Eight-year-old Barney Palmer lives an almost-ordinary life with an almost-ordinary family, with two exceptions. Barney has been haunted all his childhood, and the Palmers are a family of magical blood. Every generation a ‘Palmer magician’ is born; this is seen as both a gift and a curse to the family. When Barney feels a “faint dizzy twist” in the world around him on the way home from school, he knows that he is about to be haunted again…but something is different about this haunting. For one, it seems to be linked to the death of Barney’s great-uncle (and namesake) Barnaby.
It soon becomes clear to Barney and his family that Barney is being haunted by something potentially dangerous. Barney begins to hear voices, has bizarre dreams and begins to look rather ghostly himself; pale-faced and constantly tired. Sometimes his eyes don’t appear to be his own. Sometimes his body feels like somebody else’s. With the help of his sisters – silent, mysteriously tidy Troy and talkative, curious Tabitha – Barney begins to get to the bottom of his family’s history.
My favourite thing about this book would have to be the characters; they feel fresh and bold, and their dialogue is so realistic. Tabitha and Barney both seem to share the role of the protagonist; while Barney is being haunted he feels like a ghost sometimes, observant and silent. On the other hand, Tabitha’s personality is so bubbly and overwhelming that she dominates the story with her note-taking, matter-of-fact commentary and constant stream of questions. I like Tabitha.
Only a few pages in, I could already see why this book had received the Carnegie Medal back in 1982. Margaret Mahy’s use of language is completely unique, and her way of storytelling is so effective. Conversations between the characters seem to crackle with energy, while the story progresses at a satisfying pace. The events of Barney’s haunting are told through the eyes of the children, so there’s this innocence about the way the story is told. (At first Barney refuses to confess that he is being haunted at all; he does this because he is afraid that he will upset his beloved stepmother Claire, who is expecting a baby.) Somehow it makes the scarier parts of the story that more chilling.
Overall, The Haunting is the perfect paranormal thriller – it manages to be a story that readers of any age will be gripped by, as they have been for 35 years now. Margaret Mahy is just one of those authors whose work is really timeless; that word gets thrown around a lot, but her work really does suit the description. I can imagine in another decade that The Haunting would have the same effect on its readers.
Reviewed by Tierney Reardon
by Margaret Mahy
Published by Hachette