute.
In our time we find another young girl, Ella, moving into a house that overlooks the now-dilapidated Thornhill; Ella is unsettled, bereaved and all but abandoned by an ever-working father. In a strange way Ella too is silent: there are no words, we read her story only in images. This half of the story is told in atmospheric tonal drawings that seem oddly voyeuristic – Ella is being observed, never aware that her image is being captured. Many of the images show Ella from behind, slightly to the side, from behind foliage or when she’s just climbed from the window and escaped into the secret, tangled garden. There is a touch of Hitchcock to the way we watch Ella. The reader is given the unsettling idea that it is them standing in the shadow, watching events but unable, or perhaps unwilling, to step in and help; it is easier to keep turning the pages. The location is drawn in detail and with depth: the beautiful little puppets sitting quietly in rows on Mary’s shelves, the secret but threatening garden with its thorns and strangled statues, and the dusty staircase of Thornhill all seem very substantial. The two girls however, seem less real; they never stand or sit entirely firmly in their surroundings, their postures are never quite right, there is no tension or strength in their bodies and their profiles and positions often seem disfigured; with the dolls so neat and sure of themselves and the girls seeming only to hover on the page, you start to wonder which are really the puppets. Is this another sinister puppet-show being played out in MR James’ haunted dolls house? The story is revealed to us with great skill, and in the kind of half-light with which I associate the writing of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; if I had to compare this book to anything it would be to Le Fanu’s 1863 novel, The House by the Churchyard: the scale of horror and the supernatural creeps up on the reader, and just enough suspicion remains about how events should be interpreted, and about the mental condition of the characters, to shroud everything in a disconcerting cloud of doubt. As much is concealed as is revealed by the tightly-guarded words of Mary, and the restricted view of Ella.
There are three main characters in this story, Mary, Ella and the house itself: Thornhill. The sense of the place as a character is very powerful, the house and over-grown garden pulls everything into its shadow. Thornhill both protects and traps Mary, and then it lures Ella to come in and join her. The book itself – and I do mean the book as a physical object – is like a model of the house. It has delicately embossed details on the cover: outlines of roof, window and chimney that make the image a little more real than your standard hardback. The papers of the book are edged in black so when you open the book you peer into its rooms and try to work out what the shadows hide. It is perfectly designed for the story that lies inside that little black box. There are no awful dust jackets flapping about, just a beautiful, tactile object that you are compelled to pick up and explore – perhaps more with caution than delight, because it is also a little forbidding. It has the same lure as the creepy house in the neighbourhood, the one that is a part of everyone’s childhood, the one that all the kids say is haunted and dare you to go inside the gates or knock at the door. Many books published today are notable for their sheer beauty, but it is rare to find one that is both beautiful and atmospheric. In most cases, the cover design is an afterthought by the publisher – a process that happens at the end, in which the author often has only a little input, and which is carried out to a budget determined by how the author’s importance is perceived through the sales-glazed eyes of the publisher. As a physical object, Thornhill really is an extraordinary, and fearless, achievement. It represents a significant investment, both in time and in money, in the design of a book that, as an object, is also part of the story; it also shows the impressive commitment of a publisher to an illustrator and author.
Thornhill is also a problem. It is a long-overdue and wonderful problem – firstly, who is it for? Can we shove it into a nice neat category for an age recommendation? Truly, it depends who wants to read it. I know that publishers do love to persuade us all that books fit nicely into little boxes, but I’ve never met an author who tells me that their books are for 8-12 year olds; you are more likely to hear from an author simply that ’It’s a book’. As an adult who never needs an excuse to enjoy the astonishing writing and illustration abundant in the children’s section of the shop, I’m particularly fond of terms like ‘age recommendation 6+’ – I’m 44, so that’s 6+ isn’t it? Thornhill is a book for perhaps a 10-70 year old if I must put an age on it, but it depends on the 10 – 70 year old. I also believe firmly that a ten-year-old would read it very differently to the way an adult would read it: they would understand something dramatically different, but they would also find it compelling. Firstly, lets dispense with this idea that a creepy story like Thornhill would be too disturbing for a ten-year-old. A great many children really love creepy stories. It is the adults who find the idea of a ten-year-old reading a creepy story disturbing, and the adult who then imposes that as a restriction on the child. I know a great many adults who would find it too disturbing to read, and children who would relish its eeriness. This is something we see happening all the time in the bookshop; well-meaning adults suggesting that a child should not be reading something that they (the adult) consider to be too young or too old for them. This is founded in the adults’ fears, not that of the children. Secondly, there is a convention in publishing that the age recommendation must match the age of the protagonists, the assumption being that adults want to read about adults and children want to read about other children their own age. This convention places an entirely imaginary limit for all readers, old and young. The reality is that people of different ages simply get something different out of a book, and what you find thrilling at 14 you might find disturbing at 40. A few years ago Lindsay Barraclough wrote a ghost-story called Long Lankin. It was sent to us labelled as an older children’s book. Long Lankin is based on the Medieval ballad about the revenant who will claw and crawl in to your house at night if you leave the window even a tiny bit open. I’ve always loved ghost stories, and have spent much of my adult life studying gothic fiction, ghost-folklore and the portrayal of in literature, music, folklore and art; so I am well-conditioned against being scared of the dark. But Long Lankin really scared me; it is the most terrifying ghost story I have ever read – the only one that has made me leave the light on at night. Long Lankin makes M.R. James’ ghosts look as frightening as The Flopsy Bunnies. It is made more terrifying to read as an adult because the two protagonists are young children, so you feel the horror more keenly for the fact that they should be being protected. With a few misgivings I sold the book to several children who assured me that they loved creepy stories too. They all came back and told me that they loved it and saw it as an exciting supernatural adventure – they were nowhere near as frightened as I was because they ran alongside the two protagonists as they read, and shared their fear and their flight. Reading Long Lankin as an adult added an entire layer of horror and fear that is really not present to a child reading it. And this is the case with Thornhill too. The protagonists are two young girls.The adults in the book are largely responsible for the abandonment that each girl feels; and their total failure in their duty and responsibility for the safety of those children is what leads to the devastating fate of both. As an adult, being confronted with the evidence that humans turn away instinctively from, or fail to notice, that which we find too disturbing to deal with, is extremely uncomfortable. All those children that we, the adults who were caring for them, failed to protect; the people who now appear in the news, adults themselves now, having come through years of traumatic memory to finally confront their abusers – those are the two children we meet in this book, the ones our society failed 30 years ago and is still failing now. This is a very different and more personal sort of horror from the pleasing terror of an old phantom. How would a child read these events? Children I’ve spoken to have sympathised with the plight of the relentlessly-bullied Mary, sided with her and booed the adults – after all, most adults in children’s fiction are useless in one way or another, they have to be to allow the children to go on an adventure. If Matilda’s parents were responsible human beings, and the librarian a less pathetic creature, there would be no story. If Wendy, John and Michael’s parents had not left them only in the care of a dog, Peter Pan would never have got in and led them away. Thornhill is therefore both for adults and for children, but each will read a very different story. But we can say this of many of our greatest classics of literature. To a 14 year old, Jane Eyre might be a romance. Re-read as an adult, you watch with horror as lonely and damaged Jane falls in to the arms of what suddenly seems a secretive and abusive Mr Rochester. Shape-shifting in this way is, surely, a sign of exceptional storytelling – not something to be criticised as if somehow the author and the publisher didn’t quite manage to fit it into a box.
Next challenge. Let’s talk about illustrated books. This book has pictures! Not one or two to punctuate and illuminate the text, but half the narrative is told in pen and ink drawings set against tones of faded greenish-grey. A book with pictures must be for children or for those who aren’t confident or keen readers, yes? With its words and images combined, is it therefore a graphic novel? Certainly, it is a novel. And it has images in sequence. But it is structured in the form of a conventional novel, in chapters, not in comic-strip form. In this country we have only the vaguest appreciation of the value of comics and graphic novels as a storytelling form. We think of them as a lesser thing than a ‘proper book’ (i.e., one with all words and no pictures). Having been through our word-dominated education system, book-buying adults tend to think of illustrations much the way they think of bike-stabilisers: great to support a child when they are learning, but the aim is to remove them. And they are certainly not a signpost to an adult book. This implies firstly that images are just for children, and secondly that an illustrated book is a lesser thing than one that has densely printed text. We lag far behind most other European countries in our appreciation of the work of illustrators. I am still writing blogs that explain that comics are valuable and that graphic novels aren’t just a lazy way of reading a book – because that is still necessary in our society. Meanwhile in France, they are exploring historical realism in Graphic Novel form as part of a mainstream trend in adult reading. We have misunderstood something about the power and importance of images to storytelling, and we are culturally poorer for it.
Or perhaps I should say that we have lost the knowledge of the importance of images to our culture; we certainly understood the importance of images when medieval manuscripts and royal books were created; and later, William Blake, with his great star-wheeled printing press and his thorny political comment, also understood. William Morris too appreciated the human desire to have stories that were also beautiful objects. So what is this book? On which shelf in the bookshop does it belong? The author has chosen to tell her story in a combination of words and images because that is the most powerful means of conveying it. But it is still a novel, a defiantly complex and multi-layered one. We have seen many older children’s books told with words and images combined – Brian Selznik’s work is a good example – and there are a very few too which stray into the odd section we call ‘Young Adult’. But we have almost no adult fiction that is illustrated. On which shelf it goes in a bookshop is my problem – not that of the author and publisher. If I can see new and interesting books emerging onto the market, and I haven’t got a shelf already labelled for them, then it is up to me to re-think how I display it. The key for me is how I talk about it – and the fact that I do talk about it. It is a book that begs for an actual bookseller, not a vague online recommendation. Sometimes I sell it to a middle-aged woman, and sometimes to an eleven-year old boy. It is my job to know the books, and this one takes some knowing.
With Thornhill, David Fickling publishing has, wittingly or unwittingly, thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the publishing industry. Thornhill breaks many of the ‘rules’ we have come to accept in the book industry: books are either for children or for adults; children read books about children and adults read books about adults; illustrated books belong in the children’s section; a book should look like a book and not like the building in which it is set; and above all a book should fit in to a category. For its subversive challenging of all the precepts that hold today’s publishing industry in its slowly-decomposing stasis, I adore this book! I love too its ghosts, its tangle of literary references, and its ambiguity – but beyond all that, I love that Thornhill refuses to be anything but the perfectly conceived and exquisitely executed story that it is. This book changes the game. I’m curious to see how the slow-moving, opaque, celebrity obsessed and trend-driven conventional publishing houses will respond. Challenge accepted?
Thornhill is published by David Fickling Books, ISBN 9781910200612 £14.99