The past, bleeding into the present. It’s a staple premise of countless classic childrens’ tales, from the simplest of goofy ghost stories to the rich, folkloric intrusions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Penelope Lively’s beautifully lyrical debut novel includes a fascinating twist: when subsumed by the echoes of its own traumatic history, the isolated Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood also finds itself overwhelmed by the unwelcome encroachment of 1970s modernity.
Hemmed into the centre of this cultural pincer movement are practically-minded Welsh schoolboy Peter Jenkins and his more whimsical sister, Mair. Freshly arrived in the village, where their father has been installed as the new headmaster, they swiftly find themselves straddling the social (and literal) boundaries between the archaic ways of the “old village” (“Looks as though it’s been asleep for a couple of hundred years” muses Mr Jenkins Snr, with typical parental naivety) and the patios and sprinklers of their own, freshly-built housing estate, pointedly located on the other side of a dividing main road.
One drowsy summers afternoon – and Lively’s descriptions of the weather and landscape are poetry in themselves – Peter and Mair learn of the village’s grim history when their dog, Tar, vanishes into the tangled, off-limits woodland that borders the remote World’s End Farm. Here, they discover the ruins of an abandoned medieval village, Astercote, whose 14th century inhabitants were wiped out completely by the Black Death, and whose remains – and a mystical chalice, whose presence in the woods purportedly ensures the disease will never return – are guarded by the seemingly sinister figure of Goacher.
Despite giving the initial impression of having stepped out of the 14th century himself (he eyes Mair suspiciously as a potential witch, and is seemingly unfamiliar with the sound of a passing aeroplane), this is cunning sleight-of-hand: Goacher is, in fact, the eldest son of the local Tranter farming family, an unspecified childhood illness having left him with considerable learning difficulties. Befriending the children, he confides that he lives in morbid fear of the Black Death’s resurgence, a fear that itself – with delicious irony – becomes highly infectious when both Goacher and the protective chalice mysteriously disappear.
What follows is a remarkable depiction of the effects of mass hysteria. As word ripples through “old” Charlton Underwood of the chalice’s absence, isolated incidences of commonplace illnesses – beginning with the Tranters’ daughter Betsy contracting mumps – are seen as the inevitable return of medieval plague. The rational reassurances of the everyday are swiftly and terrifyingly swept away: accusative white crosses are soon painted on the doors of any resident with so much as a mild sniffle. And, once the news reaches the haughty pages of a local newspaper, the village finds itself beseiged by a deluge of rubbernecking visitors – media and general public alike – all intent on mockery and ridicule.
At which point, irrational health hysteria darkens into outright paranoia. An impromptu roadblock is erected overnight to further isolate the old village, and the inevitable, by-the-book reaction of both the local council and police force only serves to reignite the community’s deep-seated resentment of “outside” authority. “Half them’s really frightened of what they think’s happening, and the other half’s forgotten what all the fuss is about and are just enjoying having a go at Them… everyone who isn’t Us”, observes youthful district nurse Evadne; a woman caught, like the children, in the uncomfortable liminality between tradition and modernity; she is the daughter of a village woman and a visiting US serviceman, increasingly struggling to counter the scared superstition of her home village with the rational medical science of her chosen profession.
Everything about Astercote is beautifully judged, beautifully weighted, beautifully depicted. It captures the very real tipping point when an almost pre-industrialised way of rural life still extant in the mid-20th century (although the Tranters have a tractor, they have no electricity) was finally wiped out by the 1960s housing boom, the explosion of social mobility, and the march of the mass media. But it also evokes the freewheeling spirit of a very 1970s childhood (the children, of course, take it upon themselves to recover the missing chalice, largely unemcumbered by parental concern) and it captures with poetic detail a soothing sense of pastoralism. “The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot and at knee-height, dappled moths, bees, butterflies, birds above and around…” Oh, my flinty heart has melted.
And although the ghosts of Astercote never literally materialise, the gentle hints of the otherworldly that breeze through the story are all the more haunting for their subtlety. Mair, when her conscious guard is down, experiences nebulous “memories” of the village’s medieval plight; she is subsumed by fleeting but overwhelming feelings of empathy with the doomed locals, and occasionally hears the sounds of marching cattle, and distant bells from the now-ruined church. These profound experiences deepen her sympathy for the fears of the 20th century villagers, and Evadne too claims to have picked up on these faint, psychic echoes of the village’s tragic past. But ultimately it’s the power of story that lends Astercote – both the village and the book itself – such potency. And good grief, what a story it is.
Point of Order: Astercote was adapted into a 50-minute drama for BBC1, broadcast at 4.50pm on 23rd December 1980. Tim Worthington writes about this, and other children’s Christmas ghost stories, here…
Mustiness Report: A reassuring 8/10. The pages of my copy boast a yellow pallor and a sulpherous tang impressive enough to grace the shelves of Astercote Central Library itself. It also has two library stamps from Wrenn School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, boldly marking it as due for return on 2nd February and 18th August 1983. I hope whoever borrowed it on either occasion enjoyed it as much as I did, 37 years later.