The Whitby Witches | Chapter 7

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Her billowing, dazzling shape resembled that of a moth which had fluttered too close to a candle flame. And then she was gone, vanished into the darkness as if the light had consumed her. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  The Mrs Cooper Mystery continues, but for me the highlight of this chapter is Jennet’s encounter with the nun on the cliff, and her subsequent nightmare.

These two sequences seem to be all of a piece; the scene with the figure of the novice has a disquieting, dream-like quality which quickly turns nightmarish when her face is momentarily revealed. I can picture this being highly effective and quite terrifying on screen, with the arc lights casting eerie shadows and Jennet, bewildered and distressed, calling after the stranger as she flees.

When Jennet wakes up in the night it is as if she has not truly woken up at all. The fiend from her troubled dreams looms before her staring eyes as the worlds of sleep and wakefulness blend horribly together. Now too we discover the importance of the talismans which festoon Miss Boston’s house – in Whitby, evil stalks the streets in beastly form, and sometimes a few charmed antiques are all that will keep it at bay.

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m with Aufwader on the brilliance of the wailing nun with the unearthly face. It’s just brilliant. And – what’s better – is is just throws in another layer to a story that already has plenty of them. You could have just had a story about old ladies conducting seances and that’s all you would have needed, but then we’ve got aufwaders and their storylines. And now creepy nuns.

It’s no wonder that they love having Mr Jarvis come and visit out at Whitby, because he takes what is already an atmospheric little town and elevates it to a place of grand mystery and magic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m wishing that I had an elderly aunt in Whitby that I could go stay with. (Now off to explore Whitby on Google Street View!)

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The Whitby Witches | Chapter 6

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The hundred and ninety-nine steps trailed into darkness below as the fog swirled about her ankles and concealed the streets of Whitby. She might have been standing on the roof of the world, for all she could see. A shudder ran down her spine and she glanced back nervously. 

Aufwader’s Thought’s: This chapter’s title made me snort with laughter. ‘Cream Cakes and Death’! What a perfect opener, though, as our Brenda and Effie mystery gets underway.

There are echoes of Piccadilly and Oswald in Morgan’s lair in The Dark Portal here. At first, things seem all right, if a little suspicious. Miss Boston’s instincts are telling her loudly that there is something shifty about the new and intriguing Mrs Cooper, but as she cannot quite place what it is even when she finds herself in Rowena’s living room, she is frustrated in her investigations.

I love that scene. I love Mrs Cooper’s alarmingly immaculate house – I can practically feel the deep pile carpets and smell the overpowering bouquets she no doubt displays in ugly vases at the perfect height for knocking over. My imagination is offended by the thought of all that nineties decor in a confined space, and Mrs Cooper herself is even more offensive. I love Miss Boston sitting uncomfortably on an overly plush and vaguely hideous sofa, eyes alight for treachery, cup of lukewarm tea in hand. I love Mrs Banbury-Scott, a sit-com caricature, and the rest of the Ladies’ Circle either enduring through gritted teeth or lost in their own world.

Finally, I love the payoff in the second half of this chapter. It’s proper murder mystery stuff; the villain is revealed at last, but, oh no! The only one who guessed the truth has been brutally silenced on a dark and misty night! The plot thickens, dear Readers, but Miss Boston, Whitby Witch, is on the case.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Not just nineties decor, but nineties old-lady decor. I remember my grandparent’s place back in the nineties, and it was all doilies, old dusty sitting rooms that were never used, and an out-of-tune upright piano.

I just like the juggle of tone here. So we’ve got a whole bunch of tragic stuff going on with the aufwaders, all of which gets put on hold for a chapter as we have one of the classic British TV tropes – the keeping up appearances cup-of-tea. Opinionated spinsters that drink cups of tea are just awesome as characters. (It’s not really a great surprise that Alice Boston is modeled after Margaret Rutherford who played Miss Marple.) But I’m struggling to think if there have been any popular stories in recent memories that featured these kinds of characters.

Has the old English tea-drinking lady disappeared from our world of stories?

Anyway, we don’t get to have too much time to enjoy the comedy, because everything has to advance the plot in a Jarvis book. So we’re straight on to the finale of the chapter, the kind of sequence that also has immediate echoes of The Hound of the Baskervilles. In other words, another wholly British story phenomenon, re-packaged brilliantly. (I was going to say re-packaged for the modern day, but those glorious old days where you didn’t have a mobile phone or the internet and you had to physically go and see people do make this original Whitby trilogy somewhat of a nostalgia piece for me.)

The Whitby Witches | Chapter 5

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‘Just how you are involved I am not certain,’ Nelda told him excitedly. ‘But for an instant back then I saw the moonkelp and …and you were holding it, human child!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  At the start of this chapter we meet two of the most interesting and memorable secondary characters in any fantasy trilogy; Tarr Shrimp, Nelda’s grandfather, and Hesper, her aunt. Gosh, I want Hesper to be my aunt. The Whitby Witches gets so grim at times that the comfort she provides in her very presence is desperately needed. Look at her on the side of the Whitby Witches box set, what a lovely old dear!

Of course, this is Robin Jarvis, and Hesper has woes of her own to contend with. Like Gwen Brown before her, she is a maternal figure but also a distinct and rounded person apart from her charges, and I would go so far as to call her the aufwader counterpart to Miss Boston. Both ladies are responsible for the care of emotionally vulnerable young wards, and both do not always live up to the standards that those wards expect of them, but they both make every effort to give their best, and we love them for it.

Here we also get to delve deeper into aufwader mythology and tradition. I love that Nelda straight-up has a prophetic vision and Ben and Hesper just accept it as fact. Is Nelda prone to this sort of thing? Is prophecy and foresight given to all aufwaders as to the bats of the Deptford Mice Trilogy, or only to specific members of the tribe? Was future-telling another of the gifts all but confiscated by the Lords of the Deep and Dark, or are they granters of visions for their own cruel ends?

Considering my claim of kinship with the aufwaders in the previous post, you may be thinking that that mysterious triad are my Robiny call to faith, but I must disappoint on that count. My allegiance will remain undeclared for a while yet. Frankly, I’m rather pleased not to be beholden to the Lords of the Deep, for what a petty and vindictive trio they seem. The mother’s curse is still one of the most sadistic, gruesome torments ever inflicted on any of Mr Jarvis’ characters, and we haven’t even truly touched upon it yet.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Aufwader has said quite a bit about her namesakes, so I won’t add to that. Except to say that all the Whitby Witches mythology is coming back to me. There’s just something so rich about it, even after all these years. But I will jump in and say that I enjoyed the interlude in the Museum.

a) Because it’s actually a real museum, which makes it so much cooler. For instance, you can go and see the Hand of Glory. (Gross, right? You can totally understand why Robin Jarvis and the town of Whitby get on so well!) I totally want to visit there.

b) While it sounds like a breezy interlude in between the aufwaders and their centuries of heartbreak and despair, it’s actually carefully setting out all the plot elements that will become important later on. Very, very clever stuff, Mr Jarvis.

The Whitby Witches | Chapter 4

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‘We fade away,’ she muttered darkly. ‘Aufwader was the name which once you gave to us. Who now recalls it? Very few, I think.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Though I have yet to settle permanently near the shore, there is brine in my veins. My grandfather was a sailor, and both the bright fishing villages of France and the grey Scottish coastline are known to me. I was raised on tales of kelpies and selkies. Once, combing the beach for treasures, I found a piece of wood so ancient it had been transformed into a perfectly smooth sphere of glittering coal – a gift from the deeps. To borrow the words of David Almond, I am half a creature from the sea.

Meeting Nelda again was like being reunited with a long-lost sister. I first encountered that brave and defiant shoremaid via audiobook, and the sound of her voice; bleak as the North Yorkshire wind, soft as the waves becalmed, has never left me. I am attached to the Deptford Mice, but the aufwaders are my kin, and I feel honoured to bear their ancient title as my name.

I’m not actually sure how it was that I came to be known as Aufwader, but I daresay it’s not as fantastical a story as perhaps some of you were expecting. When Beyond the Silvering Sea first began, my Robiny cronies needed something to call me that was less of a mouthful than ‘lastoftheaufwaders’ (which, now that you ask, bears no relation to this fantastic short film). Over the years I grew into Aufwader-as-a-name, and now it fits me like a gansey. When I met Mr Jarvis in 2016, he insisted that he only wanted to know me by that name, so Aufwader I am, and fade away I most certainly will not.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, the first thing I’m going to have to dive in on is a pronunciation issue. Watching the Last Aufwader video that was shared by my blogging colleague above, the word was pronounced ‘Orfwader’. Meanwhile – maybe because we just had too much Bach in my house when I was growing up – most of my life I’d thrown a Germanic spin on the first syllable and been pronouncing it ‘Owfwader’. How has everyone else been saying it?

(That said, I think I also leaned completely the other way and was happily pronouncing the dragon from The Hobbit as ‘Smorg’ until the movie came out and it had to revert back to ‘Smowg’. So consistency on pronunciation of imaginary words has never been my strong point!)

Anyway, those all-important secondary matters aside, I really like this short but important chapter. Even more so, because I’ve also been reading another book at the same time, also about a race of small invisible creatures that humans can’t see. It makes me realise how difficult it is for a writer to create another race. If you get too caught up in the mythology of the characters and where they come from, your characters can just come off as strange and hard to connect with. (Which is what is happening with my other book, sadly.)

But the realm of the aufwaders is far enough removed from ours as to be fascinating and different, but has immediate emotional connections that we get. We know Nelda is worried about her missing father, we know that she has a shifty uncle, we know she is friendly to Ben, we know that she is forbidden to talk to him. These are all human things we can relate to, so we instantly warm to her as a character, which helps connect us to her as we find out more about mythology of her race.

And all of this in one short chapter! Nicely done.

Also well written is Jennet’s interaction with Aunt Alice. Jennet could easily become a spare wheel of the story in the wrong hands – after all, she has no secret sight, she doesn’t do magic. But her (sometimes ferocious) care for her brother actually, in many ways, makes her the heart of the story. She helps us feel this story, rather than just follow its plot. Great stuff. Unfortunately, things are about to get darker …

The Whitby Witches | Chapter 3

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‘I hate you!’ she stormed. ‘You’re nothing but a load of old witches!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Oh, ammonites! To choose a single, all-encompassing symbol for every Whitby book Mr Jarvis has ever written (or will ever write) is to choose the ammonite. That curling, many-segmented, ancient remnant of Britain’s prehistoric past has become deeply connected to everything that Robin’s Whitby is about, and they’ll turn up time and time again in the chapters ahead.

In this post I feel I absolutely must make passing reference to Paul Magrs’ Never the Bride, the first book of the ‘Brenda and Effie’ mysteries, which follows the Whitby-based paranormal escapades of a pair of meddling old dears who are themselves not all they seem. It was my love for The Whitby Witches which lead me to Never the Bride, and the subplot with Miss Boston and her friends which begins here is a perfect miniature  Brenda and Effie mystery.

The question which lurks gleefully in both this chapter and in Never the Bride is this: just what do elderly ladies get up to together over tea and scones? In Never the Bride, the reveal is that Brenda and Effie are illicit detectives of the paranormal; blue rinsed saviours of the human race. In this chapter, the reality of the secret doings of Miss Boston and her friends is that they really are witches, but unlike in Never the Bride, this revelation is only superficially humorous.

In trying to tap into Ben’s gifts, Miss Boston has betrayed the children’s trust and destroyed the good rapport they were beginning to have with her completely. In this, Ben and Jennet’s new guardian is revealed to be not a perfect, saintly grandmother figure, but a flawed human being (albeit one with supernatural powers) who sometimes misjudges situations and makes poor decisions. The relationship between her and the children must now begin to grow again from a basis of total honesty, and we hope it will grow stronger as a result.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Is it just me, or does everybody love old British ladies? (Maybe it’s because I’ve been recently watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are in my mind.) But here we have a cast of the best old ladies, almost snatched from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. (At first glance. Mr Jarvis has a lot more depth of character than that!)

But I love how each of them has a quickly definable quirk that makes them instantly distinguishable. Mrs Joyer’s military bearing. Tilly Droon’s dithering. (Mrs Banbury-Scott’s eating!) There is an undeniably comic side to the idea of the Ladies Circle.

By the same token, however, it’s utterly creepy for Ben! Again, I’m reminded of Danny Torrance wandering around The Overlook Hotel, seeing horrific sights than nobody else can hear.

One thing I was curious about was the fact that some ghosts appear relatively complete while others are a sort of grey mist. This does make me wonder: why is that? Is it an age thing – older ghosts are fading away with time? Or is there some sort of technicality in this limbo land that determines what level of presence spirits still have on this earth?

Final thing to note is that I believe (Aufwader will be sure to correct me if I’m wrong!) this chapter is the first mention we have of serpents / dragons in a Jarvis book. Sinister Reptilian Things is a motif that crops up from time to time in a few Jarvis books, which I’m sure we’ll speak more of in due course if you stick around with us on this blog long enough …

The Whitby Witches | Chapter 2

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As he passed under the dark loft opening, all the hairs on the back of his neck prickled and rose. He felt sure something was up there, watching him from the shadows – something that could close bedroom doors. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  The vivid sense of place which bombarded us last time continues into this chapter as Miss Boston and Jennet have their first real heart-to-heart on that draughty bench outside the Church of St Mary.

Many of us, myself included, loved the kindly, unflappable Aunt Alice from the moment we met her, but this scene cements her integrity further. Since the death of their parents, Jennet and her brother have been cast adrift in the world, and Ben’s supernatural power has only served to exacerbate their outcast status. I love and appreciate how Miss Boston seeks to bolster their flagging trust in adults by treating them with respect despite their youth, and getting them to engage with Whitby as if it were already their home.

Perhaps the most touching moment comes when Jennet nervously describes Ben’s ability to see ghosts, only to have Miss Boston breezily accept her every word and describe ‘the sight’ as a gift. There’s also lots of excellent foreshadowing with Miss Boston’s blood-curdling tales of the town’s history and legends – even the Barguest gets a look-in. I love the line, ‘Don’t pretend to be a vampire, Benjamin, you haven’t got the cloak for it’. Unlike every other prospective guardian the children have met, Miss Boston embraces the macabre and magical, which may turn out to be just what Jennet and Ben need.

One of the most prominent themes of this trilogy is the fantastic blended innocuously with the mundane, and this chapter demonstrates that perfectly. Talk of ghostly apparitions and Dracula merges seamlessly into the very 1990s BBC comedy of Miss Droon and her wayward cat, and then, before we can be lulled into a false sense of security, the sleeping, sinister secrets return with Ben’s foray into the old house. On reread I noticed how this ‘classic horror’ sequence, with its sudden door-slams and ominous attics, resembles a later scene in another, completely unrelated Robin Jarvis trilogy. I’ll have to sit on that for a while, however, so do put it to the back of your minds for the time being.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Miss Boston is such a fantastic creation. And for those who haven’t yet read Robin’s comments on this in his own website, she is a combo of author Lucy Boston, of the Green Knowe series and actress Margaret Rutherford who (among other things) was one of the first – perhaps the first – actress to portray Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

The scene in the graveyard is a beautifully paced ‘defrosting’, where the kids start to realise that maybe things won’t be so bad here in Whitby. (Unfortunately, I always get nervous any time somebody starts to get settled comfortably into somewhere in a Jarvis novel, because it means things are probably going to get very unsettled.)

I’ll be curious to see which other trilogy Aufwader is thinking of here. It makes me think of Dancing Jax which also opens in a decrepit two-story house, with a staircase leading upwards and – come to think of it – black mould. Urgh. Black mould.

Anyway, Ben found the cat and avoided the creepy thing in the attic, and Aunt Alice has cracked a slightly off-colour joke about cats. So enjoy this little moment of a chapter that ends quietly with everybody in a happy mood. The mood might not last forever …

The Whitby Witches | Chapter 1

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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?