If I was asked to name a single favourite book, The Great Ghost Rescue wouldn’t be it. Not because it’s a children’s book and not because I don’t like it any more: I’ve been trying to get my own sons to read it, or at least have it read to them for a couple of years but, as is often the way with children, the more urgently I press it upon them, the more fiercely they resist.
Yet there must be something about it that struck the 8 or 9-year-old me deeply, because I’ve kept the copy I first had ever since. That’s unlike The Usborne Book of Ghosts for example, or any of Ruth Manning Saunders’ books of Witches, Monsters, Ogres or Trolls, which I treasured far more highly at that age. So, what made this different?
Before re-reading the book recently, I could recall only a few details. Primarily that Humphrey the Horrible, the central ghost-hero, is not horrible, or at all scary; a problem for a ghost. This makes him different from his more traditionally frightening siblings and parents: Mother, a stinking Hag, Father a Highland warrior with stumps for legs, brother George, a screaming skull and a bloodstained sister (Wailing Winifred), cursed forever to follow a bowl of water that is always tantalisingly beyond her reach, making her unable to wash her wounds.
I could remember the gist of the plot too. Humphrey and his family are forced to leave their beloved castle home – Craggyford – when one terrible morning their world is changed when developers arrive to modernise the site. The ghosts head off in search of a new place to live, meet a friendly boy on their travels, and take their case to Westminster, where they are granted a different, ruined castle to live in, but are betrayed by a vile, double-crossing politician.
And that was about all, apart from a Roald Dahl style joke about the married heads of a boarding school. The husband is skinny and small, while the wife is a large, plump woman. Pupils at the school are convinced that she takes bites out of him at night, day by day making him smaller and her bigger. Why that conceit lodged in my mind for decades I don’t know.
Beyond this, what I felt when I looked at the cover, held the book in my hands again, was a vague sensation of fondness; a faint, cosy kind of warmth, like the soft heat of a recently slept-in bed. What originally generated this feeling, must I figured, have had more substance than a simple plot and a childish joke.
At eight, The Great Ghost Rescue’s initial appeal would have been all about the ghosts. By the time I came across it in a pile of children’s books in a second-hand shop somewhere in London, where we were staying on holiday, I was quite into ghosts – mostly my Dad’s influence.
By that stage, I had already acquired a taste for the supernatural. I liked fictional ghost stories, which then I mostly consumed in the form of the Armada Ghost Books series, edited by Mary Danby. These were aimed at children and all featured lurid covers with girls and boys being menaced by skeletal horse riders, evil statues, terrifying giant bats and the like.
Inside, the tales were not all written specifically for kids, as stories by authors such as M R James, R Chetwynd-Hayes, H G Wells and E F Benson were included, alongside more obviously child-friendly narratives of haunted football pitches, nurseries and classrooms.
As well as relishing these fictions, I also enjoyed, perhaps even more so, what I then thought of as real, or true ghost stories. I had a thin book of Bristol Ghosts, bought from my home town’s Museum and Art Gallery, which I found at once terrifying and irresistibly fascinating.
Also, purloined from my parents’ second-hand bookshop The Wise Owl, or borrowed from the Central Library, were gazetteers and guides to mostly British and Irish ghosts, by authors like Peter Underwood, Diana Norman, Andrew Green and Elliott O’Donnell. These volumes were filled with intriguing reports of various paranormal phenomena from across the British Isles, including Screaming Skulls, Grey Ladies, Headless Queens, cowled Monks, floating Roman Legionaries, Haunted Ponds, Hairy Hands, Glass Smashing poltergeists and the occasional Black Dog.
Every city, town and village in the UK, it seemed, had its own cast of ghosts, along with their own alternative strange histories. My sense of regional geography, of different places and landscapes within England, Scotland and Wales came largely through lapping up reports of local hauntings and legends. By ten, I was aware, as distinctive areas with their own folk and supernatural traditions, of Yorkshire, Lancashire, East Anglia, the Midlands, the South West, the Welsh Marches, the Valleys, the Industrial North East, London and the Highlands. None of this knowledge was gained through anything to do with school, but because of my fervour for ghosts.
Years later I read an article by Michael Palin about the feeling hearing the football results on the radio on a Saturday afternoon stirred in him. All those paired names of towns and cities read out as the scores came in, was for Palin, a clarion call to the nations, a check-list for Britain: Port vale 1 – Bristol City 0, Queen of the South 1 – Stenhousemuir 2, etc, meant that, at 5 o’ Clock that day at least, the world was alright, life carried on.
For the young me, the ghost stories and folklore of Britain had a similar effect. Odd to think of it now, but reading about the dead as a child, brought my country to a rich and vivid life. Out there, it seemed, was a place, far older, stranger and deeper than my limited experience. A world where multiple layers of history could still be seen, or felt, not only in old houses, ruined castles and abbeys, but also in and around more ordinary sites such as shops, factories, pubs and suburban streets.
By the time I stumbled upon The Great Ghost Rescue, my interest would have been informed by all the above. However, in this story, things were quite different. The ghosts weren’t simply recorded flickerings of old tales, shadows and fragments to shudder at for a moment, but had feelings and impulses of their own. The idea that you could feel sorry for, or even like a ghost, or hideous looking hag, would have been striking to me. I would have come to the story attracted by its potential spookiness, but left it with quite a different impression.
Cleverly Ibbotson doesn’t simply twist the conventions of ghost lore around and present a bunch of ‘nice’ ghosts, but plays with generic expectations using a warm and humane humour. The gory details so crucial to many folk traditions of ghosts are never discarded, but rather than being used to create a sense of horror, instead help build character and empathy as Ibbotson gets her young readers to care for the scary, the stinky and the ugly.
For example, in a fleeting domestic moment between Humphrey’s mother the Hag and her husband the Gliding Kilt, the author uses the gruesome details of their appearances, to make their connection even more loving, as here when worrying about Humphrey, not being at all frightening:
“ ‘And anyway Mabel, you know that chicken wasn’t running away from Humphrey. It was running towards its mother.’ The Hag blushed and sent a whiff of squashed dung beetle across the room. ‘Oh well.’ She got into bed beside her husband and laid her hideous head lovingly against his gaping wound. ‘Maybe we could spray him with something to make him smell bad,’ she murmured sleepily.”
Much fun is also had with the figure of Humphrey’s Aunt Hortensia, a former Lady’s Maid executed by Henry VIII, whose crude stumped neck, tends to contradict her detached head: “Being so forgetful she would sometimes say one thing with her neck stump and something quite different with her head. For example, if the Hag asked her: ‘Would you like another toad skin sandwich, Aunt Hortensia?’ the stump might say ‘Yes,’ while the head, on the other side of the room, was saying, ‘You know, Mabel, that toad skin always gives me wind.’ This kind of thing, if you have to live with it, can make you very tired.”
Another aspect of the book that would have appealed to my younger self, was Ibbotson’s vision of a world endangered by human greed. Now, in some quarters at least, we are for more aware of the planetary-scale threat posed by our species ravaging of Earth’s space and resources. In 1975, when the book was first published, whilst of course some environmentalists would have feared for the future, the terrifying global consequences of our behaviour, was far lower down on the news agenda. No one then would have been talking about the Anthropocene.
When builders turn up at Humphrey’s home, they quickly set about stripping the place of everything that makes it unique, leaving only the ruined castle walls, to act as an atmospheric backdrop for the new holiday camp they are constructing.
“the men didn’t care about the moles and they didn’t care about the young trees in the Hazel Copse or about the blackbirds and thrushes that roosted in the hedgerows. They just bulldozed through everything and when it was all flat, dead rubble they began to build…”
As a ghost-obsessed child, who was also interested in birds and trees and where they lived, the idea that even ghosts’ haunts and habitats might be at risk of destruction as a result of human activity, was powerfully shocking.
Our perspective on this as readers comes mostly via Rick Henderson, a caring schoolboy, who the ghosts meet soon after having fled Craggyford Castle. It is Rick, who worries for penguins, square-lipped rhinoceros and Amazon tribes, who sees the ghosts’ plight as of a piece. At his suggestion, Humphrey and his family travel to see the Prime Minister, to ask that a Ghost Sanctuary be created.
As they journey, the ghosts meet and are joined by various other displaced spirits, and we are given a glimpse of an England that is losing not only its habitats, plants and animals, but its very history as well.
Near a motorway the group encounter a Mad Monk, with nothing left to haunt but a verge, who is also becoming vastly outnumbered by the ghosts of people killed in traffic accidents. While on the site of what turns out to be an open cast mine, Humphrey and the others encounter the dishevelled, ruined husk of Shuk:
“Oh Mother, it’s a Shuk. A proper padfoot – you know. And he’s miserable here you can see. I expect this used to be a lovely bit of wild country and he’d haunt it and people who saw him would go mad with terror. And now he has to haunt this silly coal mine and have coal dust in his lungs and fumes from all those bulldozers and excavators and things. Please can we take him with us?”
If even a classic supernatural Black Dog, its coat matted and grimy, saucer eyes, blinking and limp, has lost all haunting potency, the world must be diminished indeed. Soon after taking in the poor Shuk, the ghosts meet another of their kind, Wet Walter, a River Spirit, who after long centuries of peacefully haunting a river is now suffering terrible indignities:
“ ‘Three thousand years I’ve lived in that river’ said Walter the Wet. ‘I remember Romans going up to build Hadrian’s Wall. Hundreds of them I’ve lured to death in that river like a proper spirit should. I’ve drowned Picts and Scots. I’ve sent Border Raiders mad with terror…But now I tell you, this river’s finished…Waste muck from the cement factory. Oil from the ships. Chemicals from the fertiliser plant…Glass. Rusty nails. Boots. I tell you, the bottom of that river is like a rubbish dump. And dead fish – why I’ve gone to sleep of an evening on the river bed and woken up with a good ton of dead fish on top of me in the morning”
From here, after various other adventures, our phantom refuges find their way to the Prime Minister and thanks to an unexpected kindness from one Lord Bullhaven, who also hears about their troubles, the ghosts are granted a new home, a Ghost Sanctuary at Insleyfarne, a remote, derelict castle on the coast of northern Scotland, once the property of the Ministry of Defence.
It seems perfect and as Humphrey, his friends and family settle in, other sad and troubled ghosts from across Britain start to make their way to this idyllic refuge. Of course, apparent utopias are never quite what they seem, especially when politicians are involved. Bullhaven turns out to be in fact a very nasty piece of work – greedy, intolerant, selfish and a racist. What he really hopes to do is to lure the ghosts of the UK – the ultimate other – to their doom, by drawing them together in one place and having them exorcised. Just when it seems as though this dreadful plan will be realised, Humphrey – the supposedly pathetic, useless little ghost – manages to save the day. Humphrey, although terribly weakened and faded, escapes Insleyfarne and sets off to find Rick once again, who with the help of his friend Barbara and some sympathetic witches, returns with Humphrey to foil Bullhaven and his ragtag collection of exorcists – a group of clergymen too poor and desperate, or unhinged, to resist the money promised to them by the treacherous Lord.
As the fightback begins to succeed, the enraged Bullhaven speeds away from the scene, only to die instantly when he crashes his car into a wall, before, in a final twist, returning to the castle as a ghost himself. At first, he is rejected by the other ghosts, before Rick persuades them to take him in, reminding them that none of them had exactly been paragons in life:
“ ‘you weren’t all that wonderful when you were alive
yourselves, were you? What about Henry the Eighth’s housekeeping money – was it
really a mistake?’ He said, looking at Aunt Hortensia’s stump which blushed
crimson. ‘And why was the Mad Monk walled up alive in the first place, have you
asked him that? And what about all the people the Gliding Kilt killed in the Battle
‘That was a battle.’
‘It was still killing,’ said Rick sternly. ‘Ghosts of Britain, I appeal to you to forget Lord Bullhaven’s past and open this sanctuary to every spook or ghoul or wraith or lost spirit in need of a place to lay his head.’
For a moment there was silence. Then the ghosts, deeply moved by his words, moved forward towards the window.
‘Welcome to Insleyfarne, Lord Bullhaven,’ said the Gliding Kilt.
And with a sob of gratitude, the wicked spectre flew down and stretched out his gory hands in greeting.”
When I re-read this, the shadow of childhood outrage flooded back, as I remembered feeling angry at the saintly Rick. To my mind Bullhaven was a disgrace and deserved to be shunned. I hope that I found it in myself eventually to change my mind.
Despite my original dismay at Rick’s forgiveness, I suspect that the warmth I still feel for this book long after reading it as a boy, stems from this aspect. Ibbotson’s concern with looking after the world, with kindness and empathy – even for those who don’t appear to deserve it, gives the book its heart. I wouldn’t have known at the time, but the author’s experiences and family history as the daughter of a Jewish family forced to flee Vienna and the Nazis in the 1930s, would of course be reflected in her writing. Notions of compassion, forgiveness and justice are central here, and Ibbotson’s use of ghosts to make the case for acceptance and understanding of difference, of looking beyond the superficial, is an appealing way to do it.
Long before reading John Gardner’s Grendel as a teenager, or another childhood favourite, Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Great Ghost Rescue was the very first book to make me question my assumptions about monsters, what they were and what made them, or not. Above all else, I think that this was the first story to made me realise that all too often the monster is us.
The Great Ghost Rescue, Eva Ibbotson, Macmillan 1975.
text illustrations by Simon Stern
cover illustration by Mary French