It’s a credit to Kim Newman that he only rarely writes the novels you think he will. Just look at his last book: An English Ghost Story indubitably did what its title described, but it was—weirdly, wonderfully—as comical as it was creepy, and as interested in depicting the dysfunctional family it followed as it was the spectral presence that pushed them to the inevitable precipice.
Newman’s newest—which purports to be the start of a series by Louise Magellan Teazle, the previous occupant of the haunted house at the heart of the aforementioned narrative—is not dissimilar in its evisceration of expectations. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School appears to be one thing, namely a classical magical academy narrative along the lines of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And it is! And it isn’t…
“A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett was delivered to her new school. Like a parcel,” with exactly as much love and care as that imagery entails. Mother, you see, is not best pleased that her daughter has developed such particular Abilities:
In the months since she first came unstuck from the ground, Amy had been subjected to cold baths, weighted pinafores, long walks, hobbling boots and a buzzing, tickling electric belt. Leeches and exorcism were on the cards. Mother’s whole idea in sending Amy to Drearcliff was to clamp down on floating.
As it happens, however, Amy’s new school—”a rambling, gloomy, ill-repaired estate on top of a cliff”—is not at all what Mother had imagined. Instead, it’s a place where unseemly tendencies are accepted. Encouraged, even, since Headmistress considers it Drearcliff’s responsibility to help Amy and the other Unusuals she’ll meet in the year Newman’s novel narrates to find Applications for their array of Abilities.
Needless to say, not all of the students studying at Drearcliff are as welcoming as Dr. Swan, but thanks to her so-called Cellmates—fast-talking Frecks, would-be criminal Kali, and Light Fingers, another Unusual—Amy’s first term passes without significant incident:
In books written by grown-ups, there was a lot of guff about school days being either the happiest of your life or a worse ordeal than penal servitude. […] Amy didn’t have the luxury of stepping out of herself and thinking about Drearcliff in terms of Good, Bad or Indifferent. The place was, at times, immeasurably better than her old school […] and at times far, far worse. She was here, this was (for the time being) her world, and that was that.
Not for much longer, alas. The next term brings another new bug, name of Rayne, whose presence prefaces a deepening and eventually deadly divide in Drearcliff—between those with Abilities and those without.
Rayne’s arrival denotes a terrible turning point in the text. Before the eventual Ant Queen appears, The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School is a properly joyful novel; whimsical, witty and winningly reminiscent of Ronald Searle’s sequential stories of St. Trinian’s, albeit with a bit of a supernatural twist. It’s fascinating, it’s fulsome and by gum, it’s funny.
But there’s precious little laughter to be had after the fact, I’m afraid. Not unnaturally, the novel transforms into something far darker than a tale of turn-of-the-century school-yard shenanigans, specifically the story of a maudlin little monster who wrests power from the powerful and devotes it wholly to the destruction of difference. There are parallels, in this part of the narrative, to the rise of the Third Reich, but Newman—never one to take the path traditionally travelled—doesn’t ever overdo them, only evoking the actual Nazis in a fabulous false finale.
Instead, wrongness rings as Rayne’s insectile summons—an initially inane chant about ants in your pants—spreads like a sickness of the spirit among the students of Drearcliffe. As friends turn against friends, teachers become tyrannical and poor Unusuals are publicly pilloried, an increasingly desperate sense of dread develops, such that the conclusion comes this close to cosmic horror:
When [Amy] got close, when she saw Rayne’s smile, she knew what was wrong with this picture. The farmer had two left feet. The kitchen window was upside down. The wind was blowing in one direction and the weathervane pointing in the other. The cat had too many eyes. She would always know what was wrong… and she would never completely give in.
Nor indeed does she. Which isn’t to say it’s easy for Amy. Although she’s a strong central character—resourceful, reliable and righteous within reason—she’s far from unflappable. Happily for her, Amy can (almost) always depend on her friends, who are, to a one, as roundly realised as she. Her Cellmates especially are encouraging company; their relationships are congenially combative and their frank banter—which comes complete with private languages and the like—is simply brilliant.
The girls’ school setting of Newman’s novel is similarly impressive. Full of deliberate detail described in period-appropriate parlance, it evokes an atmosphere of delightful decrepitude—plus it precludes the plot from depending on some hot boy, allowing the author to focus on developing the fundamentals of friendship rather than the redundant romances novels of the genre in general often revolve around.
He might be most known for his dalliances with Dracula, but even excepting said series, Kim Newman stands among speculative fiction’s finest, and his new book is no less impressive than the best of the rest of his writing. As surprising as The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School is in every other respect, it met at least one of my expectations: I had a hunch it would be wonderful, and it was.
The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School is available now from Titan Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.