Making the Metaphor Literal: Fantastic Reality in The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones

Over the last few months I have been rereading the complete works of Diana Wynne Jones in publication order. I started doing this because I was in a reading slump and Jones is one of those authors who is slump-proof for me (like Terry Pratchett, or Georgette Heyer.) And then I kept going because I was riveted.

Jones’ books are simply brilliant. Some are undeniably better than others, but even a dud DWJ is a decent read, and at her best she is extraordinary. In fact I would argue that she is one of the greatest fantasy writers of the last fifty years. So the value of my reread (still ongoing!) has turned out to be considerably more than the nostalgia of returning to beloved children’s books that you first read decades ago. Speaking as an adult reader, and an adult writer of fantasy: there’s a real joy in watching a master at work.

The Diana Wynne Jones book everyone seems to know is Howl’s Moving Castle, because of the Miyazaki adaptation. It’s a VERY adapted adaptation – Miyazaki for example loses Howl’s tragic backstory, which is that he’s Welsh—of a book which I would not even classify as top-tier DWJ. Don’t get me wrong, Howl is fantastic, I would kill to write a book that good. But Jones had a career spanning decades which stands as a one-writer rebuttal to the industry’s present obsession with youth and debuts. Her first children’s book was published when she was about forty and it’s Fine (Wilkin’s Tooth, if you’re interested. Not a recommendation. It’s Fine.) Howl’s Moving Castle was some thirteen years later—so if you want books as good as that one, consider supporting an author who starts out just Fine for thirteen years and see where she ends up. Jones kept writing and publishing right up to her death in 2011, and her full bibliography spans some thirty-odd books ranging from the Fine (like Wilkins’ Tooth) to the Really Good Stuff (Howl’s Moving Castle, among others) to the Holy Shit, Diana.

The Time of the Ghost, in my opinion, belongs squarely in this last category.

It comes from a period in the early 80s where Jones seems to have had a creative blossoming—The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders, Witch Week, Archer’s Goon, Fire and Hemlock, and Howl’s Moving Castle were all published between 1981-1986. From a writer’s perspective this kills me with jealousy. Most of us can only dream of publishing six books that good in six years. This is also a pretty dark period in Jones’s oeuvre—with the exception of Howl, all of these books deal with themes of abuse, isolation, and neglect. (I would argue you can still see echoes of this in Howl too, albeit handled much more lightly.)

The Time of the Ghost is a children’s book (ages ten and up, according to Publishers Weekly) about child abuse. It tells the story of four sisters whose parents neglect them in favour of their all-consuming jobs as staff at an old-fashioned English boys’ boarding school. The girls have to beg for food from the school kitchen, because their parents do not remember to supply any. Their mother chides them for disturbing her after a long day. Their father shouts at them, calls them ‘bitches’ if they offend him, and genuinely cannot recall which sister is which.

It is dark as hell. It is often incredibly funny. It has some autobiographical elements, which I won’t go into here. And it has a touch that I think of as particularly Jones’s—the ability to write from a child’s point of view without flinching from horror and without a moment’s condescension.

Let’s talk about point of view, because point of view is one of the tools that Jones exploits to spectacular effect in this book. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

There’s been an accident! she thought. Something’s wrong!

She could not quite work out what was the matter. It was broad daylight—probably the middle of the afternoon—and she was coming down the road from the wood on her way home. It was summer, just as it should be. All round her was the sleepy, heavy humming of a countryside drowsing after lunch. She could hear the distant flap and caw of the rooks in the dead elms, and a tractor grinding away somewhere. If she raised herself to look over the hedge, there lay the fields, just as she expected, sleepy grey-green, because the wheat was not ripe by a long way yet. The trees were almost black in the heat haze, and dense, except for the bare rings of elms, a long way off, where the rooks were noisy specks.

I’ve always wanted to be tall enough to look over the hedge, she thought. I must have grown.

A common piece of writing advice—especially when writing for younger readers and their presumed short attention span—is to start with the action. This is, I think, a perfect example of how not to start with the action. Nothing happens on the first page of The Time of the Ghost. Most of it is taken up by an exceedingly lovely and lyrical description of a quiet afternoon in the English countryside in summer. Notice the sounds and colours of Jones’s descriptive writing—the sleepy, heavy humming; the distant flap and caw; fields, just as she expected, sleepy grey-green; trees almost black in the heat haze. Try reading it aloud, and hear the lazy, rocking rhythm of those long sentences, perfect for that summer afternoon. Jones wrote in her essays about the importance of reading her own work aloud, especially considering how often children’s books are read to children rather than by them. Her use of prose rhythm is one of the things I admire most in her writing.

There is no action here. Instead, there is tension. The tension is sparked by the opening lines—There’s been an accident! Something’s wrong!—and every word of that long and lyrical description builds it higher, precisely because it doesn’t answer the initial question. What accident? What’s wrong? And here is where point of view comes in. Jones gives us a little nudge halfway through the description of dreaming countryside—’just as she expected’—to remind us that this beautiful moment isn’t just an author’s lapse into poetry, but a character searching for an answer. Every word of the slow-paced description becomes character-building. It tells us that this character notices these things about the world around her—the colours, the sounds—which will later slot into place when we learn she is either an artist or a musician. It tells us that she has expectations about this countryside, that it is familiar to her and that she belongs here. It gives us a setup that horror knows well: how can it be that this place, so beautiful and so known, has something wrong with it?

And yet there is something wrong. And it is that tension, rather than any action, that keeps us reading.

The character’s bemused conclusion on her observations—that she must have grown, because she can see over the hedge—tells us a little more. We now know that she is, or thinks she is, a child. And we know that there is a question hanging over her physical existence, her body. Something is Going On with this character’s body.

All these character notes through description are important, because they are all the information we get about our protagonist. The narration is the character. It has to be. She doesn’t even have a name. The narrative only calls her ‘she’. That is not a coincidence or an accident. This character is our only narrator, and we will not definitively discover her identity until we are 170 pages into this 200-page book.

The next few pages are taken up with the narrator’s discovery of her own body, or rather her own lack of body. She is, in fact, the titular Ghost. We don’t know whose ghost. We don’t know why she is haunting this familiar place. And we don’t know because she doesn’t know. Most of the tension—and most of the plot—of The Time of the Ghost is organised around this character’s attempts to discover who she is and what she is supposed to be doing.

(Again, per Publisher’s Weekly: age ten and up. Jones’s lack of condescension extends to her child readers as well as her child characters. The conceit of alienated identity employed here would not be out of place in the most literary of adult SFF. Will kids get it? Yes, of course, why wouldn’t they?)

Other things we learn in this first chapter: no one can see our protagonist. No one can hear her. She cannot touch anything. She arrives at a place she instinctively recognises as School—the boarding school where the neglected sisters live, and where they quickly emerge as the main actors in the story—and the only person who seems aware of her is the family dog, who reacts to her presence with whining and growling.

So not only has Jones started this book with no action, not only has she refused to give the narrator an identity, but she has also explicitly and intentionally cut her protagonist off from taking any part in anything that happens. This person is stuck as a pure observer. She is a blank slate of a character who literally cannot do anything or interact with anyone.

And—because of that running tension, because of that unanswered question set up in the opening sentence, because we know something’s wrong—it’s totally gripping.

Honestly it’s like Jones set out on purpose to break all the rules of How To Write A Book. This is the point at which I usually put my copy down to marvel. Holy shit, Diana.

Later—much later—it transpires that this character is not a ghost in the traditional sense. She’s not dead—or rather, she’s not dead yet. Seven years in the future, she is in hospital in critical condition after a horrific car accident. (This, by the way, is another scenario which gives the character almost no agency—in the scenes set in the future she has no control over who enters her hospital room, and she literally cannot move. Jones doesn’t give herself any breaks.) The ‘ghost’ is her young adult self projected back into the past, to the time when she made a deadly bargain with an ancient, evil goddess of death and sacrifice.

Jones cheekily tells us on the first page: I must have grown.

Our ghost narrator has so little agency and so little personality—especially to begin with—that you would think the book ran the risk of being dull. You would be wrong. Jones instead uses this outside observer to give us a fantastically vivid exploration of the real focus of the book, which is the dysfunctional family of four sisters and their neglectful parents. The Time of the Ghost is definitely a fantasy book—there are ghosts and goddesses and multiple alarming blood magic rituals—but it’s a fantasy that is completely rooted in meticulous psychological realism. You believe in these people. They don’t slot neatly into archetypes. You could meet them out grocery shopping.

We meet the parents first: Himself, and Phyllis. The ghost intrudes on a Latin lesson being taught by Himself:

She looked at him wonderingly. For some reason, she knew him enormously well. Every line of his bristly head, his bird-like face and his thin, angry body were known to her exactly. She felt drawn to him. But she was afraid of him too. She knew he was always impatient and nearly always angry. A name for him came to her. They called him Himself.

Despite her great familiarity with this person, at absolutely no point does our narrator think this is my father—although he is, and that quickly becomes obvious once our ghost works out that she must be the spirit of one of the four daughters. With that light touch—the simple omission of a natural detail—Jones tells us everything we need to know about this man’s relationship with his children. Himself is a distant, intimidating alien. He lives in a world where his daughters are not welcome. He has no connection with them. And our narrator is afraid of him.

And then there’s Phyllis:

She was a majestic lady with a clear strong face. Her frown was a tired one. A bright blue eye between the frown and the straight nose stared at the papers. Fair hair was looped into a low, heavy bun on her head.

“Ugh!” she said at the papers. She looked like an avenging angel who had already had a long fight with the devil. All the same, the papers should have withered and turned black. The bodiless person in the corridor felt yearning admiration for this angel lady. She knew they called her Phyllis.

Our narrator’s alienation from both her parents is on the surface of things presented as a side-effect of her ghostly situation—if she does not know who she is, how should she know who they are? But the distancing names ‘Himself’ and ‘Phyllis’ are never replaced with anything signifying closeness or affection; it turns out that all four non-ghost sisters use these names for their parents as well.

In both of these introductory descriptions we are shown how closely our protagonist observes these people, how important they are to her—every line of his bristly head, his bird-like face…were known to her exactly; [she] felt yearning admiration for this angel lady. Our protagonist’s feelings about these distant and yet vitally important people are complicated from the very beginning. And as the book goes on, it becomes clear that the ghost’s failure to know herself is intimately tied to her parents’ failure to know her. The narrator’s father cannot distinguish between her and her sisters, her mother understands nothing about who she is—and so the fantastical situation of the book’s opening, where a ghost girl robbed of her identity cannot work out which neglected sister she is, turns out to be nothing more than a metaphor taken extremely literally.

The four sisters—Cart, Sally, Imogen, Fenella—are the heart of the book and the source of much of its joy and life. They are brilliant characters: warm, funny, sad, human. I love reading about them every time I come back to them. In the first half of the book the ghost decides that she is probably the spirit of the second sister, Sally, on the evidence that Sally is missing from the household and the other three talk about her as if she is dead. Later this turns out to be a ploy—the girls have decided to fake Sally’s ‘death’ in order to prove to their parents that they are not paying enough attention. Brilliantly—awfully—the plan does not work. Phyllis and Himself literally never notice that one of their four daughters has disappeared. The scene where the ghost watches Phyllis scold her daughters is painful:

And then, suddenly, the room was full of tension. Fenella, Cart and Imogen were all waiting for the beam of Phyllis’s anger to move on to the other empty tumbled bed where Sally should have been. They were all avoiding looking at it. Cart’s neck was trembling with the strain of not looking.

“Very well,” said Phyllis. She turned wearily back to the door. “I shall expect one of you to confess to me tomorrow,” she said, leaving.

The girls call Phyllis back and try desperately to get her to notice the obvious without actually saying it. They start a conversation about their future careers—or rather, Phyllis tells them what their future careers will be, and it is obvious that she has no idea who her children are or what they can do. When Cart says she does not want to be a teacher, Phyllis ‘ignored this… it was one of Cart’s silly remarks’. And once again the mother fails to notice the missing daughter.

It was Imogen who, typically, broke the rules of the Plan. “What about Sally?” she asked. […]

“Sally?” Phyllis paused in the doorway. She did glance at Sally’s bed. She seemed surprised—but only mildly surprised—to find it empty. “Well, people who are not brainy are usually very good at Art, you know. I think Sally has a great career as an artist.” By now she was nearly through the door.

A great black feather whirled halfway to the ceiling as Sally [the ghost] called out despairingly, But I’m NOT HERE!

This scene is only one of many poignant examples. Every time the four sisters try to challenge their parents’ neglect, the result is the same. Nothing—absolutely nothing—will make Phyllis and Himself hear them. In this they are all in the same position as our narrator has been since page one: unable to speak, unable to act, unable to claim any identities of their own. Neglect has turned all four of them into ghosts.

One of the joys of writing fantasy is that a fantasy author never needs to be subtle. Where authors in other genres have to gesture delicately in the direction of their themes and big ideas, an SFF author can just slap the point down on the page in the most explicit way possible. Jones loves doing it, and The Time of the Ghost is one of the most blatant—and successful—examples. The ‘ghosting’ of the main character is one example, but there is another, even more central and even more effective. The major fantasy element of the story—the ‘Big Bad’, who drives the plot—is the evil goddess Monigan. The four sisters stumble into her worship largely by mistake, after an ordinary squabble about a doll:

One time, Cart, Sally, Imogen and Fenella had each seized an arm or a leg—Sally could not remember whether it had been a quarrel or a silly game—and pulled until Monigan came to pieces. Then Cart, in terrible guilt, had sewed her together again…and dressed her in a pink knitted doll’s dress. The dress was now maggot grey. To make it up to Monigan for being torn apart, Cart had invented the Worship of Monigan.

Entirely unintentionally, the sisters have created an idol which comes alive with the spirit of an ancient power which lives on the nearby Mangan Downs. Monigan is a cruel and greedy goddess, who demands death and sacrifice from her followers. She exists outside time, and it is clear that the little drama of the four sisters is not all that important to her—and yet she is still determined to get her due from them in death. And she cheats.

The Worship of Monigan is a type of game familiar to anyone who was a Weird Child, especially if they had siblings who were also Weird Children: Some Bored Young People Just Straight Up Start Doing Witchcraft. (I used to make ‘magic potions’ out of anything and everything I could put in a pot.) I don’t want to accuse Jones of dull moralising. She is not claiming that if you don’t pay attention to your children, they’ll summon a demon. Rather it’s that precisely observed psychological realism again: sometimes Weird Children are just Extremely Weird. I have never read anything funnier or more real on the Weird Children front than the sequence where the sisters try to collect blood for a blood magic ritual, and half the boys at their parents’ school volunteer to be punched in the nose for it, provided they get to observe the ritual afterwards.

Monigan is a great villain—terrifying, overwhelmingly powerful, totally selfish. It turns out that everything the ghost does is done in the desperate hope of stopping Monigan from completing their bargain and taking her life. At the end of the book, after a group effort by the adult sisters and a series of painful sacrifices made by their child counterparts, they convince Monigan to release her victim. Each sister offers up something important: Cart offers to give up her dog (thankfully, Monigan refuses, because the dog is damaged goods; even at her darkest Jones wouldn’t kill off the family dog!) Fenella gives up ‘a piece of brain… the bit old girls do A Levels with’: and in the future we see the adult Fenella has indeed done terribly at school (though she finds a way to make it work for her!) Imogen gives up her ambition for a musical career. Each sister loses slices of herself in order to survive Monigan’s total selfishness.

And it is at this point—after the sacrifices have been made and the ghost has been saved, after the catharsis and the tentative moves towards understanding made by the adult sisters—that someone new arrives in the hospital room:

But someone else was trying to push past behind the nurse, saying in a tired, flurried way, “But I’ve driven all the way up from the country to see my daughter. Please just let me say hallo.”

Phyllis was there. Sally stared at her. Phyllis was a silver angel now, hollowed and lined like a silver tool from long, long years of heavenly battling. Here was another thing she must paint, Sally knew. But she was surprised that Phyllis’s eyes should be full of tears.

“Five minutes then,” said the nurse, and she stood there to make sure.

“Hallo, everyone,” said Phyllis. “Sally darling.” She bent and kissed Sally. It hurt rather. “I had to come,” Phyllis said. “It’s almost the end of term, and I got the trunks packed, so I can stay in your flat till you’re better.” The flat was going to be crowded, Sally thought. “And I brought you this,” said Phyllis. “I know how you used to love it.”

She held out the Monigan doll. It was only a doll, dry, floppy, grey and stitched, with very little face and a badly knitted dress. A faint scent of long-ago mould breathed off it. Sally rather wished it was not there.

Just when everything seems to be over, Phyllis arrives, explaining her lateness to her daughter’s hospital bed in terms of her job looking after the boarding school boys—she could not come to see her critically injured child until she ‘got the trunks packed’. She invites herself to stay in Sally’s flat, a physical presence in her daughter’s life which Sally cannot think of as a positive (‘The flat was going to be crowded.’)

And Phyllis comes bearing a gift for her hospitalised daughter, and that gift is the same old idol: the cruel, selfish, greedy goddess, who demands everything from her worshippers while barely caring that they exist, who does not play fair and can never really be satisfied.

Sally, our narrator, always uses the image of angelic beauty to describe her mother—it was there in the very first description, where Phyllis was ‘an avenging angel’. It is hard to imagine anyone further from an evil goddess than the ‘silver angel…hollowed and lined…from long years of heavenly battling’. But in this final scene Jones links the two of them irrevocably together. Phyllis’s neglect and Monigan’s cruelty are the same. Sally has spent years of her life in service to an evil goddess who understands nothing. And so the fantastic elements of The Time of the Ghost and its bleak human realism are flawlessly locked together; as Jones untangles the ghost narrator’s plight and her place in the world, every fantastical twist turns out to be the simple truth of neglect and its human consequences, written in larger and larger letters.

It’s extraordinarily effective.

Emily Tesh grew up in London and studied Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, followed by a Master’s degree in Humanities at the University of Chicago. She now lives in Hertfordshire, where she passes her time teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to schoolchildren who have done nothing to deserve it. She has a husband and a cat. Neither of them knows any Latin yet, but it is not for lack of trying. Tesh is the author of Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country.

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