Diana Wynne Jones Margery Fisher - Essay

Margery Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atmosphere is all, in true ghost stories. Motive and situation may be infinitely plausible, characters carefully shown to be vulnerable, but the thrill, the conviction of ghostliness, depends on less detectable, less tangible elements, on appropriate combinations of words and rhythms and on such selected details of place and circumstance as will strike at the senses. Too little atmosphere and the story will fall flat: too much, and it will turn into farce. In The Time of the Ghost Diana Wynne Jones shows impeccable control of her material. In particular, she uses description scrupulously so that we get to know just as much of the school buildings and the surrounding country as we need, and no more. Emotion and atmosphere grow out of these settings. In the school house four sisters, ferociously individual and frustrated, decide to punish their parents, whose attention is turned from them to the boys in their care. They plan that thirteen-year-old Sally shall go away on a visit; then the older Charlotte, the younger Imogen and Fenella, will see how long it is before their parents notice she is absent. They do not realise that Sally has been experimenting in Black Magic with a precocious schoolboy and has invoked a spirit which, by a fateful semantic accident, has lodged in an old doll used by all the sisters in the past in vaguely sinister and shiversome games. The situation comes to the reader slowly, after an electrifying first chapter in which one of the four, a ghost, wanders the gardens and house trying to decide which sister she is. The doll-spirit Monigan exercises her power for seven years: at the end of it, the sisters and two staunch friends work out a way to defeat her. The turmoil of humans close in birth and rearing, passionately different in temperament, at once dictates and is dictated by the ghost-element in the story, whose complexities tease the mind and harry the heart while weird, flickering humour eases the tension. This unorthodox 'ghost story' has more real supernatural terror in it than hundreds of more usual hauntings. (p. 3992)

Margery Fisher, "Ghostly Matters," in her Growing Point, Vol. 20, No. 5, January, 1982, pp. 3991-94.∗