In this episode we discussed Thornhill by Pam Smy, from 2017. Learn more about the book and the author at: [http://thornhillbook.com/]
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, and you can find her work at makiyamazaki.com. Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and their band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
The sound effects used in this episode are: 'Girl Crying' by MadamVicious 'Ghost Piano 1' by amliebsch 'thunder clap' by Shades 'Hurdy Gurdy Textures 02' by missionariojose '2 Hydrophones in between two soapy sponges' by Weave of K
The below transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
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, your other cohost is Adam Whybray and today we’re talking about the 2017 kind-of graphic novel Thornhill, by Pam Smy. Enjoy!
(Theme tune plays)
Ren: Good evening, spooky Adam!
Adam: Good evening, creepy Ren!
Ren: Oooh, it’s October so now everything’s even creepier.
Adam: It is, if you woke up the other day and were like ‘why does everything feel so creepy?’ it’s because you didn’t realise that the non-creepy September had shifted over into the very creepy October.
And all the Nancy comics at the moment are about spooky things, so that’s good.
Ren: So we’ve had a couple of witches-related episodes, and now we’re onto a different classic spooky entity, with Thornhill which is a recent book, by Pam Smy and it only came out last year, 2017. We’re going to spoiler the whole thing, so you know, read it, it’s good!
Adam: I think we’re both agreed that it’s really worth reading. Maybe get a copy for your library if you can’t afford to buy it. The book has black edged or lined pages… what’s that part of the page called? The end of the page. The sheaf of the page? The leaf? I’m going to say that. The leaf of the page is black.
Ren: Yeah, it’s quite an impressive book to look at. Would look good in your local library amongst the comics and graphic novels, even though it isn’t really that either!
Adam: It’s not, it’s… a picture book, I suppose?
Adam: Partly. The only thing I’ve read that is similar in form is Phoebe Glockners’ Secret Diary of a Teenage Girl which is less child-appropriate, but good for older teenagers. That contains diary extracts interspersed with sequences of comics drawing and full-page comics.
Here it’s just full-page comics. They’re all splash pages. But they do have a sequence to them, and in between those you get these fiction diary extracts.
Ren: So it has these two strands of narrative, and one is told through the diary extracts and one is told through the illustrations. Which is a really interesting effect. They come to intersect, but they’re about two lonely girls: Mary, who’s an orphan at the Thornhill Institute for Children in 1982, and Ella who has just moved into a house that overlooks the tumbled-down closed-up remains of Thornhill in 2017. And it takes turns between Mary’s diary entries, and drawings of Ella exploring the house and the overgrown grounds of Thornhill.
Adam: And the relationship becomes increasingly apparent. At first, it’s quite hard, apart from the fact that we’re dealing with two lonely girls, to relate the two stories. It’s only quite late that Ella comes across Mary’s diary, so it’s not set up at first like, ah, she’s reading the diary, and now we’re getting the diary extract. At first it’s quite mysterious what the relationship between the two is.
Ren: I thought it was a really well-fitting choice with how to tell the story, because one of the main aspects of Mary’s character is that she rarely talks, or she finds it really hard to talk to most people —
Adam:— she’s referred to as having selective mutism —
Ren: — And Ella’s story strand is completely silent, because it’s just these wordless illustrations. They sometimes have notes, like a note her dad’s left to her, but it means that they communicate, when they start interacting, through gestures rather than words. You never see them exchange any words, it’s all gestures and puppets. I thought that was a nice choice.
Adam: I think, it’s not a game book or an adventure book, but it has this slight edge of interactivity or investigation to it. YOu’re having to work out the relationship between the two strands, and the diary is positioned within the fiction of the book.
Maybe it’s because the book itself also is this big, slightly imposing looking object, it just gave it a certain edge, to me. I guess it foregrounded the experience of reading it. I was very aware of this book as an object in my room, in a way that was charming as an adult. But I talked last time about the book of The Witches feeling like a cursed book, and if I was a small kid I can totally imagine Thornhill having that.
Ren: I think it’s partly how the drawings are done, as well. Because they’re all two-page spreads, they’re big, and it felt kind of luxurious to me how much space each image is given. For example, there’s a spread near the beginning of the building Thornhill at night, seen from Ella’s bedroom window. And the next two pages are the same image but the sky has darkened a bit. I think it makes it feel very slow, and rich and ponderous.
Adam: Lovely, dark and deep.
Ren: Mm-hmm! And there’s also entirely black pages in-between the illustrations and the diary entries.
Adam: Of course! What do those black pages do for you?
Ren: I think they just slow you down, make you think about what’s just happened to the character before you move onto the next character again. Like, when you see something bright and you close your eyes, and the bright thing sparks in front of your eyes. If that makes sense. The black page gives that space for what’s just happened to spark at you.*
Adam: It’s like a moment of unconsciousness almost.
Ren: Mm-hmm. I’ll give a bit of the plot from Mary’s side.
So, she’s a resident at Thornhill as it is closing down. At the beginning of the book, her diary tells us that ‘She’ is back. This is another girl who is never named, but who torments Mary mercilessly. ’She’ acts as a ringleader to the group of girls at Thornhill, and bullies Mary while the care-workers are fairly indifferent.
Mary’s respite from this is hiding away in her attic room making dolls and puppets, her favourites being the doll ‘Mistress Mary’, based on the character from The Secret Garden. Mary goes out into the grounds and finds her own secret garden, but the bullies find her there too.
We find out at about this point through Ella’s narrative that Mary died just before Thornhill closed down, through a newspaper that Ella’s looking at, although it doesn’t say how she died.
So we go into the second half of the book with that knowledge. As the institute closes, and more girls are re-homed, it comes down to just Mary and the bully. The last straw comes when ‘She’ breaks into Mary’s room and trashes it, pulling the heads of off all her puppets and dolls.
Mary decides to have her revenge. She pieces her dolls back together, but leaves one broken limb or piece from each, and stitches those together into a monstrous, faceless doll. She tricks the care-givers into leaving, hangs the doll up in the pantry, and forces her bully in there with it.
She pours paraffin under the door, determined to set Thornhill and the bully alight, but ‘she’ tricks Mary one last time, tells her that she wants to change and be friends, and Mary lets her out. ‘She’ sneers at Mary, and runs away, and Mary decides that she is never going to leave Thornhill.
That’s essentially Mary’s narrative.
Adam: How did you find Mary’s narrative voice? Did she speak to you?
Ren: I mean, I felt for her. I felt sorry for her. There’s a bit where the bullies trick her into thinking they’re including her in their games and routines, but that’s only just to be crueler when they reject her. You really feel Mary’s pain at that.
Adam: It definitely brought back quite a lot of memories of being bullied, for me. I’d be loth to say that I found it triggering, but it perhaps bordered on that. I think it did a good job of getting across that feeling of inescapability you get when you’re bullied as a kid. The feeling that adults don’t understand, and you’re going to have to go to school, and the same thing’s going to go on. That grim, almost fated sense of inevitability. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s going to happen. And how much worse, right, if —
Ren: — you have to live with them as well! —
Adam: — exactly. And I think it got across the petty degredations, the casual cruelty. One thing that’s done to her is someone spills their drink all over her food. And that was something that was done to me repeatedly at school! Someone pouring their drink out over my sandwiches. So that really rang home to me.
And that’s the kind of thing that as a kid seems too small to complain to the teacher about, or they’ll just say ‘oh you were being clumsy’, there’s no way to really prove it, but at the same time it’s stopping you from eating! So it’s this seemingly small thing, but actually if it’s down to you day after day, you’re having to skip your packed lunch several days in a row, that’s really awful!
I think it did a good job at getting across the sense of injustice that engenders. And I think sadly that’s what can breed… when I look back at myself as a teenager, there’s been a lot of conversations about toxic geek masculinity. I think there’s some truth to that, but also if you’ve been bullied at school you can’t see yourself as anything but a victim, because you’ve been victimised. So the idea that you could have privilege seems unthinkable. I think men have to get past this, but I think this is where some of it comes from, at least.
I like the fact that you feel sorry for her, and yet it doesn’t skip out on that feeling of righteous anger that she has. I definitely remember self-pity, and the way that can curdle into a kind of righteous anger, and a real bitterness, potentially.
Some reviewers on Goodreads had a real issue with this, like ‘oh, it’s victim blaming, it’s saying that Mary is as bad as the victim after all’ but I don’t think it’s doing that. I think it’s trying to be realistic about the psychological consequences of long-term bullying.
Ren: Yeah, I would agree! You don’t feel like it’s the right thing to do —
Adam: — to burn a bully alive. Which I haven’t done, for the record.
Ren: But you can see how she got that point. It feels fairly inevitable that she’s going to snap at some point.
Adam: Absolutely, I like that she’s not not set up as the perfect victim. Because that’s how you get to Little Dorrit. That’s the issue I have with some of Dickens’ stuff. These long-suffering, often female children, who get put-upon and put-open and yet have a heart of gold and die with love in their eyes!
Ren: This kind of touches on the tie-ins with The Secret Garden as well. Mary’s described as quite unlikable. By a care-worker.
Adam: Which she overhears.
Ren: But the Mary in The Secret Garden is a really horrible character at the start of the book.
Adam: Really? I don’t know if I ever read it, I remember the TV adaption when I was a kid, so it’s been a long, long time.
Ren: I read at least the first 2/3 of it today. It had been a long time for me as well. But the Mistress Mary is a really quite unlikeable child, she’s kind of been both neglected and spoiled, her parents have just died, she was in India and she’s just come to England and this big country manor. Everyone keeps telling her what an ugly and crotchety child she is, but she starts to become a better person by experiencing kindness, and having friends, but also learning to look after herself and go out and be in nature.
There’s definitely a parallel between the two characters, that’s drawn on in Thornhill.
Adam: In the diary Mary explicitly says that she loves The Secret Garden, and she’s reading it, and in one of the drawings you also see The Secret Garden on Ella’s bookshelf as well.
Ren: Ohh, I didn’t notice that!
Adam: We should talk a bit about Ella. There’s less to say because we don’t see Ella say anything, we have to infer it all through the drawings.
Ren: Yes, so, Ella has just moved into the house overlooking Thornhill with her father. Her walls show photos of her mother with her, and we assume that she must have died.
Ella is curious about Thornhill from the beginning, and she sneaks round the boarded-up gate and through the barbed wire. But it’s all locked up, and it starts to rain, so she runs away. A while later, Ella is in her bedroom and she sees the figure of a girl in the Thornhill grounds. She rushes out, but when she gets there the girl has disappeared. Instead, she finds the head of a doll, and takes it back with her.
She restores the doll head, and brings it back to the area which we know from Mary’s narrative is what she calls the secret garden. She finds another doll, and brings that back to her bedroom. Ella finds out about the history of Thonrhill, and connects the girl in the garden with Mary, who’s dead. Although this doesn’t seem to unnerve her at all! She’s just curious.
Ella goes back again and sees the girl, but Mary rushes into the house and the attic bedroom away from her. Ella creates a puppet of Mary, and lays it at the statue in the garden. And then, as if in payment, a crow gives her the key to Mary’s bedroom door. Which is a parallel to The Secret Garden, where a robin shows Mary where the key is buried.
Adam: Ahh, that’s nice to know, because I found that a little inexplicable.
__ Ren:__ Ella goes into Mary’s bedroom, and finds the puppets she made, carefully laid beside Mary’s own ones. She finds Mary’s diary, and then she pulls back the cover of the bed to find the monstrous puppet. Which finally is the thing that scares her, and she runs away.
Adam: The closest thing that the book has to a jump scare, really.
Ren: Yep! So Ella reads what we have already read in Mary’s diary —
Adam: Yeah, which is unusual! Having the character catch up to us in our reading. And we see her reading pages we’ve already read.
Ren: She writes a note for Mary asking if they could be friends, and goes over to deliver it. We see her and Mary holding hands in the illuminated window of the dark house, but lightening strikes the building and sets it on fire.
(Thunder storm sound effect)
At the end we see newspaper articles about Ella being missing, and then a body being found in Thornhill. A new boy moves into Ella’s room. And as he looks across at the now very burned-down Thornhill, he sees two figures holding hands, and it’s Ella and Mary.
Adam: Yeah, and the picture of him moving in is very similar to the picture of Ella. So it seems like there’s going to be an endless eternal return of… child death, I guess?!
Ren: There’s definitely a bit of something sinister there, isn’t there? They’re potentially looking for recruits.
Adam: Yeah! It’s one of those endings where the more I thought about it the more troubling I found it, because the more it seems that Mary has entrapped Ella and led her to her doom so she can have another friend.
Ren: Well yeah, I mean that’s the thing. I’ve been thinking about the ending, because I think it’s definitely a happy ending for Mary because she gets the friend that she’s always wanted to keep her company in Thornhill…
Adam:But it’s certainly not a happy ending for Ella’s father!
Ren:Yeah. We never see Ella’s father, he’s always at work so we only know about him through notes he leaves to Ella on the breakfast table like ‘sorry love, I won’t be home for dinner’. But we know at the end of Mary’s narrative that it’s her choice to never leave Thornhill, but we don’t get anything like that from Ella! You feel like there could be other options for her than dying and being Mary’s forever friend.
Adam: Yeah, like, what at first seemed like the ghost Mary being shy, now seems potentially like she was luring… like she she was trying to get pursued into this house?
It becomes more sinister in retrospect.
Ren: And there is a page where we first get a close-up of Mary’s face in the garden, Ella’s craning out of the window to look at her, and Mary’s expression is… I don’t really know how to describe it! It’s a bit unnerving!
Adam: Yeah, like, knowing?
Ren: Knowing! Yeah, exactly. So I don’t know if that Mary is all what she seems.
Adam: But I like that about it! I like that it isn’t just the tragic waif ghost child in a Decembrists song, you know. I like that it has that really sinister undercurrent to it. It really is a proper gothic ghost story.
The book has quite a lot of reviews on Goodreads. Not all of them are positive, and some people seem to have issues with the ending. Quite a lot of people seemed to want Mary to take revenge on the bully, and they said ‘the antagonist wins at the end!’ is how one person put it.
But if Mary had won, she wouldn’t be a ghost! She wouldn’t be hanging around with unresolved issues! You don’t get ghosts when they’re like, ‘yep, my business here is finished. Just going to hang around, as a ghost’.
Ren: Yeah, I mean she wouldn’t even have died, necessarily.
Adam: So you wouldn’t have a story!
Ren: So we’ve kind of passed that… that’s kind of baked in really.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. That wasn’t a problem for me. It’s certainly a downbeat ending, but the whole book has quite a dour tone. It’s a gloomy book! There’s lots of Ella crying.
(Crying sound effect)
Ren: There’s a really sad illustration of when she comes down for breakfast and her dad’s already left for work and left the kitchen a mess, and she’s crying doing the washing up.
Adam: It’s a bit heartbreaking! You could say it’s an ambivalent ending, as you say, Mary has a friend, and Ella has a friend, whether she chose to have a friend or not. Some people said it was predictable, which perhaps is more fair, but I can’t see how it could have been any other way. But that’s the thing with ghost stories really, they can only end one way. That inevitability is, as you say, baked in.
But that ties in to the sense you have as a child of your life not being your own, and that adults control your life. Especially if you’re at an orphanage or a care home. And that ties into the sense of powerlessness that Mary has about being bullied, she can’t imagine her life going any other way. Which is bleak! But it felt emotionally honest to me, I guess.
Ren: Yeah. We read about Mary’s loneliness explicitly, but Ella’s is conveyed through drawings of the empty, messy house and the uncared for garden piled high with junk; the photos of her mother on her wall. It seems like Ella is feeling a similar overwhelming bleakness, just by how her surroundings are drawn.
Adam: And that’s lots of parallels between the two girls, obviously. Ella gets into making puppets just as Mary made puppets, for instance. And they don’t look wholly dissimilar, either.
Ren: Also, I don’t know if you thought this, but there’s a part where Mary describes making a puppet that looks like the opposite of her, and it’s quite like how Ella is drawn.
Adam: Ah! I had a vague sense of that. There’s another bit where Mary writes about sitting in the garden, and it’s as though she were a puppet, and there’s someone watching over her. Which is really strange! Is this like a presentiment of Ella?
Ren: Because Ella makes her as a puppet.
Adam:In the future. Is it a bit like that phrase - I felt a chill like someone just walked over my grave. What does that mean?! Like, in the future, someone at this moment walked over my grave? In the future moment?
Is that what the expression means? Because obviously I don’t have a grave at the moment. I don’t have a grave in my garden, ready to get into. At the moment, there is no grave.*
Ren: It’s pretty surreal for an everyday expression!
Adam: So it’s got to be the future grave. So it’s like a presentiment —
Ren: — a presentiment of being in your grave —
Adam:— and someone not respecting me being in my grave. Carelessly walking over it. But it’s always walking isn’t it, you never say ‘Ooh, I felt someone having a wee on my grave’
Ren: ‘Playing cricket on my grave’
Adam: ‘Having sex on my grave’
Ren: Oh my god, what would that feel like?!
Strange metaphysics, I think.
Ren: But the idea of Mary imagining herself as a puppet tied into the drawing style a bit. The way the figures are drawn, they’re quite simple and expressive, and a bit gangly. I feel like their limbs sit a bit off in a slightly puppet-like way.
Adam: Yeah, it’s drawn in quite a loose style. It reminds me a bit of your illustrative style, in that everything looks quite fibrous and organic, and like it should be in a state of flow. Like, everything looks a little bit permeable and kind of loose.
Ren: It tends towards simple characters and crammed, intricate backgrounds with lots of textures like Ivy growing all over the place, or all the scuff and cobwebs inside Thornhill. Which is definitely my thing.
Adam: And the drawings of the puppets.
Ren: I wanted to draw out one more parallel between the two girls and the connections with The Secret Garden, which is the idea of magic and sanctuary. In The Secret Garden, obviously, it’s this garden that Mistress Mary finds and it’s been locked for 10 years, and when she gets in it’s the first time that she’s had a place of her own where she can grow things, and that’s her sanctuary.
For Mary, her room is a similar thing. She talks about it as the only place where she feels safe, it’s right at the top of the house, it has all her puppets. Ella’s place feels the same way, in that it’s the only place that’s drawn to look comfortable. It has cards and books and photos, and decorations, compared to the kitchen which has piles of unwashed laundry and the surrounding area that seems a bit run down.
There’s definitely something about finding a space that is magical, and then how much of a betrayal it is for Mary for the bully to come and destroy that.
Adam: I kind of wanted to read the description of the monstrous hybrid puppet that she creates in anger, because it’s one of the most evocative pieces of writing in the book, I think.
'11th August 1982
I have been awake all night and it is nearly done. I am dizzy with excitement, hot with anger, sick with hate for her. Sick of her. I am sick of it all. I have made her. I have taken the remains of my puppets and I have stitched and glued them together to make her — not as they see her — not the confident, rosy-cheeked beauty with golden ringlets and blue eyes, but as I know her to be — cold, heartless, ugly in thought and mind. She is snot and bile. She is pus and spit and piss. She is a horror and I want her to see what she is.
I have snip, snip, snipped pieces of arms and legs from the bodies of my puppets, and stitched them together to form my life-sized monster’s face. Her eye sockets made from crushed papier mache arms and tiny hands. The cheeks stitched from tatters of fabric she had ripped from my puppet’s bodies. I have stuck glassy, beady eyes as warts on her face, and collaged them together as a necklace for my monster. I have stitched tufts of hair into her body, and glued shards of clay and plastic scales for her skin. I have stuffed her with foam and torn costumes and papier mache.
And I have cried. I have cried as I used parts of my old, damaged friends. Cried as I recognised bits of characters I planned and crafted and loved. I had invested my time and my care in each of them. They were beautiful. Now these broken pieces are ugly and are building something uglier and I can’t stop the tears falling onto my hands as I cut and stitch and glue and scrape.
But now I have made her.
And now I can destroy her.’
Fearsome piece of writing, that!
Ren: Yeah, it’s really good. And the illustration is as horrific or more, even, than you might imagine from that description. It really sells the horror of that puppet.
Adam: Right. Shall we do Texture of the Week.
Ren: Yeah, alright.
( Rattling and thumping noises)
Adam and Ren: Texture texture texture texture of the weeeeeek!
Adam: I gave that fan a good scrabbling! It’s what it deserves.
Ren: Yeah, you show it.
Adam: Well, I’ve read mine! That’s me done.
Ren: Yeah, I mean, that was mine as well. It was clearly the best texture.
Adam:It was very clearly the best texture! Done and dusted, mate.
Ren: I mean, our first texture of the week, we were in agreement —
Adam: Was that Beetlejuice?
Ren: That Beetlejuice grave astro turf was clearly the best texture. Sometimes there just is one.
Adam: Sometime’s there is objectively a Texture of the Week, and this week there is!
Ren: Any further thoughts, or are we done?
Adam: I think we’re done! Just to say that I really liked it, I found it quite moving, it was creepy, great late-night reading, really liked the illustrations. I think you said to me in text was the only drawback, if any, was that some of the dialogue was a little clunky?
Ren: Oh yes, I thought that when the care-workers were talking to each other they used each other’s name every time they said anything, which I found a bit distracting because it’s not how people talk, but that is a minor quibble.
Adam: Overall I really like it, and I’m definitely going to look out for what Pam Smy does next!
Adam:So recommendations for all creepy kids and spooky adults.
Also apparently I was bad and wrong to tell people that they could just click the stars on iTunes.
Adam: What?! You’re never bad and wrong!
Ren: But apparently it doesn’t count for very much! They have to leave a review as well.
Adam: Oh well, I hope they do. But we’ve had some really nice emails, actually, the last month. So thank you for those, and it’s nice to get some suggestions in as well, I’m sure we’ll be covering some of those in the coming months.
Do you have a sign-off?
Adam: Don’t look into the windows opposite your house too late at night, creepy kids.
Ren: You don’t know what the ghost is planning.
See you next time!
(Outro music plays)
I was very tired when recording this episode!
Apparently this expression does indeed refer to the idea that someone is walking over the patch of ground where your grave will be in the future, as that would have been considered a pre-determined fact. I forgot to mention this at the time, but I’m particularly fond of the variation ‘A goose walked over my grave’.