by Sharon Tucker
As Halloween draws near, a good ghost story is just the thing to read. Of the ghostly tales out there, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic (1995), Kate Ellis’s Watching the Ghosts (1979) and Paull Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts (1959) appealed to me this fall largely because, of all the ones I looked at, each of these is unusual in style and approach. Hoffman’s mystery is a fait accompli. We soon know who did what to whom and why, but what will the consequences be for Sally and Gillian Owens whom many of us have come to love via the screen version of the novel? And how different will the novel be from the 1998 Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman movie?
Watching the Ghosts involves prosaic Yorkshire detective, Joe Plantagenet, in a kidnapping and what seems to be paranormal activity in a recently converted apartment building. Hauntings in a stately home in the north of England puzzle a paranormal researcher in “Too Many Ghosts” because they are so diverse. It’s rare to find playful/ disruptive poltergeist activity coupled with a ghostly nun, a harp that plays by itself in a locked room and the attack of a monster out of H.P. Lovecraft all at the same site.
Since Practical Magic is written in the style of magical realism, Alice Hoffman asks her readers to accept the practice of magic as a reality, the Owens women as practitioners and it all certainly works. Getting to know the long version of the Owens’s family history is delightful – from Maria Owens to The Aunts, Frances and Jet, then Sally and Gillian and finally Sally’s two daughters Kylie and Antonia.
Hoffman has a talent for emotional truth in her characters and we as readers can immediately identify with their yearnings and the muddles they fall into. The plot’s main thrust centers around the lives of Sally and Gillian Owens particularly as the ghost of Gillian’s Jimmy wreaks havoc amongst the lilacs. You’ll have to wait a bit for the introduction of an Arizona marshal, Gary Hallet, as a very attractive romantic development for Sally. However, if you have seen the movie, be prepared to learn about the sisters’ private lives by way of lengthy narration and much more about Kylie and Antonia.
Like me, you may revel in Hoffman’s sharing more character information and adjust fairly easily to much of the novel’s plot told rather than by use of dialogue. My preference as a reader really leans more toward revelation in dialogue between characters, but I love Hoffman’s characters so much, it just doesn’t seem to matter.
Why in the world would a land developer renovate a former insane asylum into condos? Inconceivable as it may sound, this is what we find in the town of Eberby, Yorkshire where DI Joe Plantagenet is a member of the constabulary in Watching the Ghosts by Kate Ellis. Considering the title of the novel (and all her books in this series), we can glean that the paranormal will play it’s part in the events. It all begins with a nightmare, followed by a kidnapping and then a series of murders oddly linked to a dead man.
For me, the virtue of the whole series is the comfortable ordinariness of the characters living and working in a town very like York in the north of England. No matter how outlandish the circumstances become, Plantagenet meets the challenge with methodical and intuitive policing. He is trustworthy and will do his best even if he is a bit wobbly and unsure on a personal level. And although the novel was published in 1979, give or take a few 21st century conveniences like cell phones and laptops, the events that occur here could be happening today.
Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts takes us back to not long after the 2nd World War in England. The Paradines of Paradine Hall in Norfolk have found themselves at an economic disadvantage, unable to afford the upkeep of their home. The solution to their problem is to open their home as a private club to entertain paying guests who fancy a taste of aristocratic life. The Paradines are bearing up well with the intrusiveness of a politician and his family, a member of the clergy, an engineer and a visiting American until rooms are mysteriously trashed, the infamous ghostly nun keeps appearing, candles go out during dinner and a chair from the dinner table apparently moves the length of the room by itself.
Enter Alexander Hero, paranormal researcher and debunker of frauds. More than anything else, this reminds me of old black and white movies form the era where a house party is convened and mysterious things begin to happen. I see Rex Harrison or Noel Cowardesque characters taking charge of the goings on until a solution is found. Gallico has a deft touch for characterization and the plot here unfolds engagingly.
Each novels sets an appropriate tone for the approaching Halloween season when the veil between this world and the next is reputedly at its thinnest. If, like me, you are partial to ghostly tales, I hope you will choose and enjoy any one or all of these.
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