Jones is not plural, so it should be Jones’s. ↩︎
This extremely short book is only a novella, but it took me some time to get through it because of the density and obscurity of the prose. James is, I think, notorious for writing long sentences, but that’s only part of it. It’s the textural density, the complexity, and, I think, the wilfully archaic (even for the time) formulations, that make it hard work.
It’s a ghost story, though the status of the ghostly presences is disputed, or at least discussed: are they all in the governess’s mind? The bulk of the tale is the first-person narrative of the governess, but it starts with an odd framing sequence of tales being told round a Christmas-eve fireplace. One of the company is reminded of a manuscript he has, and sends for it. The rest is him ‘reading’ from it. And I’m not sure that ‘framing’ is the right term here, because we never return to the reading party. It seems like a device to let James write from the point of view of a woman.
Once you attune yourself to the style, it’s pretty compelling. Chilling in places.
I read this because I happened on an article about it on Tor.com: ‘Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time of the Ghost Breaks All the Rules of How To Write a Book’, by Emily Tesh. Let’s ignore the incorrect possessive apostrophe in the title1; it was the assertion about it breaking all the rules that drew me, made me want to read the article. A few paragraphs in I realised that I wanted to read the book, and the article was heading deep into spoiler territory. So I stopped reading it and downloaded the book. Read it as soon as I finished the last one.
It’s the story of four neglected sisters, whose parents run a boys' boarding school and have no time for anything else, including their daughters; and of a ghost that is haunting them, and who might be one of them. And of an ancient darkness that the sisters accidentally invoked.
But the real darkness is the neglect.
Highly recommended, and the article I linked above is very good and insightful (but deeply spoilerific) too.
A genuinely chilling, even scary, ghost story, is not something you read that often. Or I don’t, these days, at least.
Combine that with compelling characters, comedy, and tragedy, and you’ve got kind of a small masterpiece.
I only say “small” because it’s quite short. I only know Jackson from a film version of “The Lottery” that they used to show us in school. I’m not sure why they showed us it, exactly, because we didn’t study it in English, and as far as I recall we didn’t discuss it. I think maybe it was a sort of treat, and the school only had a few films, that it showed repeatedly. These were actual films, I should add. Played on a projector, watched on a screen.
Anyway Jackson’s story always stuck with me, and now this one joins it.