Musty Books: “The Ghost on the Hill” by John Gordon (1976)

Ghosts in children’s literature are not always noted for their subtlety. A riot of screaming spectres, headless horsemen and knockabout, laugh-a-minute spooks stampede across the mildewed pages of our formative favourites, but the insiduous influence of John Gordon’s titular apparition is distinctly Machiavellian. The ghost here is a lingering spectral waft hanging over an unnamed Norfolk village, but it nevertheless exerts a gently unsettling control over the lives of the shell-shocked inhabitants.

Perhaps appropriately for a book first published in 1976, the oppressive heat of a relentless summer also smothers the village, creating an almost hallucinatory stillness. Work, home and love lives are mired in a torpor that hangs over proceedings like a thick, impenetrable soup. Rarely has a writer created such a self-contained world of claustrophobic insularity. And yet penetrating this bubble are two new arrivals: haughty, superior undergraduate Ralph and his listless mother Grace. The former is smugly amused by the village’s quaint parochialism; the latter is nervously returning to the scene of her own adolescent years to take up residence in a run-down, abandoned farmhouse, overlooking the winding streets and sun-baked green below with symbolic detachment.

Their arrival certainly punctures the studied lethargy of village teenagers Joe and Jenny, drifting aimlessly in a relationship seemingly bereft of passion or purpose. Joe is the strapping, stoic son of Grace’s ailing childhood friend Betty. Intelligent but ambition-free, he has spurned potential escape to university, preferring an undemanding labouring job with the village carpenter. Jenny has the imagination and wilfulness that Joe lacks but has become mired in everyday tedium, spending her days passively plonked on a churchyard bench with her pragmatic best friend, Dot. They are the Statler and Waldorf of Norfolk adolescence, cynically observing the minutiae of local life with wry resignation.

Ralph immediately acknowledges the claustrophobia of his new home (“It’s like a stepping into a room,” he comments, on his first sighting of the village green) and the inertia of everyday existence (“You can hear the place mouldering”) but he does so with dilettante amusement, clearly believing himself superior to the local youngsters. It’s an approach he also applies to the pointless brand of lazy shit-stirring that seemingly delights him: idly fancying Jenny, he playfully uses his covert knowledge of Joe’s bored infidelity with another local teenager, Diana, to drive a wedge between the couple. He even seems wryly amused when his own mother begins a half-hearted, never-consummated flirtation with Joe. A sense of simmering, pent-up sexuality pervades: half the village is on heat, a feeling conveyed with a slightly incongruous wink as Jenny ponders the love lives of Dot’s randy, hutch-bound pet rabbits.

And yet also hanging over the village is a darker spectre than mere torpor. Grace, after eighteen years away, becomes the unwelcome fixation of the elderly Mrs Goodchild. Dismissed unconvincingly as a harmless crank by the village youngsters, this hawk-life figure is a feared, distant apparition, almost wraith-like herself. Her mental health, we learn, has been slowly disintegrating for two decades following the suicide of her disabled adult son, Tom. As she begins to aggressively shadow Grace’s hesitant movements around the village, the uncomfortable truth about Tom’s death is uncovered: he was besotted with the teenage Grace, and took his own life on the hill overlooking Grace’s new home when the object of his desires playfully agreed to meet him there for a date… and then mischievously failed to turn up.

The shockwaves of this appalling incident may have settled, but they have created the suffocating air of stagnation that has subsequently descended upon the community. It is not just decay but a lingering sense of guilt-ridden grief that is binding the locals to unremitting lassitude. The horror of Tom’s suicide has seeped into the local landscape: into the streets, houses and surrounding hillsides. The idea of an entire locality being infected with the psychic residue of a violent death is redolent of Alan Garner’s superlative 1967 novel The Owl Service, and the comparisons do not end there: for, like the teenage protagonists of Garner’s book, Joe and Jenny – as their relationship dissipates following the death of Joe’s mother – find themselves unwittingly re-enacting the doomed non-romance of Timothy and Grace.

Which is where the rare subtlety of Gordon’s ghost story truly comes into its own. Whereas lesser writers may have made Tom’s spirit a vengeful figure intent on retribution, Gordon – after flirtatious, slight-of-hand dalliances with the misleadingly baleful – makes him a compassionate ghost. Gently controlling events from afar, he cunningly manipulates both villagers and physical objects alike to contrive a reconciliation between the disillusioned lovers – and, indeed, to release himself from his own anguish. There are delicious suggestions that Tom’s spirit inhabits the form of local animals: not just the clamour of cawing rooks that give the book a traditionally spooky frisson, but also the panting dog that slows Jenny’s progress across the village, preventing her from discovering Joe in flagrante¬†with Diana. And are the dancing butterflies seen by Joe’s father infused with the spirit of Betty, his late wife? Even the dead, it seems, are unable to breach the limits of the village. Their physical forms are interred in the shadowy, yew-covered churchyard, and their eternal souls forever trapped within the confines of the surrounding valley.

The book is beautifully written. The langour of the earlier chapters is dispelled as the story races towards a potentially horrific conclusion, and perspectives are switched with disorientating momentum. Joe, consumed with unexpressed grief after the death of his mother, is placed at the mercy of his own fragmenting mental health. And an ill-advised Midsummer’s Eve party explodes into both emotional turmoil and the symbolic breaking of the heatwave with a downpour of torrential rain. But the lingering impression left is the atmosphere of slow, suffocating stillness that defines Gordon’s story, and the gentle influence of a ghost with remarkably human characteristics.

POINT OF ORDER: The Ghost on the Hill was inexplicably never adapted into a half-remembered six-part summer holiday TV series by HTV, but Simon Gipps-Kent would have made a terrific Ralph, with Wanda Ventham as Grace and Eileen Way as Mrs Goodchild.

MUSTINESS REPORT: 6/10. My 1977 paperback has pages the colour of an Orange Fruitie from the ultimate “Phew, what a scorcher!” summer. One idle musing: which of the youngsters is depicted on the cover? I’m assuming it’s Jenny, but it could easily be the young Grace, or even a delicately-featured Ralph. Send your suggestions on the back of a Funny Feet wrapper to the usual address, please…