Oh, thank goodness for this book. Thank goodness.
I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed good, solid, decently scary, folklore-tinged, well-written storytelling until I read this book, Sandra Greaves’ debut novel. Published late last year by the wonderful Chicken House, it’s a gem. I hope the author is planning to keep writing, and that there are plenty more stories where this one came from.
The novel is narrated through the alternating viewpoints of two primary characters, thirteen-year-old cousins Matt and Tilda, who are forced to live together during a particularly charged and emotional time in Matt’s life. His parents have just separated, and his father has removed himself entirely from the family, leaving Matt to deal with his mother’s new boyfriend Paul (the ‘four-eyed pillock’, as Matt memorably describes him on page 1.) Matt, understandably, struggles to cope. He decides to decamp to his uncle’s house – the widower of his mother’s late sister – in order to get some space. This brings him into close contact not only with Tilda, but with Kitty – his bubbly, beautiful five-year-old cousin who is, in so many ways, the focal point and the heart of the story.
Among the new people he meets on Dartmoor (for this is where his uncle and cousins live) is Gabe, the handyman neighbour, an older man who is in touch with the local folklore. Gabe is a strange and slightly odd character, interesting and layered and eccentric, and I loved him. It’s from him that Matt hears about Old Scratch Wood, a scrubby area of woodland, apparently the oldest in England, which lies some miles away across the moor. Gabe warns him off going there, which – of course – has the effect of making Matt want to see it as soon as possible. Tilda is instructed to bring him, and – during the course of their attempts to frighten one another half to death inside the spooky old wood – they discover something strange, buried deep in the long-undisturbed soil. This strange object starts to have an effect not only on Matt and Tilda and their relationship to one another, but also the continued existence of Tilda’s family. It is so slow and gradual that the children don’t understand that a larger force, a corrosive force, is at work, but Gabe knows better. He repeatedly tries to warn the children about the ‘gabbleratchet,’ a gathering of infernal darkness heralded by birds; at first, of course, they have no time for what they perceive as nonsense, but they soon learn that they’re mistaken to treat it so lightly. Gabe has seen the gabbleratchet once before, and he knows exactly what to look for…
This was a delicious story – and I mean ‘story’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a satisfying read which ticks all the boxes and sends the customer home singing, with no bells or whistles or unnecessary faff. It had everything I adore in a book, and more. I loved the mingling of the supernatural – and the darn spooky supernatural, at that – with the ordinary, everyday existence of the characters; I loved the ‘city boy’ Matt and his inability to get into the flow of life on a farm. I adored beautiful Kitty and her sparkly, sunny ways. I even liked Tilda, bruised and battered since the death of her mother, forced to take on too much responsibility, afraid that the life she knows and loves is about to be taken from her – and with nobody upon whom to focus her anger besides her cousin.
In so many ways this story reminded me of Alan Garner’s work; it’s not in the same league in terms of language, at least for me, but it definitely comes from the same mindset. It features so much stuff I love, which I also find in Garner’s work: a traditional setting, taking in folklore and folk wisdom (I loved the ‘gabbleratchet’, a version of which is also found in Garner’s majestic ‘The Moon of Gomrath’); confused and frightened children facing down a supernatural power vastly superior to themselves; innocence threatened, and deep family secrets coming to the fore.
The central motif of the story – the actual skull itself, which has lain in Old Scratch Wood for so many years – is thrillingly spooky. I loved the way Sandra Greaves uses the characters’ inability to appreciate the changes in the skull as a way of pointing out to the reader that it contains some deep and disturbing power, and I loved the way the gabbleratchet is described. It’s different, while remaining completely true to its traditional roots. A reader doesn’t need to be familiar with English – or, I suppose, British – folklore to understand or appreciate the power of the gabbleratchet, as it’s so well described and perfectly utilised within this story, but if you do, it can only help to heighten your appreciation for the finer details in the story. I loved, too, that the raising of the gabbleratchet is not the only problem the children face – there are also ‘real life’ issues for them to deal with, including separated or deceased parents, parents taking new partners, families with money worries, devastating illness and fears for the future, which end up being harder to sort out than the supernatural.
This book is well-written, expertly handled and perfectly realised. It has great pace and suspense, as well as emotional heft. I know it’s early days for 2014 yet, but I don’t expect to read many books this year which will top this one.
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Does anyone know the genra to The Skull in the Woods?