As a child, I was a voracious reader. I learned how to read fairly early and was working my way through libraries and book stores and book fairs from an early age. I accumulated quite a collection of books, and of course, could not bear to part with many of them. While there have been faves I’ve re-read often in recent years–Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The Merlin Conspiracy, just to name a few–there are some books I re-read over and over as a child and as a teen I haven’t picked up in a while. So of course, I decided now, when I just got a new job, would be a good time to get to some of them. If only I had thought of it last year.
The first book I decided to tackle? Dial-A-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson. I thought of it randomly the other week, and how often I read it as a kid, and decided I absolutely had to re-read it.
Dial-A-Ghost is mostly the story of a family of ghosts, The Wilkinsons. The whole family dies in World War 2 and become ghosts–very pleasant, very polite, very clean ghosts. They continue to live in their home, even as other people move in, and adopt a young ghost girl who has amnesia who they call Addie. Eventually their family home is torn down so, to their displeasure, they have to go live in a “knicker shop.” They soon come across a business called “Dial-A-Ghost” which works to give ghosts a good home (in this book, some people can see ghosts, and some cannot. the ladies who run the business can see ghosts, the knicker shop owners can’t). We are also introduced to a boy named Oliver Smith, a ten year old orphan who is discovered to be the true heir of a stately home belonging to his ancestors, the Snodde-Brittles. Most of the Snodde-Brittles were horrible people and died in terrible ways (run through by a rhinoceros, strangled by their tie, etc), so Oliver (whose great grandfather changed his name and left the family) is the last true heir along with his cousins. His cousins are awful people who try and hire some ghosts to terrify Oliver to death so they can inherit the estate and the money that comes with it. There’s a mix-up and so instead, Oliver (luckily for him), gets the Wilkinsons instead.
This book has always felt very British to me. The names are British, their manners are British, the Wilkinsons in particular are a very proper British family, the class lines are British. I think a lot of the humour is rather British too, although that could be the wrong way to describe it. It was a type of humour I really responded to as a kid, and still enjoy today. A lot of the jokes are a bit more subtle, a bit off-centre, don’t hit you over the head. Of course because it’s a book for younger readers, there’s some more blatant comedy and a lot of that comes from visual descriptions. This book has a lot of really clear imagery, which I think is part of the reason I enjoyed reading it so much as a kid.
It’s not just humorous imagery that’s clear in Dial-A-Ghost though. I was surprised at how dark and violent some things in the book were, even reading it now. This was mostly in the scenes with the Shriekers, two ghosts who Oliver’s cousins INTEND to send to scare him. They are a married couple of ghosts who have gone mad (the woman is named Sabrina so that’s fun) and not only are the physical descriptions of them disgusting, but they are known for murdering children and animals. And their THIRST for this is described, how they want to strangle them or slice them open. I’m amazed child me wasn’t more disturbed by it. On a more down to earth level, Oliver’s cousins mistreat the children at the boarding school they own. This is almost harder to read.
While the book mostly keeps a lighter jovial tone, with a lot of fun and absurd elements, the book talks a lot about death and loss, for obvious reasons. Some of this is dealt with lightly or glossed over, but the subject matter naturally leads to some quiet or somber moments. Probably the somber moment that sat with me most, however, was when Oliver was first living in the tower of the new estate he owns, all alone. He’s lonely and scared and almost resigned to the thought that he’s going to die there.
The book has a happy ending, of course. It could almost be considered too happy if the more absurdist elements of the story weren’t in play. And when finishing, I concluded that I still really enjoy this book. Sure some of it could be the nostalgia factor. But it’s different. Despite being clearly for younger readers, it never feels like it’s talking down to them. It deals with death and loneliness but it’s also weird and clever and very very British. I get why I liked it as a kid and I get why I like it now.