The Whitby Child | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘The Allpowerful does not “ask” – he demands.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Hillian is my favourite of the three (or rather, two-and-a-bit) antagonists who are introduced in this chapter, and I’ve always liked the little scene where she does her summoning on the shore.  On reread, it reminded me of Doctor Spittle’s necromancy magic in Chapter 6 of The Alychmist’s Cat – both scenes are momentous to the plot, but both have their grandeur tarnished somewhat when the everyday intrudes.

In Spittle’s case it was his relentless mumbling and Will’s long-suffering attitude which lightened proceedings. Here, it is a combination of Hillian’s utter failure to be adequately dressed for the Whitby weather and the fact that her ritual takes quite a while to bear fruit that makes the whole thing seem faintly ridiculous. Honestly, what’s the point of being the Almost High Priestess of the Black Sceptre if your good shoes get ruined in the wretched wet sand and your unholy invocation to the powers of the fathomless oceans takes so long to work that you have time for a smoke break?  A bit shoddy, I call that. A bit unprofessional.  Evidently, bringing a puny warlock back from the dead is not high on the agenda of the Deep Ones.

Speaking of Nathaniel, did anyone else groan and think ‘oh here we blooming well go’ when the Coven of the Black Sceptre was brought up? A glad day it was when Crozier suffered his agonising and well-deserved demise in A Warlock in Whitby, but it seems his witchy groupies aren’t likely to follow suit any time soon. As the last part of this chapter illustrates in gruesome detail, the new Whitby Witches are just as dangerous as their deceased leader. Despite the coven member’s botched assassination-by-ammonite, it looks as if Ben, and the rest of our heroes, may be facing their worst peril yet.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, we’ve definitely got our villains now, as we meet yet another coven. In many ways, I find this to be the mirror image of Book 1. There we were introduced to a bunch of sweet old ladies who lived in Whitby who got together for witchcraft.

Here we have a sort of slightly younger, shop-working class of woman, who also get together for witchcraft on the side – but of a much darker, murkier type.

She only gets one chapter, but the character of Susannah O’Donnell is another fascinating Jarvis ‘grey’ character – yes, she’s part of the Crozier coven, but under different circumstances, might she have chosen a different path? (And we’ll never know now.)

Meanwhile, I love the idea of the fishmonkey barking orders. (And the inspiration for that particular character came from a fake mermaid that Robin found one day.)

I should also add – now that I’ve had a read of Robin’s Whitby Child page, that his inspiration for Sister Frances came from the comedienne Joyce Grenfell, but I must confess I’ve never seen any of her films. Anyone else?

The Whitby Child | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Thus do the Deep Ones reveal their displeasure.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’ve always thought this, but the scene where Miss Boston meets the ‘divine being’ (let’s call him a cherub for now) kind of gets more unnerving the more you read it. I know that it’s supposed to be an antithesis to the ambiguity of the Lords of the Deep and the evil of Morgawrus, but there’s something disquieting about how Miss Boston is meant to be having a rapturous holy visitation, and yet the flowers are ‘like a river of fire’ and the garden becomes ‘too bright to look at’.

Matt mentioned earlier that the ‘Blessed Be’ in Patricia’s Book of Shadows reminded him of the way that phrase was used with deeply sinister intent in Dancing Jax, and for me, the scene with the cherub has the same effect. The way in which Miss Boston slowly slips into a seemingly delightful altered state made me recall a similar (and very frightening) process that certain characters in the Dancing Jax books undergo, and although Miss Boston seems perfectly content, there’s a little voice at the back of my mind that says ‘no, Aunt Alice, don’t listen!’

It’s all a little too aggressively blissful, and reminds me also of the visions of the Green which appear in the Deptford Mice and Histories. To me those always came across as dreamlike and unearthly in a way that was not quite comfortable – one got the impression that while things might be sunshine and rainbows just then, the Green Spirit could turn to anger very quickly, and so it is with the cherub as well.

On reread I was especially struck by the way in which the otherworldly being brushes aside Miss Boston’s selfless desire to remain alive for the sake of Ben and Jennet, and grows resentful when Ben arrives to awaken his guardian. Surely a truly divine being would respect Miss Boston’s decision? Surely it would not leave the garden in a drab and colourless state, being a giver of life and grace? Readers, what do you think of all this?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m starting to wonder what Miss Boston was like as a girl. There’s a slight streak of meanness that runs through her veins, looking at the trick she played on Sister Frances! (Who, mind you, did show up to a party uninvited and scoffed half the food …)

But meanwhile, what about these mysterious women owning shops in Whitby? Is this more of Nathaniel’s coven? Is he going to come back from the grave? I really can’t remember, but I’m getting anxious thinking about an undead Nathaniel … Because between the gift of two-headed fish coming from the Lords of the Deep and sinister women in a coven, it doesn’t spell good news for anyone …

The Whitby Child | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘GET OUT!’ she yelled. ‘GET OUT OF MY SIGHT, YOU STUPID IMBECILE!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Who else thinks Miss Boston was controlling the radio when Sister Frances turned it on? The Sister is blasted with the dulcet tones of what seems to be some sort of metal band, followed by a radio drama which contains, in a few short lines, enough Not Safe For Nuns material to fill a whole season. I’m just saying, Miss B. was rather irate in that scene and had been doing her witchy homework with Prudence’s Book of Shadows. It might’ve been coincidence, but it probably wasn’t.

As for the second half of this chapter, I’m fairly sure it was my first exposure (aside from perhaps a couple of allusions in Jacqueline Wilson’s books) to the difficult subjects of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. In that respect, the confrontation between Nelda and Parry did exactly what it was meant to, and introduced an adult issue to a young reader in a manageable and digestible way.

I can remember the scene being a bit hairy (mostly thanks to Prunella Scales’ absolutely chilling Old Parry voice) but I certainly wasn’t traumatised, nor did I feel that I was ‘too young’ to be hearing that part of the story. As an adult I can recognise that knowing when to frighten one’s readers and when to tread lightly is a mark of great storytelling, and I think this section is an excellent example of the ‘safe exposure through fantasy’ thing that Robin does so well.

Speaking of ‘bitter herbs’, on rereading this chapter recently, I was reminded of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin. In many versions of it there’s a verse which details how Lady Janet (or Margaret) is informed of a plant she might swallow to ‘twine her baby from her’. In all versions, Tam Lin appears and persuades her to ‘leave it alone’, but I thought specifically of the haunting rendition of the ballad sung by Anne Briggs, which contains the line: ‘why d’you pull that bitter little herb, that herb that grows so grey?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Love the juggle of tones in the two halves of this chapter. First up, we’ve got the high comedy of Sister Frances coming to visit Miss Boston. Over the last few years, my wife and I discovered the joy of Miranda Hart and while I know she wasn’t on the scene at all when The Whitby Child was written, the mixture of physical comedy and embarrassing social awkwardness instantly reminded me of Miranda’s brand of humour.

Who else would carry a Jolly Cheer-Up Bag with puppets that you might spring on invalid grown-ups?

But then this is in high contrast to the extreme darkness of Old Parry and Nelda’s night journey. I remember some of our commenters had been speculating on why American publishers didn’t go near Book 2 and 3 of this series, and whether it was a content issue. (It may just have been difficulty with sales.)

This chapter is particularly interesting because it deals (in brilliant fashion) with the topic of abortion. I don’t propose to get into a debate on that particular topic, but I think this chapter highlights something of the importance of fiction writers: they can sometimes go places and explore topics that would just cause bitter fights in the realm of non-fiction.

I thought Mr Jarvis’ handling of the topic and the moral choice that Nelda faces was really well done, and opens a discussion on a difficult topic in a way that no amount of rhetoric in newspapers could ever hope to do. It reminds me of another brilliant novel – but definitely not one suitable for children – called The Devil of Nanking (or Tokyo, which was its original name when it was first published) by Mo Hayder, which also dealt with similar territory, but did so in the context of a thriller.

Of course, controversy aside, it’s also Mr Jarvis shutting down an easy way out for poor Nelda. If her options are cut off in Book 2, and she’s committed to die a horrible death, then it’s hard to work out how on earth she’s going to get out of this predicament.

The Whitby Child | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Flattened against the glass, frills of pale flesh parted and two clusters of eyes pushed forward to spy into the room.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: It’s a cold, wet night in Whitby, and we’re back for the final cold, wet instalment. After the rising of Morgawrus and the defeat of Nathaniel ‘most vile’ Crozier, you’d think the stakes could not get any higher, but with Miss Boston all but out of commission and the advent of Something Gross n’ Slimy from the Deeps, it appears that they can and will.

The brief appearance of Prudence Joyster’s shade was a lot of fun to read, but, for me, it was even more fun to listen to. The cassette of this book is narrated by none other than Prunella Scales, and honestly I can think of no better voice for so, so many of the characters who populate this story. Despite that the cassette was abridged, this was still an atmospheric and engrossing beginning, and when I read this book, I still hear it narrated in that illustrious lady’s voice.

As a last note, I can remember being oddly terrified by the seaweed splurgled against Miss Boston’s window and the sand that arrives at the close of the prologue. Was it just me, or did anybody else find that more ominous than all the actions of the Deep Ones against our heroes so far? There’s just something so disturbingly out of place about it. Clearly, it portends nothing good for Aunt Alice and her charges, though it is difficult to imagine what could be worse than Morgawrus.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I know I’ve said this before, but if Whitby Tourism aren’t paying Robin a commission, they should be. (Or at least give him an honourary Key to the City.) Even though the opening scene is all rain and drizzle, it has such a sense of place that you just wish that you were there. The narrow streets, the seagulls, the 199 steps. It’s all there.

And what a great prologue! This was particularly relevant to me, because at the time I was reading this chapter, I had just caught one of the nastiest flus I can ever remember having. It had me bed-ridden for about five days, and there was a period in the middle of that where a sense of despair kicked in about whether I’d ever get better. (Not entirely rational, I know. But it made sense at the time.)

So the plight of Miss Boston, trapped in a body that’s not working the way she wants it, feeling like it’s all over – I could sympathise. So it was with much glee that I read the cameo from Prudence Joyster to tell Alice to hurry up and get over herself! Yorkshire ladies – they don’t beat around the bush. Even when they’re dead.

Chapter 1 was more a recap and set-up chapter for me, but it’s got me hooked (especially as the details of this story stubbornly refuse to come back to me). We’re reminded of poor Nelda’s plight, Ben and Jennet have another serious source of tension between them which threatens to tear them apart and there’s a slime creature from the depths crawling around the town. Bring it on.

P.S. Am I the only one who got an inadvertent cold shiver of doom when they read the words ‘Blessed Be’ at the bottom of Patricia’s inscription on her book of shadows? I’m sure it was meant to be a good thing in context in this book, but for any of us who have read the Dancing Jax series, those two words have a much more ominous meaning …

Up Next Reminder | The Whitby Child

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We quickly interrupt our epic quest through the forests to remind you that you’ll want to pick up a copy of The Whitby Child for next month’s read-along. They’ve defeated witches, werewolves, warlocks, and massive serpents (which sadly don’t lend themselves to alliteration like the first three) but the end of Book 2 left us with a pregnant Nelda, a wheelchair-bound Miss Boston and a somewhat traumatised Ben and Jennet.

Can the curse of the Deeps be lifted once more? Will Miss Boston recover? What on earth could possibly hit Whitby worse than the apocalyptic disasters of the last two books?You’ll just have to join us and find out!

There are two main editions of this one, the original one (pictured above) or the silver-spine edition below, both of which feature Robin’s classic illustrations. Sadly, both are out-of-print but well worth tracking down.

 

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The Hodder Silver edition from 2001