When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an unfriendly place. A 1930’s boarding school in Oxford full of the chatter of posh slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her mother Jessie had also been her strong-minded teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they read and inhabited.
Her shocking introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her teenage novel The Shadow Guests. Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…
Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons. Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she gives to Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…
Part of Joan Aiken’s inspiration for The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough but is then supplanted by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.
But if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience, from reading and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:
He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up? Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look- out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?
With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the walk to school, the taunting or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.
This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them. From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:
‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.
The prospect of school is even more unnerving:
‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’
Cousin Eunice considered this.
‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’
Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.
But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.
Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story, although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.
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Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…
The new edition of The Shadow Guests out from Puffin Books this September
with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!