Young Edgar has a dark and dangerous hunger for thrills that draws him to his mysterious Great-Uncle Montague’s spooky house, which looms at the edge of a forest. Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley throbs with sinister brilliance; it pleases me immeasurably to report that the art of the chilling, well-crafted ghost story is still alive and kicking. These are all told with great, economic style, all concerning familiar tropes, and yet with a dash of originality that makes them thoroughly absorbing. Uncle Montague narrates as he and his nephew sit in the drawing-room of his house. Noises, footsteps and fog encroach; soon, it becomes apparent that what he is telling Edgar may be dangerously close to reality.
What is also pleasing is that they are not straightforward morality tales, in which bad children get punished (although there are one or two characters who thoroughly deserve what they get). The situations are of familiar things made sinister: there is an elm-tree that destroys a boy who is forbidden to climb up it; a mirror that grants wishes which, of course, backfire on the wisher; a demon bench-end that drives its owners insane, and a haunted doll’s house which kept me shivering for days. The milieu is Edwardian upper-class: stiff upper lips, repressive parents and large country houses abound, and there is a Saki-esque enjoyment of cruelty and wildness. Almost perfect, this is a welcome diversion from the Playstation and back to excellent yarn-spinning. There are also some lovely illustrations by Philip Ardagh, scary and Edward Gorey-like. This will be an excellent Christmas present for any child who loves spine-chillers.
I was disappointed by Lian Hearn’s Heaven’s Net is Wide. This is a ‘prequel’ (horrid word) to the marvellous Otori trilogy, which includes Across the Nightingale Floor, one of the best children’s books of recent times. Hearn’s world is a sort of alternative medieval Japan, in which clans fight for supremacy with the help of ‘The Tribe’, a network of supernatural warriors who work constantly in the shadows. Lord Shigeru is the hero of the series, and this hefty tome tells the story of his journey to adulthood. There are some scenes of exquisite beauty and tension, aided by the mesh of Hearn’s meticulous and convincing imagined world, but overall one starts to get slightly bored with lines like ‘You have acted decisively. That is the right thing, whatever the consequences’, which all sounds a bit cod-epic, and Shigeru’s education with a monk on a mountain comes across as clichéd. This is definitely one for the fans; for novices, I recommend Across the Nightingale Floor.
A more satisfying door-stopper is Brian Selznick’s charming The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It tells the story of young Hugo, a boy who lives in 1930s Paris in a secret apartment in the walls above a railway station, whose job, since his uncle died, is to keep all the clocks running on time. It contains the ingredients of a classic children’s book – an orphan, a hidden world, an enigmatic adult and a strange machine. Hugo finds an automaton which his father had discovered in the ruin of a burned-down museum; using his finely tuned skills, he painstakingly puts it together, hoping that it will lead him to a message from his father. Poignantly, it doesn’t; but what it does do is throw him into an adventure that takes in the glamorous beginnings of the age of cinema.
The book tells the story with pictures as well as words; as one reads, turning the pages quickly, it feels almost like watching an animated film – and the book captures wonderfully the magic of the movies, and of mechanics. Hugo is a very likeable boy, sweet, friendly and imaginative – ‘I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason,’ he says, and one can’t help but agree with him.
Huzzah! It’s a sequel to the fantastic Larklight. Philip Reeve has produced Starcross, taking us back into his delightful space-age Victorian world and his unlikely heroes Art and Myrtle Mumby. Still jumping with wit – ‘I shall never be received in Society if it becomes known that my mother is four and a half thousand million years old,’ complains Myrtle – this tale concerns the imminent destruction of the British Empire by highly intelligent mind-controlling hats from the future.
The Mumby family (for those of you unfortunate enough not to have read Larklight, they are to all intents and purposes an ordinary upper-middle-class Victorian family who live in a rambling old country house; except that the house orbits the earth and holds the secret of the Universe, and Mrs Mumby is an almost god-like being who helped to create the Solar System) receive an invitation from a Mr Titfer to stay in his Grand Hotel in the asteroid belt. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and they soon find that Titfer is bent on taking over the Galaxy. The novel’s joyful silliness brings us a tribe of goblins whose only wish is to knit a cosy for their asteroid, the return of the dashing Captain Jack Havock, and Professor Ferny, the Educated Shrub. I hope that this series never ends. ‘It’s really an awful bore being held hostage by mad geniuses,’ says Art at one point – but with the Mumby family, it never is.
Julie Hearn’s Hazel (Oxford University Press 361pp £5.99) is also full of wit. Hearn is a thoughtful, elegant writer, and this, her third novel, takes us to Edwardian London and the cosseted world of the lively, intelligent Hazel Louise Mull-Dare – a world which is about to change dramatically as she discovers that the secret of her family’s wealth is linked to slavery when she is sent to the West Indies. The book is moving and delicately paced, with sultry evocations of the Caribbean, and Hazel is an appealing, cheeky heroine; this will suit girls of twelve and up.