I've decided on a new series of blogposts (to go with the dozen or so I'm already juggling) and it's one that delves into some of my absolute favourite stories from childhood and beyond. Let's call it: From My Favourites Shelf.
Some of these are going to be a bit obscure (more than a few are long out of print) but they're essentially the formative books of my youth, which have managed to stay with me across the years and which I'm now re-reading as an adult to see if they've held up.
First up is Monica Dickens's The Messenger quartet...
I've long been interested in the subgenre of fantasy-fiction in which horses (or ponies, or unicorns) act as the mechanism through which young girls can be transported from the mundane to the magical. From the original My Little Ponies cartoon to Mary Stanton's The Unicorns of Balinor to Elizabeth Goudge's The White Horse to Bruce Coville's The Unicorn Chronicles, it's a surprisingly prevalent plot device. Heck, you can even find it in old fairy tales. Remember the horse that the Beast sends to carry Beauty to his castle?
Whether it has anything to do with the theory that young girls are obsessed with horses because it's subconscious preparation for their later relationships with men, I'll leave to the therapists. But as it happens, The Messenger is a textbook example of the formula you're most likely to find in these types of stories: a pre-teen girl befriends a magnificent, magical horse and is deemed special enough to enjoy exclusive horse-riding adventures that whisk her away into another realm.
Monica Dickens (yes, a direct descendant of Charles) is perhaps best known for the Follyfoot books, which recount equine-related adventures at a retirement stable for old or unwanted horses, but her interest in the subject carries over to the four-book The Messenger series.
Sitting somewhere between the fantasy, supernatural and time-travel genres are The Messenger, Ballad of Favour, The Haunting of Bellamy 4 and Cry of a Seagull, which I recently managed to track down and purchase on Amazon.com. The first time I ever read them I was twelve years old, and yet they left such an impression on me that when I returned to them over fifteen years later I was surprised by how many details I remembered.
Rose Woods has just turned thirteen. A friendly and perceptive girl, she works alongside her mother at the family-owned Wood Briar Hotel, earning money to spend on horse-riding lessons down at the local stable. But now she's beginning to notice strange things going on in the world around her.
She manages to put out a fire with her bare hands, without any sign of injury on her palms. She is haunted by the lilting notes of a tune that leads her out onto the moor where a beautiful grey horse seems to wait for her. And every time she enters the newly furnished guesthouse she is struck by a pervading sense of sadness and dread.
Centuries ago, there was a castle out on the moor that was ruled by a cruel lord, a man who was defeated by a beautiful grey stallion called Favour that the people revered as a symbol of courage and strength. From that time on, the horse has selected its messengers to right long-ago wrongs – and now Rose has been chosen to discover the truth behind the tragedies that plague the hotel's guesthouse.
Upon Favour's back she is hurtled deeper and deeper into the past to uncover the mystery behind the cursed annex, experiencing the events by inhabiting various bodies of those who were present at the time.
The Messenger very much reminds me of Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce and Moondial by Helen Cresswell, in that all three involve children who get embroiled in time-slip adventures and individually have to figure out the rules of what they're experiencing. In Rose's case, each journey into the past is chronologically further back in time than the one before, taking her closer and closer to the original cause of the guesthouse's pervading sense of misery.
What's more, her experiences in the past involve her becoming a "passenger" rather than an observer. During her outer-body experiences, Rose is privy to the thoughts and feelings of individuals who were witness to crucial events in the time-line, experiencing things from inside their bodies and through their eyes.
It's a bit like a possession, but without the ability to control the person or manipulate events. Instead Rose can only information-gather while Monica Dickens proceeds to have fun with the boundaries she's set for herself: Rose siphoning the important details from the miscellany, and simultaneously experiencing the inner worlds of other people.
By giving Rose this ability, we're privy to some intriguing insight into human nature and the secrecy of everyone's own internal thought processes. As it's put in the story: "Rose was inside Linda. She could feel her emotions and what it was like to be her, but at the same time she was still Rose and could observe her." Throughout the four books, Rose gets a taste of what it's like to be poor, or sick, or creative, or with low self-esteem, or a bully, or a different race.
As a thoughtful and sensitive girl, the experiences can be as upsetting as they are enlightening, and they clearly have an effect on her. Not only does she struggle with the responsibility that comes with being the Messenger, but the study she must make of other people's thoughts and feelings, however ugly or unpleasant they may be.
The first book is by far the best, with almost every plot-thread wrapped up satisfactorily, and plenty of foreshadowing and pay-off strewn throughout, from the enigmatic behaviour of certain guests staying at the hotel to the way certain phrases are repeated in similar circumstances across time. It's a book that demands a close reading (or at least a second one), as Dickens doesn’t draw attention to the clues she lays down: they're just there.
The following three stories follow a similar formula, though with variations. Ballad of Favour has Rose transported to the not-so-distant future so that she can witness the steps that lead to a catastrophe only she can prevent. The Haunting of Bellamy 4 again has Rose visit the past to understand why a certain room in the children's hospital has such a negative effect on the patients who stay there. Finally, Cry of a Seagull revolves around the rescue of a donkey, which is actually a lot less silly than it sounds.
For such slender books, they're jammed packed full of ideas. Something interesting and/or exciting is happening on every page, whether it be Rose's interactions with her family and the hotel guests, gradually discovering the backstory of the grey horse, or her intriguing forays across time and the subsequent actions she takes in the present-day as a result.
Monica Dickens is an exceptionally good writer, endowed with that knack of conveying information without saying it outright, never giving too much away, and sketching three-dimensional characters with only a few simple actions or lines of dialogue:
"Rose was fascinated by [a guest in a wheelchair] because he seemed as relaxed and happy as if nothing was wrong, and was more interested in other people than himself."
"There was Abigail, strolling along through the sparse crowds, eating an ice lolly, her eyes going from side to side, missing nothing, grinning at everybody, creating her own good time, as she always seemed able to do."
"'Pardon me for disturbing you,' Mrs Ardis said in her throaty stage voice. She had many voices, for all occasions and moods. 'I didn't know this lounge was being used.'"
"She had to go down and let [Ben's father] hug her and tell her she had grown six inches, which meant she hadn't, but he was an unimaginative, well-meaning man who didn't know when to stop saying the things that grown-ups said to children."
But more than the plots or prose, it was the atmosphere of the books that stayed with me. Somewhere in the clear but understated prose, there was the promise of a certain type of adventure. One with rain parkas, the smell of horses, bike-riding, page-boy haircuts, dim little parlours, old-fashioned hospital wards, sea water – these books conjure up a very specific aesthetic that's somewhere between the "jolly-good" stylings of Enid Blyton and the memories of my own childhood in the Eighties.
Because seriously, these books are very Eighties. Just look at that cover art!
It came as a relief to re-read these books so many years later and realize they still held up, though I was left wondering if perhaps Dickens had planned for more books in the series. As it is, Cry of a Seagull ends on a rather open-ended note, and there was certainly more material to be expanded on in potential sequels (such as the eerie encounter Rose has with a past-messenger that's fallen on hard times in The Messenger, or the ongoing confrontations she has with the ghostly lord of the moor and his men).
If you can track these books down – especially the first one – you may well enjoy yourself. The premise is certainly unique (magical ghost horse transports girl into other people's past experiences so she can solve mysteries, stop disasters and lay unquiet spirits to rest) and the prose a masterclass in "show, don't tell" – especially when it comes to characters and their motivations.
For me there's just something about them that taps into a very specific part of my life. Perhaps it was my first brush with nostalgia. By the time I was twelve the Eighties were over, and yet there I was reading something set in the decade in which I was born; the original Stranger Things.