The building was in ruins, but that did not diminish its power. The abbey had dominated Whitby for centuries, and waves of invisible force flowed down from it. The ruin was a guardian, watching and waiting, caring for the little town that huddled beneath the cliff. It was a worshipful thing.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: Before we leap into the cold and eerie depths of this most mystical of tales, let’s talk about the scene at the very start. I hesitate to call it a prologue because it’s only about half a page long in the edition I own and has no title, but it makes more of an impression than many full prologues I’ve read in my time.
It’s an instant manifestation of place. The phrase ‘the sands of Tate Hill Pier’ emblazons itself across the very first line, and even if we are not Whitby locals we are immediately smacked in the face by the damp, salt-scented wind of a British seaside town. Then, like the tide, the venerable mythology and folklore of this very specific setting wells up to greet us, and by the time we arrive at ‘Yes, it is a cold morning, and I am chilled’, we have already been pulled under, never to resurface.
The first chapter is classic in a multitude of ways. It is Robin Jarvis classic, in that it begins with small, vulnerable protagonists in a wide and threatening world. It is children’s literature classic, echoing and referencing every train journey taken by displaced children into danger and adventure, from the Pevensies evacuating London to young Tolly disembarking for Green Knowe on a dark and soaking night. Finally, it is horror classic; with its narrow, winding streets steeped in history and the black skeleton of the abbey on the East Cliff like a watchful sentinel, Whitby is a town heavy with dark secrets. Of course, Ben and Jennet have secrets of their own.
Matt’s Thoughts: It’s been so long since I have read this! I’m with Aufwader on this one – we immediately get the impression of place. I’ve never been to Whitby (sadly, it was just that bit too far from London for a day trip when I was there last year), but I feel like I have been there, because the town just rises off the page, doesn’t it? In some ways, the small, cute nature of it makes you feel comfortable. But then the wild, sea-side oldness of it make it feel laden with sinister potential. (Both of which turn out to be true in this book.)
It’s also impressive to watch Mr Jarvis change from animal characters to human characters in this one. I remember the first time I read this, I wasn’t sure how well this would work coming off the Mice, but his knack for characterisation never falters. In some ways, also, it’s a new departure in that there is no community to start with. In both Deptford and Fennywolde, there was always a feeling of lots of other people being around you to look after you. (Even though the trilogy opens with a family tragedy.)
But in this opening, it’s just Ben and Jennet, just the two of them, on a train. They’re coming from having nobody and they’re not really sure what awaits them in Whitby. One old lady doesn’t sound like much of a friendship circle! So it’s a more lonely start.
In terms of literary comparisons, I had never thought of Aufwader’s connection between train journeys before. But what this book did remind me of was another famous story. It also features a small boy with a knack for seeing strange things. In short, Ben straight away reminds me of Danny in The Shining. But this is that thing that we all love about Robin’s stories. He straight away reminds us of other stories (and types of stories) but his stories are all uniquely his own.
Finally, Robin, I’ll forgive you for the crack at Australia in this chapter, but I do feel this should be made up for by setting at least one chapter of The Witching Legacy series in some sort of Australian flashback setting … I still hold by my theory that the Whitby coal boat that took Captain Cook to Australia must have had some infernal device or object hidden in its hull somewhere. Surely?