I love everything about the fall, from the seasonal produce to tall boots and tights to the smell of the leaves changing to evening after evening of book events. I am also a lover of ghost and spooky stories, and there is no better month in which to curl up with something spine-tingling than October. That being said, this ghost story by Eva Ibbotson has more heart than gore.
Yes, there are ghosts, quite a number of them. All of them had reasonably unfortunate and bloody ends. But the business of haunting becomes just that- a business, with no malice or violence intended. Sir George and Miss Emily, an ageing brother and sister inhabiting a rather run-down castle (is there any other kind?) in England are having money troubles. Sadly they are hopeless when it comes to marketing themselves and their castle. So when young Madlyn and her brother Rollo stumble upon a rather unusual plan, they are in no position to say no.
Madlyn, charming and proactive, and Rollo, who prefers animals to people, decide to audition ghosts for the job of haunting Clawstone Castle- a surefire way to attract visitors on opening day. Their plan works, but it also attracts the attention of a number of people who do not have the best interests of Clawstone or it’s unusual inhabitants, including a rare herd of beautiful white cows, at heart.
Let me begin by saying I love Eva Ibbotson. I am particularly fond of her sweeping tales, such as The Star of Kazan or Journey to the Riversea. The scope of her stories and her narration makes me think of a modern day Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her narrators are observant, funny, and a touch dry, but manage to avoid the bordlerine snarkiness and level of intrusion that many contemporary books of late suffer from. She is never expository and always reveals character through action and specific details.
The Beasts of Clawstone Castle will appeal equally to girls and boys, and despite being a ghost story, it has alot of heart and a large funny-bone. My favourite of the ghosts is The Feet, who operate independently of a body, much like Thing in The Addam’s Family. The Feet often perform high-speed jigs or reels (sometimes on stairs) to hilarious results. As for the living characters, I am in love with Rollo. There was never a sweeter, more dedicated boy in all of middle grade fiction. His devotion to the cows is touching and it is heartbreaking when he believes they have been killed at the health inspector’s orders.
For those who are looking for a ghost story that is not gruesome or particularly scary, this book fits the bill. There are some upsetting parts, including the apparent murder of a herd of cows, the attempt by mad scientists to surgically alter a number of innocent animals, and we are told how each of the ghosts was killed. But these incidents register fairly low on the horror scale and if anything will trigger indignation about animal testing in young readers/listeners. It is the perfect read-aloud and yet can be equally enjoyed by an independent reader.
The Beasts of Clawstone Castle is available now in paperback from Macmillan Children’s Books.