Julia Briggs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

The power of imagination and memory to transfigure everyday life, to create a subtle haunting, has always distinguished Philippa Pearce's writing—when Tom entered his midnight garden, he and Hatty experienced each other almost as spirits, traditional ghostly playfellows. So the title of her latest book, The Shadow-Cage and Other Tales of the Supernatural, sounds particularly promising. Her previous and much underrated What the Neighbours Did recreated ordinary events with the intensity of vision of the child—or the artist. It seemed as if the new book might play [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge to the [William] Wordsworth of the earlier collection, the charm of novelty imparted to "things of everyday" giving place to those shadows of the imagination that set out to procure for themselves a "willing suspension of disbelief"….

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Philippa Pearce has tried to soften the uncompromising terrors of the ghost story, preferring to end, where possible, with the evil exorcised…. Two stories deal with the misery gathered around the object of a childhood trauma, although this is probably a subject that requires an adult perspective to gain its full force….

Two pieces make no concessions to nervous readers, and both, in their different ways, are notable contributions to this kind of writing. I disliked the first as much as I liked the second: "The Dear Little Man with his Hands in his Pockets" is a horror story…. The repulsive physical detail of Betsy touching the dark sticky liquid at the bottom of the head, although appropriate to this type of story, is unhappily out of key with the rest of the volume. On the other hand, "The Shadow-Cage" is a most successful example of the classical ghost story…. Using simple and familiar elements, an old bottle, a curious local place-name, and the climbing-frame in the school playground, Philippa Pearce here creates a model of economical storytelling that fully exploits elements of suspense and terror, while keeping them under perfect control. The explanation comes with a neatness and inevitability that will make this story a favourite with anthologizers.

Most of the pieces in this rather uneven … collection are obviously experimental. Only one, "At the River-Gates", recalls the author's earlier achievements—it is an old man's memories of his childhood passed on a millstream with a muchloved elder brother, killed in the Great War. Here the ghost is really incidental and the story has a spontaneity and freedom of imagination which, for all their liveliness and modernity, the other stories rather lack.

Julia Briggs, "Evil Exorcised," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3931, July 15, 1977, p. 864.

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