Still Scared: Talking Children's Horror

Still Scared: Talking Children's Horror

Witch Week

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In this episode we talked about Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones.

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Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re talking about Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones. Enjoy!

Ren: So I chose this book because it’s one that I read over and over again as a kid, although strangely I never read any of the others in the series.

It’s part of a series by Diana Wynne Jones of Crestomanci novels, which are all related to the character of Crestomanci who’s an enchanter who has nine lives.

Crestomanci is a title, so there are various Crestomancis. In one of the other novels, The Lives of Christopher Chant, we follow Cristopher as he becomes the Crestomanci.

And Crestomanci does turn up in this book but it’s quite a fleeting appearance, only towards the end, and otherwise it pretty much stands alone.

Adam: Yeah, I was able to follow it. I don’t know if I would have known, apart from I might have thought ‘Oh this Crestomanci figure’s popped up out of nowhere, somewhat inexplicably’, but apart from that I wouldn’t have known that it was part of a series.

Ren: Yeah, I do remember being a little confused about who this guy was who turns up towards the end, and feeling like I should know who he is, but you can read it as a standalone.

Adam: So do you know how you came to the book? Did you get it from the library, or was it bought for you?

Ren: I don’t know. I owned it, because the copy I’ve been reading is the copy I had as a kid. But I don’t know where I got it from.

Adam: It found its way into your possession.

Ren: The interesting thing I found when looking at this copy is that all the quotes on the back are talking about funny it is, like ‘very funny’, ‘highly entertaining’, ‘compulsive, exhilarating and often hilarious’. And it is funny —

Adam: Yeah, in places.

Ren: But I remember it as being unsettling, mostly. That’s the lingering feeling I had about it. The setting of the school and the miserable chilliness of this boarding school that it’s set in.

Adam: I think I would have found it quite distressing as a child. I found it tense reading it now, I think as a child I’d have found it quite upsetting. Because of this constant undercurrent that the characters who are witches, or who believe themselves to be witches, are going to get found out and then summarily burned in a big bonfire.

This is not a world that treats witchcraft with the respect that it is due.

Ren: No. So our protagonists are Class 2Y at Larwood House, which is a boarding school that we discover is known for having a number of witch orphans among the students.

And witch orphans are a phenomenon of this version of late twentieth century Britain, in which witches exist, but witchcraft is so fiercely outlawed that witches are burned at the stake. In fact, they’ve only just recently stopped burning witches at the stake in public. Now they do it in prisons.

Adam: I guess it’s like the shift in capital punishment in England, which obviously existed up until the ‘60s. It used to be that you were put on display as a spectacle outside Newgate or whatever, and strung up until you died. And then they far more respectably did it behind closed doors.

Ren: Yes, and the story starts with the class teacher finding an anonymous note that says ‘Someone in this class is a witch’ and that’s the inciting incident for the book.

Someone’s accused of being a witch, who is it, is it only one person who’s a witch? As it turns out, it’s not.

Adam: It’s sort of like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, everyone’s implicated, but in a nice way, sort of.

Ren: Oh yes, like Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone killed him. It turns out right at the end that nearly everyone in the class is a witch, and nearly everyone in the world has some degree of witchcraft, but it’s so thoroughly taboo that no-one knows.

Adam: We could perhaps make a link with queerness. Not that we tend to do that or anything.

Ren: No, no. Why would we do such a thing.

So our main characters, at least to start with our two main characters are Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan who are the two class misfits, only surpassed in unpopularity by Brian Wentworth.

And in the first chapter the students are writing their mandatory journals, and we learn about the world’s attitude to witches through Charles.

He writes his journal in code, as it’s widely believed that the headmistress reads them all, which it turns out she does, and he has code words for both of the witch encounters he’s had.

The first one is actually glimpsing someone being burned on a bone-fire (as they are called in this book) as public burnings were still legal when he was a child. And the second memory is of him helping a witch escape through his house when he was a child as well. So it’s through Charles that we start to learn what kind of world this is.

It’s maybe not dissimilar to House of Stairs, in that we find out the details of this world through the microcosm of this school and these teenage characters.

Adam: And also like House of Stairs, these characters are a bit of a rum lot. Perhaps not quite so bad, but Charles reminded me quite a lot of Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. He’s kind of huffily indignant and spends quite a lot of time thinking about how much he hates everyone.

Ren: Yeah, they’re not the most…

Adam: They’re quite prickly.

Ren: I was about to say prickly. I think Diana Wynne Jones often has quite prickly protagonists.

Adam: Ah, okay! This is the only Diana Wynne Jones I’ve read.

Ren: I’ve read a few. She’s definitely not very sentimental.

Adam: I read a review of this on Goodreads and it was compared to Harry Potter, and posited that it might have been an influence on Harry Potter. Because it’s a school — well, not so much a school for witches, in this case, but a school with witches.

And it’s a class, and there’s magic but it also plays through the class rivalries and bullying that you would get in a school. But they pointed out that compared to Harry Potter the characters are not quite so likeable. It’s a much more gloomy and downbeat read.

Ren: Yeah, it’s tonally very different.

Adam: (extra smug voice) Well, I’ve never read Harry Potter, so I wouldn’t know!

Ren: I read quite a lot of boarding school stories as a kid, and I was never quite convinced by ones that made it sound like it was all glorious larks. I think this book struck me as more realistic, with the horrible idea of never being able to escape school or your classmates.

Adam: I have to admit, I’m very thankful I never went to boarding school. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Ren: I know, right. I actually shuddered when I realised they’re all sleeping in dormitories. God, can you imagine.

Adam: It does do a very good job at reminding you, as an adult reader, about quite how awful a lot of school is. We do this to millions of children, what are we doing?! What kind of monsters are we?! You’re forcing kids into this environment where they may well be made to feel thoroughly miserable.

I like the fact that the teachers are all so caught up in their personal lives that they don’t think about the kids, or when they do it’s like, ‘oh yeah, I’d better be nice to this kid because that’ll look good for the headmaster’.

Ren: I think Diana Wynne Jones is pretty good at capturing the loneliness and awfulness and misery that you sometimes have being a kid.

Adam: I guess that feeling of there being no respite, right, and that feeling that if you’re being bullied you know that the adults are going to be ineffectual.

I laugh, but I was bullied a lot at school, and my mum eventually came in around Year 9 to talk to my form teacher about it, and according to my mum, and she’s a trustworthy person, my form teacher, who was a pretty odd individual, his response to my mum telling him about all this was to look at my grades and say ‘Well, look at Adam’s grades. It seems like Adam’s good at R.E. And I always say, if you’re good at R.E. you’ve got nothing to worry about’.

Ren: What??

Adam: I don’t know if he expected me to make the sign of the cross at my persecutors or what?!

Ren: That’s so bizarre.

Adam: And I remember there was one kid who would always punch me on the arm, and he’d always punch me on the arm in the same place, where it was bruised.

And his response was to pair me up with this kid in form time so that hopefully we would make friends, and obviously all that happened is this gave him more access to punching me.

And it felt like I was being punished for the fact that I was being bullied, essentially. So I think that the book gets across this sense of the wanton unfairness you feel as a child, that adults will make these decisions.

I was in a particularly disruptive form group, so I often suffered class detentions, and I hated class detentions, because I took a lot of pride in the fact that I never otherwise got a detention at school, but I certainly had a fair few class detentions where I felt like I was being dammed by association.

And I always resented the fact that I would lose my lunch time because the people in the form who were generally the ones who bullied me were acting up. So I can see how you might end up like Charles, being a kind of huffy Mark Corrigan and resenting everyone. Fair enoguh.

Ren: Nan Pilgrim has her own problems as well. Well, she’s kind of chubby and awkward anyway, but then the headmistress accidentally reveals to the school that her given name is Dulcinea, which is the name of the arch-witch who attempted to lead a historical witch rebellion. To be called Dulcinea in this world is pretty scandalous.

Adam: They made a comparison that it’s like being called Guy Fawkes, or, I don’t know, Charles Manson.

Ren: Yeah, it’s a pretty outrageous thing to be called in this world that’s so opposed to witchcraft. And it turns out she is named for the arch-witch, who is a descendant of hers. This means that everyone immediately believes that Nan is the witch of 2Y.

Adam: And we get access to how these different kids feel about this through their diary entries. They have to keep a journal in class, but they know that the headmistress is going to read them. They do still record their feelings, to a certain extent. So you get a sense of Nan’s unhappiness, partly through access to her thoughts and partly through access to her journal entries.

I wanted to ask, before we get too far away from this — did you ever get detention as a kid?

Ren: Uhhh…

Adam: Strictly off the record, Ren. I’ve heard about your antics as a child, putting a chicken on a train.

Ren: I definitely did antics, but I don’t think they were ever quite antics enough for me to get in proper trouble. I definitely tried to bend the rules, like I always tried to have lunch in places we weren’t meant to be having lunch. Up various corridors and stairwells, because they were apart from everyone else.

Adam: So a situationist reclaiming.

Ren: And if the head of year found us she’d tell us to go away, but it was never quite bad enough.

Adam: So you were part of an eccentric gang, of a sort, or a friendship group. Did you have a name for yourselves?

Ren: We were called the chicken gang.

Adam: And this was because of the chicken on the train, or the underground. I’m just setting you up to have to explain that.

Ren: Okay, so we decided to have a day of absurdist activities in central London. In which we did various silly things, like dressing up in cardboard and taking vegetables for walks on a string. Things like that.

And then on that same day we happened to be on the tube and sitting nonchalantly on the back of the tube seats there was an unwrapped frozen supermarket chicken. I think we were actually already called the chicken gang, but this only solidified the association.

So we sat opposite this, and whenever anyone came and sat down in front of this chicken we’d gleefully tell them that there was a chicken behind them, and they would be suspicious and say ‘hmm’, and then turn around and be like ‘Woah! Oh no!’.

Adam: Oh, you rascals.

Ren: Yes, yes. We’re cutting this out right?*

Adam: No, this is important information!

Ren: Oh god.

Adam: You get a sense that there aren’t really any friendships at this school, and it’s only really that through the suspicions and everyone trying to work out who’s a witch, that they actually start forming real friendships.

At the start of the book everyone’s very isolated and alone. Some of the popular kids, like Simon, have hangers-on, but they don’t seem to be real friends. And it’s only really as the book goes on that you start to get solidarity between some of the characters and by the end of the book they’re much closer.

Ren: Yeah, I thought that was interesting. I liked the arc around Estelle. Who is introduced very dismissively as a kind of wannabe popular girl. Theresa is the perfect model student, and Estelle as described as a kind of hanger-on and quite air-headed —

Adam: — Not self-willed.

Ren: But actually over the course of the story we find out that she was involved in the underground witch resistance, through her mother. When that was broken up by the inquisitors she was sent away to this school and later in the book, Nan finds out that she can ride a broomstick and the broomstick demands to be ridden so she goes out of the dormitory at night.

And when she comes back, and she’s totally soaked, Estelle’s the one who’s changed the sheets on her bed and helps her hide the evidence. And when the inquisitor is going to come to the school, which we’ll get to, Estelle and Nan run away together and it turns out that Estelle’s actually kind and brave, and she’s still a girly character — she doesn’t become less feminine to prove that she’s an interesting character.

Adam: No, she’s not like a tomboy character.

Ren: But she’s shown to have these qualities that aren’t apparently there at the beginning.

Adam: As listeners may have already got the impression, there aren’t really protagonists in this. It sort of focuses on Charles and Nan, but really it’s the whole class.

So a disadvantage is sometimes it feels like this odd smorgasboard, cross-cutting between these different characters and feels like it’s in danger of losing focus. But I think mostly there’s enough incident and funny bits that this doesn’t really happen. But the advantage is that I think we do get a good sense of all of these kids, and the class as a unit, and how the school works.

So you get a sense of the interactions and the rhythm of the school, and I did feel — not exactly part of the class — but I feel like I knew the class as a whole by the end of the book. Which is not something I’ve always felt reading YA fiction, normally you have individuals but this did work slightly differently, so that was interesting.

Ren: Different characters do become more prominent as the book goes on. Estelle and Nirupam Singh as well, who both reveal themselves to be allies when Nan is being so thoroughly accused of witchcraft by everyone. They become much more integral to the plot as it goes on.

Adam: Actually yeah, in that way it reminds me of a film roughly contemporary to Witch Week, which is The Breakfast Club. The Breakfast Club obviously sets you up with a bunch of students who are identified variously as the jock, the weird one, etc. and then it tests these stereotypes and by the end they have a fuller sense of their own identities and each other’s identities.

Ren: I think that’s a very good comparison.

Adam: Oh, thank you! I wasn’t sure, so I threw it out there.

Ren: And similarly, as we were saying, they’re all quite suspicious of each other to begin with and they’re not necessarily all the best of friends by the end. Brian doesn’t really have a redemptive arc at all.

Adam: So Brian is the son of the deputy head teacher, and he’s also quite intelligent and he’s not particularly agreeable. He doesn’t have very much that’s charming about him. He’d get picked on anyway as the son of a teacher, but he gets a pretty bad deal of things.

But you don’t get the sense that Diana Wynne Jones particularly likes him either. She’s obviously quite fond of Charles and Nan, you get the sense, that she can relate to them but I don’t think she really likes Brian.

Ren: Yeah, at one point, Nirupam says ‘I thought Brian’s disagreeableness is because he gets picked on so much, but I think he might actually be a nasty person’.

Adam: I think there was a slight tone of ‘Urghh, nerd alert!’ to it, because there’s a whole thing of him charting train journeys in his head. When he’s meant to be doing his activities he’s actually imagining train journeys. I got the sense that this was not meant to be charming.

Ren: Yeah, I thought that was quite cool.

Adam: You were like, ‘Yeah, you and me both! You’re cooler than I thought!’

Ren: I thought that was quite an interesting thing to do in his journal. But maybe I’m a nerd.

Adam: Aw, well. I think we’re both kind of nerds.

Ren: So Brian is also responsible for the thing that accelerates the plot towards the end of the plot. Because he’s having such a horrible time he decides to run away from the school, and he gets the idea that he’s going to blame the witch.

By this time, various magic has been happening in the school so it’s definitely known that there is at least one witch about, and Brian decides that Brian is going to run away and say that he is under the spell of the witch. So he writes a big screed in his journal about how’s being possessed and subject to the evil eye, and he runs away.

Adam: And he keeps giving himself a lazy eye!

Ren: He does. He seems to be able to make himself go pale and have a lazy eye at will. It’s shown that he also is a witch —

Adam: So he’s using his powers in the best way possible.

Ren: So we should maybe talk a bit about some of the magic that happens before that.

Adam: Well the magic is all quite oddly defined, right? It might just be that I haven’t read lots of fantasy, admittedly, so my main experience with magic as a kid would I guess have been reading the Discworld books, but after that I read a certain amount of Ursula LeGuin, and she’s pretty thorough about her magic ontologies.

Magic in Ursula LeGuin has quite a solid linguistic base? Whereas a lot of these kids, I mean, they’re adolescents and going through puberty, perhaps. And they’re coming into the realisation that they’re witches, and there’s lots of doing magic on the fly.

So they say something like: ‘Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus, Make this town swarm with locusts’

And then because they’re witches, it works!

Ren: Yeah, I quite enjoyed that. I assume it’s because they haven’t been taught about magic and any information about magic is so repressed that they just sort of wave their hands and mutter and say abracadabra and make up little rhymes —

Adam: They have to wing it.

Ren: But it works.

Adam: It’s quite a kind of scrappy, ad-hoc approach to magic but it’s quite different to anything else. As I said, (a slightly manic edge to the smug tone enters Adam’s voice here) I haven’t read the Harry Potter books! (mock sobbing) It’s the only interesting thing about me! Don’t take it away from me!

But my impression from the little I do now is that magic is a bit more systematised in the Harry Potter universe.

Ren: Yeah, their magic is like in the first Harry Potter book where Harry meets Ron on the train, and Ron’s like, ‘oh I got told this spell’ and he says:

‘Sunshine, dasies, butter mellow, Turn this stupid fat rat yellow’

And it doesn’t do anything, because that’s not how magic works in the Harry Potter universe. But that’s how magic works in this book.

So the first magic that happens is the birds appearing in their music lesson, because all the songs seem to be about birds. And then all these birds start streaming through the windows, including an albatross —

Adam: And a parrot!

Ren: A parrot that shouts cuckoo. But the more outlandish birds are disappeared.

Adam: I have a lot of birds on my cover. What cover do you have?

*Ren: * It’s Nan on a broomstick, she’s wearing the pink blanket as a cape and flying above the school, and there’s fields surrounding it. And below her there’s presumably Mr Wentworth, on a flying carpet, he doesn’t look old enough, but anyway he’s shaking his fist at Nan above him —

Adam:— Why you little!

Ren: It’s very much that pose!

Adam: Okay, I’ve got Crestomanci striding towards the school in the distance, and he’s surrounded by lots of different exotic birds. There’s a stork and a parrot and an owl, and a flamingo, and a toucan, which are my favourite.

Ren: Oh good.

Adam: And it says underneath ’No magic allowed here!’

Ren: Quite right.

Adam: Then there’s the magic with the shoes.

Ren: Yeah. So the bully character, Dan Smith, has hidden Charles’ running shoes.

Adam: Oh, I know that kind of jape too well!

Ren: So Charles tries to find his shoes by magic but instead of doing that he summons all the shoes in the school. Into an enormous pile. I think it’s because he’s panicking and he can’t work the magic properly.

Adam: Yeah, there’s some idea that if witches are scared they can’t work their magic properly.

Ren: So there’s this vast pile of shoes and they have to spend the morning laying out all the shoes on the quadrangle so people can come and locate the ones that are theirs. So people are quite determined by this time that it’s Nan, and they’re like ‘Oh really Nan, why did you do that? It’s so inconvenient’.

Adam: Yeah, they all seem slightly unimpressed. They’re like, ‘Really Nan, we know you’re a witch but what’s this shoe business? This is rubbish.’

Ren: So Charles’ next escapade into magic, he wants to do something better than just create an enormous pile of shoes, so he decides to put a spell on Simon who’s this perfect boy, that means that everything he says will come true.

And at first this seems like it’s totally backfired, as Simon is just making a massive pile of gold coins for himself but then it goes kind of awry and starts causing chaos. He tells the girls that they stink and then they all, well, stink.

Adam: He says something like ‘I haven’t got a thought in my head’, or something along those lines. And then manages to make it so that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, but he also ends up being kind of sneaky. Do you have illustrations in your copy?

Ren: No, I don’t.

Adam:The drawing of Simon looking kind of empty-headed, but sneaky, is really funny. It’s a ridiculous drawing.

Ren: You should put that up!

Adam: I might have to scan this one in, it’s a pretty good illustration.

Ren: Nirupam thinks he breaks the spell by getting Simon to say something like, ‘nothing I’m saying will come true’. Later it turns out that he didn’t break it, he just reversed it so that anything that Simon says will now not come true.

And I’m not quite sure at what part of this chronology it comes, but one of the most memorable scenes, Charles decides to give himself a painful reminder to not do witchcraft. I think he’s brought to Mr Wentworth and told ‘if you keep doing this, an inquisitor will find you and you will be burned’. So Charles decides that he will impress this upon himself that it hurts to be burnt.

Adam: Do you have this bit to read?

Ren: Oh yeah, okay.

So Charles has borrowed a candle and put his finger in it:

‘For a second, he thought the flame was not going to burn him. It just felt warm and wet. Then, quite suddenly, it was hot and it hurt very much indeed. It hurt, as Charles had expected, in quite a different way from cutting yourself or stubbing your toe. This was a much nastier pain, sharp and dull together, which brought Charles’s back out in goose-pimples and jangled the nerves all the way up his arm. Imagine this all over you, he thought. It hurts to be burnt. He took hold of his wrist with his other hand and held it hard to stop himself snatching his finger out of the pain. It hurts to be burnt. It did hurt too. It was making sweat prickle out just beneath his eyes.

“It must be for a dare or a bet,” he heard Simon saying. “Which is it? Tell, or I’ll put the candle away again.”

“A bet,” Charles answered at random. It hurts to be burnt. It hurts to be burnt. He thought this over and over, intent on branding it into his brain — or into whatever part of him it was that did magic. It hurts to be — _Oh, it hurts! — _hurts to be burnt.

“Some people,” Simon remarked, “make awfully stupid bets.”

Charles ignored him and tried to keep his jerking finger steady. It was trying to jump out of the flame of its own accord. The finger was now red, with a white band across the red. He could hear a funny noise, a sort of tiny frizzling, as if his skin was frying. Then, suddenly, he could bear no more. He found himself snatching his finger away and blowing out the candle. The boys watching him all let out a sigh, as if they had been holding their breath.

Adam: Pretty dark, for a kids’ book!

Ren: Uh huh! That was definitely a bit that stuck with me.

Adam: I think some of the horror is also the fact that he’s in such a desperate state that he’s able to physically force himself to do that.

Ren: Yeah, imagining that. You know if you’ve ever burned yourself on something you reflexively pull your hand away.

Adam: Yeah, if you burn yourself on the hob or whatever, you just instinctively — I found that bit quite powerful. I like how the kids are at first finding it funny, and then they’re quite disturbed by it and are holding their breath in this kind of bewildered grim fascination.

It reflects how that can happen as kids. Something might start as a jape and then it starts going too far and becoming disturbing. My best friend Peter was somewhat the master of this kind of thing.

I remember him gashing his leg open in sixth form while trying to scale some kind of fence, and came back into the class and had blood streaming down his leg, and people said ‘Oh my gosh, Pete, you’re bleeding!’ and of course he ended up applying it to his face, marking his face in blood, and then I think scooping up the blood with mini cheddars and gobbling it down. I’m sure with some enthusiasm from me, I will admit. Peter was very good at excelling himself in outlandish and somewhat scary behaviour, bless him.

Ren: And then it also gets fairly dark with Nan, as the other girls, or the group of popular girls, corner her in the bathroom and demand that she rides a broomstick as she’s a witch, and threaten to drown her. They start threateningly running the bath and say ‘Oh witches don’t drown, we could put you under water and you wouldn’t drown’. This only gets stopped because it’s when the Simon Says spell kicks in, and they all run away to see what Simon’s doing. But yeah, it’s pretty threatening.

Adam: Yeah, and I mean I never had my head put down the toilet as a kid, but having OCD it was a pretty present worry that this would happen at some point. I’d heard of it happening in the school. So the idea of being waterboarded basically, in a toilet, was something that genuinely scared me quite a lot as a kid.

Ren: It turns out that Nan can ride the broomstick, although not very well, it sort of drags her up to the ceiling —

Adam: — Oh, it’s not her fault, the broomstick’s a jerk.

Ren: Yeah, it is.

Adam: And I like the fact that in the book Diana Wynne Jones points out that riding a broomstick would be really uncomfortable, you know.

*Ren: * Yeah, there’s lots of descriptions of having to wrap your limbs around this ridiculous, knobbly —

Adam: hard stick.

Ren: And how impractical that is. So she only gets the broom to put her down by promising it that she’ll take it out later on.

Adam: But the broom is a double-crossing broom.

Ren: It is! Because it turns out that it’s actually Brian Wentworth’s broom, because when Nan takes it out, she’s all wrapped up in blankets and she meets Mr Wentworth riding the flying carpet. I don’t think he shakes his fist at her as illustrated on this cover, but he thinks that she’s Brian and says ‘Oh, can’t you control that thing yet. I told you not to take it out during term time’. So it turns out that Mr Wentworth is also a witch.

Adam: So as you said, Nan and Estelle summon Crestomanci.

Ren: So they escape from the school, because after Brian disappears and blames it on a witch an inquisitor is going to come to the school. So Charles and Nirupam and Nan and Estelle, separately, escape.

Nan and Estelle go to this building that Estelle knows about to try and find the witch’s underground. And it turns out that it’s just one old woman, the organisations’ been disbanded by the inquisitors and she’s only allowed to stay there because she’s so elderly.

She’s constantly being monitored, so all she can do is give them this spell that’s been passed down to her, which is to go to a certain place in the woods and say the word Crestomanci three times.

So Nan and Estelle are going to the woods, and separately Charles and Nirupam are also flying towards the woods on a mop and a hoe. As the broom is otherwise engaged. Which is quite a funny sequence. It seems like all the implements that could be used for flying have different personalities. So it ends up that they find Brian in the woods, and he’s very annoyed to be found by them, and the five of them are there when Crestomanci is summoned.

Adam: And I guess for most readers it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s Crestomanci, I’ve been waiting for him!’ but for you as a kid and me, it’s like ‘Hey, it’s… Crestomanci?’

Ren: ‘It’s, uhh, Crestomanci. Oh.’ So he is quite bewildered to find himself where he is.

Adam: As bewildered as the reader!

Ren: As bewildered as the reader is if you haven’t read any of the other books. And the quest for the last quarter of the book is Crestomani trying to find out what has gone wrong with this world for it to exist, that it’s late-twentieth century Britain but there’s still witches being burnt.

And in the world of Crestomanci, there is a series of worlds and different books are set in different versions of these worlds, some of which have magic and some of which don’t, and the people who are able to go between them. And Crestomanci feels that this world is a kind of offshoot of our one that should never have happened. But because talking about witchcraft is so strongly forbidden, it’s really hard for him to find out exactly what has gone wrong.

So he makes the kids invisible and takes them back to the school and pretends to be the inquisitor and sets up an inquisitor’s room to talk to the kids. On the pretence of finding out if they are a witch or not, but actually trying to get clues as to what’s happened to this world.

Adam: Do you want to say how the book ends?

Ren: So the book ends with the reveal that nearly everyone is a witch and they eventually figure out that what has gone wrong is to do with Guy Fawkes. In this world, Guy Fawkes blew up the houses of parliament, and when he did that it was at the end of the Witch Week, and this blew all this magic out into the world, so witchcraft is incredibly common but also incredibly feared.

So we come back to the Simon Says spells and Nan’s using her gift of description to describe exactly what happened with Guy Fawkes, and the class all use their magic together and they get Simon to say that Guy Fawkes blew up the houses of parliament.

Adam: Which means that it didn’t happen.

*Ren: * And the world is folded back into the world that it should have been. And it ends with this alternative view of these characters in an ordinary school, which seems a lot less grim, and in an echo of the beginning of the book the teacher finds a note that says ‘Someone in the class is a witch’ but this time all the class think this is wonderful, and they’re all like: ‘I’m a witch, I’m a witch!’ ‘It’s me, it’s me!’. And that’s how it ends.

Adam: So, (Adam rattles something and sings) Texture of the week!

Ren: (Joins in rattling) So I have two, one of them is horrible though.

Adam: That’s okay, that’s fine. Textures can be horrible.

Ren: Do you want to go first because I’ve been talking a bunch?

Adam: I’m concerned ours might be the same, because I was thinking Charles’ blistered finger. My sister — she’s fine now — but last year she accidentally dropped some boiling water on her foot, and her foot really, really blistered up and some of the toes were three times their normal size.

And she let me feel them, and they felt like smooth plastic! It was so strange. It was really hard to connect it to the sensation of skin because it was so uniform and textureless. So I guess because of that I had quite a clear sense of Charles’ blistered finger.

And also the knobbly broom, I suppose.

Ren: I got two totally different ones. So one of mine was, it turns out that Charles’ missing shoes were hidden by the bully under the floorboards when they hide their midnight snacks, and Nirupam found them and turned them into a cake, so that the bully, Dan, would eat them.

It says: ‘the spikes were turned into cherries, the soles were the cream. The shoes as a whole became what is called a black forest gateau’. Just imagining this pair of shoes turned into a cake and then eaten.

Adam: It’s quite a Jan Svankmejer-like image.

Ren: And my other one is from a scene that we haven’t mentioned yet, but is pretty memorable. And it’s where Nan, Charles and Nirupam are called to the high table to have dinner with the headmistress.

Adam: Oh yes, right near the beginning of the book.

Ren: And Nan gets this compulsion to describe the food in the most horrible way possible. She just narrates the food:

‘Now these things’ Nan continued, stabbing her fork into a tinned tomato, ‘are small creatures that have been killed and cleverly skinned. Notice, when you taste them, the slight, sweet savour of their blood.‘

She definitely has a gift for memorably horrible descriptions.

Adam: Did you find it scary?

Ren: I didn’t find it scary, I found it unsettling and disturbing.

Adam: I think it’s legitimately horrifying in a quiet way. It’s more of a fantasy novel than a horror novel, but it definitely has a dark and gloomy atmosphere to it.

Ren: Yeah, I think you can definitely feel the oppressive weight of this world, and the constant threat of the inquisitors, and it’s horrifying the idea that people are regularly burnt alive, and that’s just something that’s accepted.

Adam: And on that note!

Ren: There’s one more thing I liked, which was that ‘magic’ is actually quite a good replacement swear world.

Adam: I thought that too! Or ‘magicking’.

Ren: Magicking hell! It’s got that good ‘k’ sound to it.

Adam: I mean obviously we try to be a pretty universal podcast, we’re on Itunes where you can review us, we’re down as being suitable for all, I think. So we don’t generally swear, but if we do feel the need we could say ‘magicking’.

Ren: It’s quite good!

Do you have a sign-off, Adam?

Adam: Have a magicking good week!

Ren: Have a magicking good week spooky kids! See you next time.

  • I want it stated for the record that it was Adam who decided to include this anecdote of me being a ridiculous teenager.


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About this podcast

A podcast in which one film lecturer and one scaredy-cat discuss creepy, spooky and disturbing children's books, films and tv.

by Ren Wednesday, Adam Whybray


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