“The Witches” by Roald Dahl (1983)

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“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”

I’ve been re-reading all of Roald Dahl this year, but most of them I haven’t reviewed as they’re often too short for me to have much to say about them. The Witches, however, I have to talk about. Inexplicably, despite being a Dahl fan throughout my childhood and this battered copy sitting on my shelf for as long as I can remember, I’ve somehow never read it. I don’t really know how it slipped by me, but it’s OK, the matter has been resolved now.

The Witches is the story of a young boy who is taught all about the evil hags by his kindly grandmother, with whom he lives after his parents die in a tragic car crash. Grandmother likes telling the boy stories about witches and warning him to stay away from them. She gives him advice on how to spot a witch including the fact that they wear gloves to hide their claws, and they’re always itching their heads because of their wigs, used to hide their bald heads. On a holiday in Bournemouth, our hero discovers that he’s sharing the hotel with all of England’s witches who have gathered under the instruction of the Grand High Witch. She has come up with a plan that will rid England of all its children.

Before he can warn anyone, the boy is caught and turned into a mouse, which prompts him and his grandmother to formulate their own plan to eradicate all the witches and make the country a safer place.

I don’t think I knew anything about the plot of this one, save for the fact it contained a Grand High Witch and a small boy was the hero. I certainly knew nothing of him turning into a mouse, which arguably is one of the main features of the novel. Like in many Dahl novels, there isn’t an awful lot that really happens. The novel takes place over a short space of time and the plot is simple to grasp, none of which is a complaint. There’s still more of a plot than, say, The Twits, which always felt quite loose to me.

I have heard people say, however, that this is Dahl’s scariest book and I think I probably agree with them. The darkness is much less subtle here, with genuinely vile characters and a pair of protagonists you care about strongly. It’s creepy, and the witches are portrayed very well as malevolent and just the wrong side of odd. The fact that they have slightly different noses or feet to real humans is the sort of thing that would appeal to a child who wants there to be some fantasy in their world. The Grand High Witch is repulsive and genuinely quite terrifying – the polar opposite to the kind, warm Grandmother in the novel. The Grandmother’s inclusion is perhaps the most important aspect. Dahl explains that all witches are women, but does say, “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely.” I presume this is so children don’t go through their young lives fearing all women or believing them to be evil – I suppose there’s a suggestion of internalised misogyny here, if one wanted to take on that aspect – so the inclusion of the kindly Grandmother is in direct contrast to the witches.

I sense that had I read this as a kid, I would’ve found it very scary, and I still do to some degree. It’s that fear of something evil lurking in plain sight, I think. Nothing is so unnerving and eerie as something ordinary suddenly becoming dangerous. A great story.

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“The Haunted Book” by Jeremy Dyson (2012)

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Happy Hallowe'en!

Happy Hallowe’en!

“When I was thirteen years old, my greatest wish was to see a Hand of Glory.”

If you’ve ever spoken to be for more than twenty seconds about Harry Potter (or even just read my About Me page), you will by now know that I am a Gryffindor. Most of the traits associated with the house are true about me. I’m occasionally self-righteous, can be arrogant, have a history of being short-tempered and am not a huge fan of authority, but Gryffindors are most well known for their bravery.

And that appears to be the one trait I’m missing.

With Halloween fast approaching, I felt it was time to get stuck into a horror book, despite my skittishness and fear of everything. However, I figured, “How scary can a book actually be? It’s just words on a page!” Turns out I didn’t count on the power of Jeremy Dyson and The Haunted Book.

If Dyson’s name is familiar to you at all, it might be because he was one of the creators of The League of Gentlemen, which should’ve been my first hint that something was untoward with this book. It opens with him talking about his love of spooks and spectres, and then being approached by a journalist called Aiden Fox who has some ghost stories that he wants turned into proper narratives for a book he has an idea for. He’s no fiction writer himself, though, so Dyson is asked to expand on the stories and give them (ironically) some life. Excited, Dyson sets about his task.

And so we’re told about a house, a beach, a recording studio and, staple of the genre, a mental asylum that all have something strange occuring around them. And as the author travels the country looking for clues, he begins to feel that he himself is being followed by something, and he begins to see strange things happening. At what he presumed would be an abandoned cottage, he is handed a book by an old man, and The Haunted Book becomes This Book Is Haunted, a different text entirely. And so the pattern continues.

As you fall deeper and deeper through layers of texts, each seeming to be connected by a particular ghost that haunts them all (each author appears to see the same one at various points), the book becomes more and more horrific. The stories themselves are nothing special, no creepier than others I’ve heard, but there’s something sinister about the tone and I think a big part of that comes from the fact that the line between fiction and reality is so blurred.

Clearly it’s fiction – clearly – and there are two reasons for that. The first is that ghosts don’t exist. And the second is that the book becomes other books later on. Oh, and thirdly (three reasons), it was in the fiction section of the bookshop when I bought it. However, something lingers. The places all seem to be real, some of the people may have actually existed, and Google brings up a few references that make one doubt the fictionality of the piece.

Without a doubt, this is one of the scariest books I have ever read. I am not a brave person, as I said, but to resort to hiding under a cushion in the middle of the afternoon, scared to look in a mirror and convinced that every single click, bang and thump of the plumbing is a spirit seemed to be a normal reaction to the stories herein. My skin prickled every few pages, as characters leapt from the text bringing their ghosts with them. And that’s to say nothing about the final few pages where the process becomes curiously reversed and you yourself are dragged heart-thumpingly realistically into the text.

If you want a bit of a scare, and want to go searching for abandoned amusement parks that don’t exist, and creatures living in forgotten corners of mental asylums, then be my guest and read this book, but it is not for the faint-hearted. And if you ever see a small figure sitting, watching you, brown hair falling across its face and wearing a tan coat, for gods sake turn around and don’t look behind you. It won’t be there if you do.

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone.