© Estate of L.M. Boston, illustration by Elisabeth Vellacott.
There’s something a bit melancholy about reading the last new book you’ll ever read by an author you love. Boston is a favorite of mine, best known for her series of “Greene Knowe” children’s novels, six long ones and some shorter books for younger readers. They are full of magic and wonder, and haunted throughout, as was her own home, an 11th century house called Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, England, the setting for many of her works. The one title published by Boston in her lifetime that I could never find is a play called “The Horned Man,” which makes up the second half of this book, the first half collects short stories by Boston, three never before published.
I have to admit the short stories did not appeal to me much. They are all horror/ghost stories that can bring a chill, but none of the characters came to life for me as the ones in her children’s books do, even though some of the stories feature children. Perhaps the most unusual of the lot is a story called “Pollution” about the corrupting influence of factories in the English countryside and the strange evil things it brings forth, a story that I think H.P. Lovecraft would have recognized as kindred to his works.
“The Horned Man” is much better. It takes place in the home of an English judge in what I’d guess is the late 16th century, a time when witches were being hunted and persecuted by King James and his lawyers. One such, Mr. Upjohn, is about to visit Sir Martin’s home, using it as a base for his witch hunting. The judge is not pleased about this, but his daughters, particularly the older two, Philippa and Bess, are thrilled that an important young man from London will be visiting, and they hope to impress him. Just before the arrival of Upjohn, a wandering, homeless old woman appears before the home of Sir Martin, and before long is caught up in the witch hunting, accused by Martin’s daughters, unjustly, as they offer the old woman in sacrifice to handsome, clever Mr. Upjohn. Once the wheels of justice (or injustice) begin turning, the girls find they’re unable to stop them, and their spiteful trick becomes deadly serious.
The characters are well developed in their personalities, covering a wide range from innocent to intentionally evil, brave to foolish, sincere to slyly subversive, a great cast in a story that has some echoes of “The Crucible” as well as “The Children’s Hour.” Boston was clearly someone who understood the danger of superstition and how it can be used for evil. And, despite the obvious innocence of the accused witch, there is real witchcraft going on in this story, leading to the destruction of good people by evil hearts and deeds.
I probably won’t go back and reread this book as I do with Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, but it was well worth getting. (And even this recent edition is hard to find, being limited to 350 copies.)
Recommended, if you can locate it.