Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Haunting by Margaret Mahy (1982)

Barney is the youngest of three, born after sisters Tabitha and Troy. His mother died after giving birth to him, so he is very worried about his stepmother, Claire, as she is expecting a baby soon and he fears losing her as well. When, on his way home from school, Barney encounters a ghostly boy in blue velvet who keeps talking about the death of someone named Barnaby and how lonely he will be now, he tries to keep it to himself. That night, however, he faints when he learns that his own Uncle Barnaby, a relative of his mother's has just died. When he and his family visit his mother's relatives, the Scholars, Barney's sister Tabitha does her best to find out more about what could be causing Barney to have these visions. Her curiosity leads the whole family down the very interesting path to the mysterious truth about the Scholars, and about Barney himself.

The chief pleasure of reading this book comes from the uncovering of family secrets amidst an interesting mix of characters. The supernatural elements perfectly feed this central plot of family revelations, but it is the complicated relationships between the characters, both living and dead, that drive the story and make it such a compelling read. The book is not necessarily scary, nor is it a traditional mystery that can be solved by following a series of clues, but it does have an air of spookiness about it that makes it ideal for kids to read around Halloween, even if the subject matter is rooted more in psychology than fantasy.

Margaret Mahy was truly a talented writer. I have previously admired her excellent rhyming picture books, which are among the few that consistently use rhyme well, but even the amazingly well-rhymed Bubble Trouble has nothing on this wonderful novel. I am not naturally drawn to fantasy, nor do I typically seek out stories about ghosts and hauntings, but I was immediately engrossed in this book and read it in one sitting. I enthusiastically recommend it, not just to those who love this genre, but to anyone who enjoys a well-plotted novel with a memorable cast of characters and a perfectly surprising twist ending.

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