You might remember this high-octane drama from a couple of weeks ago, where I enlisted the help of all y’all all over the Internet to help me track down a book I’d read and loved as a tiny person, but whose title I couldn’t remember. I had no idea of the author’s name, either. All I could remember was a mysterious drawing of a house, with a person inside one of the upstairs windows, and a malevolent ring of standing stones outside, keeping the prisoner captive.
Well, in case you missed it, the sorry saga had a happy resolution. I found the book, and immediately whisked off an email to my ex-colleagues in my favourite bookshop, and a few days later it plopped through my letterbox.
I think I lasted about two hours before I started doing that whole ‘new book smell!’ thing.
After that, it was only another couple of hours before I had it digested.
So. Was it as good as I’d remembered?
Well. The short answer is ‘no’. That’s not to say it isn’t a fabulous book – because it is, absolutely. I still love it as much as I ever did, because the feeling it gave me as a child is still there, crackling away at the base of my skull. The terror it inspired in my eight-year-old self will never leave, and that, of course, is a brilliant thing. Reading it as an adult does let me see it in a different light, of course, one which points up all the things that could now be seen as faults and flaws – the gaps in the story, the fact that all the characters sound the same, the repetition, the telling and showing and then telling a bit more – but the best thing about finding it again is this: I can still understand, very clearly, why this book stuck with me for the best part of thirty years. I am so glad I found it again, and that I can put it up with my other favourites, the books which shaped the person I am today.
Straight away, we are introduced to Marianne, who starts to feel really unwell on her long-awaited tenth birthday. Her temperature spikes, her appetite disappears, and her worried mother summons the doctor. Her birthday dinner is thrown away uneaten, and the celebrations stop.
Marianne is quite seriously ill.
Confined to bed for weeks on end, unable to even cross the room to pick up a book to read, she grows more and more irritable and frustrated. Catherine Storr, the author, conveys Marianne’s pain very effectively, and we really feel for this small girl, cooped up indoors with bright summer weather streaming in her windows. She gets used to doing things from bed, which includes helping her mother sort through her great-grandmother’s old antique workbox, in which, one day, she finds a pencil. It’s not a particularly beautiful or well-made pencil; it simply looks friendly, and easy to draw with, and helpful. This is the pencil, Marianne thinks, which will make my visions come truthfully out of my head, through my fingers and onto the page.
And so she draws.
The first thing she draws – for it is always the first thing she draws – is a house. It is, she thinks, as unsatisfactory as ever. Lopsided, windows misaligned, out of proportion. But she gives it some trailing smoke from the chimney, adds a fence and some standing stones, some tall whispery grass, and some large flowers.
When Marianne dreams that night, she is standing in a wide open field full of swishing, long grass, and a house – a strangely familiar house – stands before her, surrounded by a fence and a jumble of standing stones. She goes through the gate and up the garden path, and right up to the the front door of the house – but it has no knocker or bell, and she feels desperately sure that she must get inside. Something about the wide prairie landscape all around her makes her afraid. But her small knuckles get bruised against the wood of the door, and there’s nobody inside the house to let her in. Put someone in the house, a whishing, mysterious voice tells her.
Back in her own world the following day, Marianne makes a few adjustments to the house. She adds a face at the upstairs window, and she places a knocker and letterbox on the front door. Her great-grandmother’s pencil draws well – and, as she learns, it cannot be erased.
In her next dream, Marianne returns to the house. She notices a small pale face in the window upstairs, and when she knocks a boy opens the window. He is Mark, who is trapped inside, unable to walk. ‘I can’t get downstairs,’ he tells her. ‘There’s no staircase in this house.’
So, the next day, Marianne adds one. Eventually, she manages to get inside the house, and every time she dreams she and Mark try to figure out where they are, and why he’s trapped. Every day in her ‘real’ life, Marianne draws the things Mark needs – a bed, some food, a bicycle to help his polio-wizened legs to strengthen – and every night they plot their escape.
Then, one day, in a fit of irritation at Mark, Marianne adds eyes – narrowed, peering, cruel eyes – to the stones outside the house, and then the trouble really starts.
There are some genuinely chilling moments here, particularly in relation to the spying stones and the voices the children hear, warning them that they must escape and that they’re being pursued; I can totally see my tiny self reading with trembling hands as the children’s attempts to get away from the house are described. Marianne’s ‘double life’, and the fact that Mark exists in her ‘real’ world, too, mean that the book is interestingly layered and textured; the realities of polio, and the horrors of that disease and the effects it had on the children who suffered from it, are sobering. I loved the childlike logic that dictates Marianne’s choices of what to draw next, and their rather ingenious plan of escape, and I loved the horror that still fizzes through the pages.
The fact that everyone sounds like a middle-aged businessman is a bit of a disappointment, but that’s to be expected from a book first published in 1958, I suppose. There’s lots of ‘my dear girl,’ ‘awfully sorry,’ ‘frightfully kind,’ and that sort of thing.
In short, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that this book sounds a little dated, I would say track down a copy and give it a go. It’s unlike any other children’s book I’ve ever read, and – if for nothing else but the sheer imagination needed to dream it up (no pun intended) – it’s worth a try.