I've been indulging in a Penelope Lively binge. I've written elsewhere about The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, and while that remains my favourite Lively, the three books I've read in the last week or so all share a common theme with the story of James and his battles with Kempe's recalcitrant spirit. In these three novels, all written in the early 1970s, some element from the not-quite-buried past irrupts into the present day, with dangerous consequences. This is absolutely my favourite kind of story, and it's the kind of story I hope I've written in Crow Country (albeit transposed into an Australian setting).
In Astercote, a sleepy village is galvanised with fear and paranoia when a hidden treasure goes missing. In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, a re-enactment of an ancient ritual calls up unsuspected power and peril for the ignorant performers. And in The Whispering Knights, for a slightly younger readership, three children who make a witch's brew are dismayed to find that they've accidentally unleashed a very old and very frightening being, who threatens their whole village.
The English countryside is a strong presence in all these books. There is a sense of history bubbling beneath the landscape like a current -- invisible to the naked eye, but immensely powerful, and ultimately uncontrollable.
'... There's a funny feeling about this place sometimes, and the wood specially.'In Lively's novels, the children spend long, idle (unsupervised!) days wandering the fields and woods, fishing, lying in the sun reading, exploring cliffs and quarries, brewing up magic spells in deserted barns.
'Oh,' said Evadne casually. 'The bells, I suppose you mean.'
Mair stared at her. 'Do you hear them?' she asked in astonishment.
'Not now. But I used to years ago when I was younger. About your age, I suppose -- no, younger, I think... You have to be in the right state of mind to hear them. Kind of open, receiving things from all directions, not thinking too much -- dreaming in the daytime, not knowing if its Monday or Tuesday, or morning or afternoon... that really only happens when you're a kid.'
I wonder if kids, these days, still have a chance to dream in the daytime; if their senses aren't so crowded with electronica and organised activities, that they're still open to receive those faint signals from beyond. Can any of us still hear the lost bells of Astercote?