The Haunting: The beginning of Mahy’s illustrious career

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Haunting by Margaret Mahy fantasy book reviewsThe Haunting by Margaret Mahy

I first read The Haunting when I was about ten or eleven years old, and now — almost twenty years later — I was stunned by how much I remembered it. Usually good books leave an imprint of enjoyment on your memory, but such is the potency of Margaret Mahy‘s writing that I recalled almost every beat of her story. At the same time, there were parts of The Haunting that I could appreciate much more as an adult than as a child.

Barney Palmer is a sensitive but ordinary little boy, who is on his way from school one day when “the world tilted and ran downhill in all directions, and he knew he was about to be haunted again.” Sure enough, the blurry vision of a ghost appears before him, a curly-haired boy wearing an old-fashioned velvet suit and lace collar, who cries: “Barnaby’s dead! Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.”

On getting home, Barney learns from his family that his Great-Uncle Barnaby has died, and he promptly faints on the front doorstep.

Barney’s family is comprised of his father, stepmother and two older sisters. Subverting the usual evil stepmother cliché, Claire is a warm and loving presence in Barney’s life. He completely adores her, and as she’s expecting a baby, he refuses to tell anyone about his haunting for fear that it might upset her. His eldest sister Troy is a silent and broody presence, but Tabitha is a chatterbox and future novelist, constantly taking notes on everything that happens around her.

It’s a family worth fighting for, and Barney is terrified that he’s going to lose them, especially as the ghostly presence becomes more and more pronounced. Strange messages appear in scrapbooks, footsteps are heard at the back of his mind, and his extended family (comprised of great-uncles, great-aunts, and one very nasty great-grandmother) keep giving him the oddest looks.

It would be wrong to give too much more away, as The Haunting is very much a mystery that deserves to be solved by each reader individually. Mahy’s gift has always been in melding everyday life with the supernatural, but writing both as though they’re equally fascinating. Talkative Tabitha is just as interesting as the spooky figure that haunts Barney’s dreams, and what really captures you about this book is that you can just feel the love this family has for each other and the enjoyment they derive from each other’s company. No wonder Barney clings so strongly to them.

Mahy won the Carnegie Medal for The Haunting in 1982, and again in 1984 for The Changeover, which in many ways feels like a natural successor to this story. Both deal with the juxtaposition of a warm family life with a spooky supernatural threat, and in using bizarre occurrences to explore the psychological interior of its characters. Not bad for a children’s book! The Tricksters (published in 1986) plays with similar themes, and I suspect the only reason it wasn’t also given the Carnegie Medal is because three wins in five years was considered too much!

But they form a wonderful “unofficial” trilogy that combines spooky thrills with loveable families with Mahy’s incredible gift at descriptive prose. They’re the rare types of books that you can read again and again, discovering something different each time, but which deserve to be savoured like a fine wine.

Perhaps its only fault is that it’s too short! I read it in a single day, and was sad to see it come to an end so quickly.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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