The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

This is my original childhood copy of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I think was acquired through the Scholastic Book Club when we lived in New Guinea, back in the days when Book Club sold BOOKS rather than tacky pens, sticker diaries, cheap toys and novelty key-rings... but I digress. (Topic for another post, perhaps!) This cover is so old I couldn't find it reproduced anywhere on the net.*

This was one of my absolute favourite books, I read it over and over. As you can see, it is well-thumbed, creased and battered, and indeed even partially eaten. I've started reading it to Alice and she's loving it too. (" Read MORE, Mummy!") I'd forgotten just how smashing it is.

James Harrison finds that he's sharing their family's new house with a disturbing presence - a being that breaks vases, hurls glasses of water to the floor, and communicates through strange, old-fashioned notes. He quickly figures out that it must be a ghost. In fact it's the ghost of Thomas Kempe, a 17th century self-styled sorcerer and doctor of 'Physicke' who is keen to start up his old practice and enlist James as his apprentice.

At first Kempe is more annoying than scary, with endless opportunities to make James' life difficult, but events take a more threatening turn when the ghost begins to harass harmless old Mrs Verity, who according to him is a witch...

As often with Penelope Lively's books, there are strong themes of history, memory, and the passing of time. I remember being particularly struck by the passage where James reflects that people 'have layers, like onions.'

Somewhere, deep within stout, elderly Mrs Verity, with her rheumaticky hands that swelled up around her wedding ring, and her back that bothered her in damp weather, there sheltered the memory of a little girl who had behaved outrageously in Sunday School. And that, when you stopped to think about it, was a very weird thing indeed.

Thomas Kempe cannot adjust to the modern world, and what is initially a comic disjunction between his world and James' becomes slowly sinister and dangerous, and ultimately, poignant and rather sad. This is a brilliantly "layered" book itself.

I've been wanting to write a ghost story for ages, but couldn't figure out a way round the problem of keeping the ghost sufficiently "other"-- once they start talking and reacting, they might just as well be another human being -- but Lively solves this dilemma perfectly by making Thomas Kempe a cranky note writer. In fact it strikes me now, and slightly sadly, that The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is exactly the book I wanted to write. But Penelope Lively has already written it, thirty seven years ago.

* I've just checked and it's a 1975 edition, so I must have been nine when I first read it, too. Its recommended price in Australia is 95 cents. Sigh.


  1. It sounds gorgeous kate. We all LOVE a good ghost story. It must have been so thrilling to receive your books in parcels! jx

  2. My copies of 'The Lord of the Rings', bought when I was about 16, were $2.95 each. Sigh. I still have them too.

    I also remember loving Thomas Kempe.

    Love your blog.