Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion by Philippa Pearce (2001).

I've already given readers of this blog their first introductions to a writer named Philippa Pearce once before.  For those who still haven't read that older Club entry, or those who have and just forgot, here's a bit of an abridged refresher course.  Just as everybody has to come from somewhere, it also makes sense to claim that every writer is the product of the influences that molded them into the specific type of artist that they have all become.  Shakespeare and Mark Twain, for instance, wouldn't have been capable of writing the works that made them famous without the imprints that time, place, and culture had left on their minds.  This is something that appears in all of their works, and its so much a part of who each writer is that it's like there's no way they could stop it from seeping into their words.  To read Shakespeare with due diligence is to slowly immerse yourself into the early modern mindset that was the Elizabethan World Picture.  Likewise, becoming a devoted fan of Twain's work is a good way to gain a working knowledge of both the pre and post-Civil War ethos of the American landscape during the middle and near end of the 19th century.  Twain, in particular, is a useful resource these days for the way in which even his most imaginative flights of fancy highlight all of the social issues that this Country is still dealing with.

In the same way, though in a much lighter vein, it is possible to get a sense of the influences that helped mold Philippa Pearce into the writer she became.  In her case, most of the shaping influences in her art can be traced back to her childhood, growing up in Great Shelford, near the River Cam, in Cambridgeshire, England.  Her parent's were merchant millers, yet their occupation never got in the way of their daughter's education.  A lot of that was conditioned by the location that Ernest and Gertrude Pearce decided to settle down and raise a family in, and which subsequently became the place of the artist's birth.  If you follow the course of the River Cam long enough in a certain direction, it will take you both through and right past the iconic town and College which have taken their respective namesakes from the water source.  It's one of those cases where, if you pay attention to the geography long enough, you can maybe begin to understand why sometimes even the children of the working class residents of the town dotted about the River could sometimes grow up with higher rates of literacy than elsewhere, and this includes Pearce herself, as well.  All of which is to say that the first and biggest influence on Philippa as a child was the fact that she grew up within the shadows, environs, and confines of Cambridge University.  As a result, she was something of a college town girl.

It makes sense, therefore, that spending most of her childhood within reach of one of the most iconic and greatest centers of learning in the world meant her formative years were spent in an atmosphere that was always being molded at some fundamental level by the demands and enticements of academia.  It's no surprise, therefore, that growing up in such a collegiate setting would mean both an easy access to books, and eventual result of both an academic, as well as literary frame of mind on the part of the author.  All available indications point to Philippa taking a somewhat natural interest in the world of Arts and Letters at an early age, no doubt shaped in large degree to the influence that Cambridge University and its administration was able to exert on the daily workings of life in her hometown.  She was further assisted in this growing interest in the Realm of Letters by the fact that her parent's business as millers left them well off enough to send their daughter to Cambridge's Girton College.  She was thus able to graduate with a successful degree in both English and History (web).  It was this nurtured interest in Art and is relations to historical events which seems to have colored Philippa's work for the remainder of her days.  Her fictions tend to coalesce around a number of themes and settings.

In one sense, she's very much a writer concerned with the potential dramas of the domestic scene.  The vast majority of her work takes place in the lower and middle class houses containing the types of families that she knew growing up.  In this she shares a lot in common with Mark Twain.  Both artists can be described as regional authors, or Writers of Place.  Like Twain, in other words, Phillipa always seems to have been at her best when bringing the Cambridgeshire town and country settings she knew as a child to life on the printed page.  Twain did the same thing with his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.  Or, for that matter, in much the same way Tolkien did for the West Midlands country of his own Victorian/Edwardian youth.  Philippa's stories tend to be a lot quieter in their focus on the domestic than either the rambunctious mischief of Twain, or the soaring epic qualities of Tolkien.  However, that's not the same as saying that she was unfamiliar with the tropes of the Fantastic.  While the domesticity of Cambridge country life might have been the author's main primary setting, much like the work of Stephen King, Pearce's backdrops were often the stage for various happenings and occurrences of the otherworldly variety.  What's remarkable and somewhat gratifying to learn is just how much of these Fantasy elements took the form of the traditional Gothic framework.

Also much like King, Philippa's stories concern the ways in which the hidden and sometimes troubled aspects of life can erupt into an otherwise normal setting in the form of the supernatural.  The major difference between the two is that Pearce's approach to this same material tends to take a much more gentler guiding hand, for lack of a better word.  A lot of this seems down to the fact that when it came time to find her niche in the world of letters, Phillipa somehow wound up settling on the venue of children's author as the mode that allowed the best possible expression of her own creative voice.  Nor is there anything to complain about, really.  Much like the work of R.L. Stine, or Bruce Coville (or closer to home, E. Nesbit and M.R. James), at her best Pearce's efforts can act as a very useful gateway entry to the wider world of Gothic fiction.  She does this by manufacturing narratives of the ghostly and the whimsical that in some ways can almost be said to signal the future work of authors like Neil Gaiman.  One such story is what we'll be looking at today.  It's called "Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion".

The Story.

To tell you the truth, it's been a while since I've thought about the whole affair.  I even had to look up the name of the original family who lived next door.  Their names were Carew, now that I recall the whole thing.  Victor, Sylvia, and their children, Celia, Robert, and Adam.  No, I'm afraid I never was able to learn much about them during their time in my neighborhood.  However, I did learn some things, and was able to make what I'll bet you anything are more than a few good inferences based on the few interactions I did have with them.  To start with, they were already living in the neighborhood by the time I'd moved in myself.  My own lodgings where situated on the left side of the Carew's property.  On the opposite, you could find the Hardy Twins.  Just pair of spinster sisters.  They were harmless old dears, really.  Used to look after the Carew's household whenever the family went on their annual holiday.  This was something Mr. Carew would insist on with an almost regimented sense of regularity.  Let that piece of information stand as the first telling character note about ol' Vick and his curious brood.  Before I get into the nitty of their strange affair, there's one last actor in the little drama that I had the odd chance to see play out before my eyes.  This would have to be Mrs. Chamberlain.

Her part in this drama is all the more conspicuous for my never having met the good lady.  Not in the flesh, anyway.  She was before my time, you see.  If it's at all possible for any given suburb to have anything like a neighborhood matriarch, then I guess Mrs. Chamberlain would have been the closest candidate for that role.  She was never a tyrant from what I could tell.  In fact, there are no discernable signs that she was ever one of those rule with an iron fist types.  She was a good neighbor, and all she asked in return was that you as least try to be one as well.  From what I gather, Mrs. Chamberlain was what you might call one of life's great social realists.  This lent her a certain tolerant attitude which made her something a fixture and favorite for two types of parties that still frequent this suburb.  The first was children, of which she was very fond, never managing to have tykes of her own.  The second was cats, of which I've been led to understand she soon began collecting in abundance.  At first it started with the one's she owned for herself, and then she just let the population grow as she allowed others, especially the strays or former pets who had either lost or been kicked out by their owners.  It's not too much of a leap in logic to say that there was a great deal of psychological compensation mixed up in that.  It was the best consolation Mrs. Chamberlain could find in being denied motherhood.

As for the general character of the main players in the little domestic drama I had the dubious privilege to see unfold, there was a lot that I never saw, but can still take a good guess at.  Mrs. Carew was the first member of the household that I met.  It wasn't long after I'd moved into the neighborhood, with Mrs. Chamberlain long gone, and the Carews already occupying her old house.  There used to be a large hedge wall, in addition to the fence separating our properties.  It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved in, and decided straight-off to cut it down.  It was a quick bit of gardening that didn't take long.  When it was all over and the last leaf and twig had been gathered up into the waste baskets, it wasn't long before one day I stepped out into my front yard, and there was Mrs. Carew, tending to her own affairs on the opposite side of the fence.  It was when I attempted to be the good neighbor and make first introductions that I got a taste of what the "new" family in Mrs. Chamberlain's old house was like.  To start with, Mrs. Carew fancied herself one of those "cut above the rest" types.  There's no way she could have occupied a higher income bracket than myself, or anyone else who lived in our suburb.  Yet she never let this knowledge stop her from at least trying to pretend that anyone she didn't take a liking to was not OUR sort of class.  It was all a self-deluding sham, and she liked it that way.

In some ways, I suppose her husband was the most interesting member of the household.  As I've said, I never found out much about the last family to live in the old Chamberlain residence.  Yet every now and then I would catch sight of their actions or conversations that suggested just enough to make me wonder.  As Mrs. Carew once pointed out, I had a knack for noticing things.  I may have seen a lot, yet this is still the best I can infer.  While I can never really be said to have found out anything about the family, whatever I did see was enough to leave me with the following surmise.  If you asked me for the best educated guess, then I'd have to say that somewhere along the line, Mr. Carew either had or saw an opportunity to take himself (and maybe even his whole family, for all I know) in a different direction.  For whatever reason, this chance at something was either denied him, or (what's more likely) Mr. Carew found himself confronted with the choice of a different, and maybe even better life, and discovered he was one of those types who just didn't whatever nerve it takes to change things for themselves.  It's the best guess at what you might term as character motivation for his role in the drama, and I can never quite shake the impression that I'm very close to the truth on that particular judgment call.

Whatever the full story may have been, what couldn't be denied is the unmistakable air of bitter disappointment that always hung around the patriarch of the Carew clan.  It appears to have been what set the temper for the couple's lives.  It explains his wife's delusional snobbishness, and his general lack of enthusiasm for a great deal of things.  The good news, I suppose, is that Carew never let this disappointment drive him to drown in the nearest bottle of alcohol he could find, or anything like that.  Though I do wonder now if I recall him having a bad smoking habit?  All of which is to say that if there was any bright spot in that household, then it had to be with the children.  At least this seems true of two of them.  Robert seemed a bit too ready to follow along in the course set for him by dead old dad.  Adam and Celia, however, were good kids.  You could tell that just by spending time with them.  Their little girl, for instance, kept a favorite pet in her pockets at all times.  It was nothing more than a white mouse that she'd picked up somewhere along the way.  She named him Mickey.  A simple enough thing for any child of her age.  However, her parents were dead set against pets of any kind in the household.  Or at least that was their stance on such matters even up to the last time I ever saw any of them.  All I can do is hope that they've had time to mellow up to the idea of letting Celia have a companion of her own, even if its just of the four-legged variety.  Here is the important thing about the two kids, though.

If her parents wouldn't let her have a pet mouse, then Celia decided to forage out on her own and both befriend and take a stray into her own family with her.  She did it all, in other words, in an open yet silent act of defiance against her parents wishes.  Forgive me for thinking this shows a great amount of steel and resolve in the young girl.  She's the type who possesses the right amount of courage and tenacity to pull off such neat and secret trick.  It's the sort of thing she might have been able to get away with indefinitely if the rest of the events of this story hadn't taken place.  There's a lot to admire in a mindset like her's.  Celia's brother was just as good, if not better then her.  Adam is best described as the sort of bloke who says little while always letting the gears turn fast and sure in his mind.  To an unobserving mind, like that of his parents, the boy might almost come off as one of those idler types.  I've no doubt that's how the Carew's saw him.  As the Mrs. said, I see much.  I also could tell with just a few moments of conversation that their boy had one of the sharpest developing minds that I've been granted to meet.  If either of of those kids were able to just hold the same, steady course they'd already committed themselves to by a kind of unspoken agreement, then they might have turned out well.

At any rate, I know for a fact that they were the sort of brother and sister capable of dealing a whole lot better with the real story that happened to all of them.  It's the account that I've been working up to tell you about now.  This is what happened.  Every August, the Carews would pack their children up into the station wagon and head out for an annual holiday by the seaside.  I forget how long they tended to stay away now, however it might have been as long as the entire month.  They would always arrive back in the neighborhood carrying with them the faint salt air scent of the beach that they'd just left.  Adam said it was nice to let the scent of the tide and sand into their old, musty house whenever they got back.  Because it felt like they were letting a fresh sense of life into the place.  I told you the boy was sharp.  However, this one time, things turned out different.  I suppose the most succinct way to describe what happened next was enough to ruin the holiday.  It did a lot more than, of course.  It soon resulted in the departure of the Carews from the neighborhood.  Nor can I blame them.  In fact, it wasn't too long after I myself decided to run away from the old Chamberlain house.  What happened is simple.

I no longer recall how long the family had been away, and the house lain dormant.  I just know that one night, as I was getting ready to turn in, I happened to glance out a window of my former residence.  This one offered a clear view of the Chamberlain house.  From this particular vantage point the viewer was offered as clear a view as possible into the family living room.  I had just turned out the light in my study, as I now recall, and was turning away from the dwelling, when some movement from the living room caught my eye.  I turned back and saw no one there, at first, until I did.  The best way I can put it here is that I'll swear I saw one of the shadows on the Chamberlain wall detach itself from its spot atop the fireplace, and then move or disappear further on into the darkness.  That was enough to wake me up, I can tell you.  I continued to gaze into the family room and as I did began to notice all the subtle tricks of light and shadow that your eyes can sometimes play on you.  At least that's the most comforting explanation I have for the way it seemed that sometimes the shadows within the Carew residence would suddenly readjust themselves.  It would be like the form of someone (or some thing?) moving from one part of the room to another.  At other times I'll swear I was just in time to catch the last, fleeting glimpse of what was a clear human shape walking elsewhere just out of my immediate line of sight.

Then came the sounds.  At first it was the kind of thing you'd expect to find (or hear) during a burglary.  The familiar noise of chairs and other furniture being moved about in that fitful, haphazard way of all amateur thievery.  Once I heard that racket I was even inclined to breathe a sigh of relief.  Not that the situation wasn't dire, yet at least it was something manageable.  I'd about convinced myself that the Carew's new home was under nighttime assault, and was just about to go and phone the police, when I began to notice the other sounds.  These were the ones audible just below that of the furniture.  Sometimes it sounded like a conversation was taking place.  If that's what it was, however, then I'll swear little, if any of it, was human.  Putting all of this phenomena together, it gave one the impression that what you were watching was a strange, insular yet convivial event taking place.  Almost like a housewarming party being carried out in the total secrecy of darkness.  It was when I became a bit too sure that I was watching the silhouettes of people and other things moving about in the shadows that I gave up on the police.  I ran to the phone alright, yet it was the Carew's seaside resort I rang up.

I didn't do a very good job of explaining myself, as you can probably guess.  I was just too out of sorts to have anything like a normal conversation at that moment.  As I tried to get across to Mr. Carew what was happening in his home, my mind kept filling up with the images of signs and sigils, the kind our ancestors used to draw or hang in order to ward off evil.  It's the sort of thing most of the world has left behind a long time ago.  So what do you suppose would happen if any of that were true?  Whatever the case, I must have managed to get at least something through to the thick yet hallowed out gourd that the bloody-minded old fool used for a brain.  Because not long after the twin Ms. Hardy's rang me up saying as how they'd just spoken with Mr. Carew.  He was in a frightful temper (which was never news), and he was worried about whether or not to cut the holiday short and come straight home (which was something else).  I gave the pair of them a variation on what I'd seen.  This time, all I said was that it looked like a burglary was in progress, and that something ought to be done about it.  Perhaps the greatest surprise of that night was the their reaction to what I'd told them.  The Hardy Twins seemed willing to go to great lengths to convince me that I must be imagining things, and nothing was wrong.

Now it was my turn to fly off the handle.  I told them flat-out that if they didn't alert the Carews I'd let the police deal with the whole matter.  It seemed to have done the trick because not long after I'd hung up on them I was back to dealing with Adam and Celia's father.  This time he agreed to come home right away.  As a result, I'd made the biggest mistake of my life, and for my sins, I was present when the family arrived at last, and opened the door to their house.  I may have forgotten a lot of the details of what led up to that night, yet I've never forgotten what happened once Victor Carew opened the door of the Chamberlain house.  If I'm being honest, it's one of those events that are too unbelievable to talk about.  I'll leave off with this.  The fallout was predictable enough.  Adam and Celia were forced to move away not long after.  Their parents deciding a change of venue was the healthiest thing to do.  Not long after, I did the same thing, Mrs. Chamberlain's house and its history becoming too much of a sleep haunter after that.  The Ms. Hardy's both told me a great a deal of what I didn't know afterwards, before I too took my leave.  I dare not repeat what they said, for one never talks about the unbelievable.  And yet, I've never been able to dismiss their claims.  My one consolation in all this is knowing that the kids hadn't lost their chance at a better future because of the incident, especially not Celia.  If there's anything to be grateful for during my time next to Mrs. Chamberlain's house, that is quite enough.

Beyond all of this, I'll leave you with a question.  Have you ever noticed the way the shadows play tricks on you at night, once the Sun has set, and all the world is one vast cloak of darkness?  You can dispel some of them with the deliberate use of light.  Yet that just allows the two elements to combine in their trickery.  That doesn't really solve the problem of how to get through the night and the dark.  All it does is offer a chance for things to get perhaps a bit too interesting.  Sometimes, as you sit there, in the night, in the dark, you cast your eye about the shadows that surround you, even within the confines of your well lit little world of a room.  If such things keep you up past the witching hour, then if you're not careful, you begin to think that the longest and darkest shadows could belong to anything...Anything at all.  The kind of things that flit and make merry just out of the corner of your very own line of sight.

Conclusion: A Delightful Children's Gothic Tale.

I said at the start that it's possible to treat Philippa Pearce as something of a literary precursor.  That sentiment is given a pretty strong shot in the arm after going through this short story for the first time.  The sad irony with respect to the work of Pearce is that even though she does deserve to be thought of a kind of literary trailblazer, then it's one of those cases where the passage of time hasn't done her any real favors.  Here we have the familiar case of a sure and winning talent being overlooked in favor of those artists who came before and after her.  I'm not really able to explain this part in any other way except to say that it's kind of all down to luck of the draw.  And this time Philippa never got the winning lottery numbers she more than probably deserved.  I'm afraid her reputation has suffered to the point where it's difficult to give a complete and comprehensive list of all the books she wrote and published in her lifetime.  Goodreads is quoted as saying Pearce is the author of about ten novels in all.  The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, meanwhile, only bothers to list just her single most famous work, Tom's Midnight Garden, as the only novel of her's worth noticing.  This just serves to occlude her other worthy efforts, such as The Way to Sattin Shore, and A Finder's Magic.  Meanwhile, ISFDB can be bothered to name just 28 of what I know are more than three volumes worth of short stories.

It's also apparent that the only reason those 28 works were named is because those were the ones the Database site understood as belonging to its definition of Speculative fiction.  The upshot of all this is a talented woman who's achievements have been pretty much neglected by both critics and casual readers.  It's one of those crimes that most of us never even know we're committing.  It also explains why I've had to dig a lot harder to turn up any relevant information on this writer than usual.  It doesn't help that a lot of potentially helpful information may have fallen through the cracks of time forever, leaving me with nothing else to go on except the most plausible speculations I can think of with the help of more or less nothing else except the fiction to go on.  It's a less than ideal situation to find yourself in if you want to be a thorough critic.  Still, if I can't give her career the full rehabilitation it deserves, it's at least possible to grant Philippa the compliments deserved for a job well done.

In terms of the nature and quality of her story, then, the first thing that strikes you about this story of a suburban house with visitors in the night is its intimate sense of cozy familiarity.  To a fan of the Gothic genre, like me, this tale is akin to meeting a familiar face that you've never seen before.  Looking at the story from the perspective of today, many readers will be inclined to level the charge that the author couldn't bother to come up with something original.  This would amount to viewing the work through the lens of historical myopia, however.  When I claimed that Philippa could have deserved the title of pioneer, I wasn't being facetious.  While "Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion" might read like well-trodden turf today, it has to be kept in mind that at the time it was first written, possibly anywhere from the 60s to the 70s, it would have been something of a minor, yet genuine innovation.  A good way to place the nature and content of the story is to claim that all Pearce has done is to write a Neil Gaiman short story years before the first issue of Sandman ever saw its first print run on the Vertigo label.  It's just that Gaiman is the one who winds up with all the credit while Philippa turned out to be the writer who did all the serious original leg work that inspired the later author to come up with tales like Coraline.

That's a good book in it's own right.  Reading Pearce's work here, however, also convinces me that novels like The Ocean at the End of the Lane would never have seen the light of day if Philippa hadn't been the one to plant the original seed bed that Gaiman would later draw from.  If you go back and look at the way Pearce sets up her narrative, then it shouldn't take long for the astute reader to understand a lot of the tropes that made Gaiman famous can be seen her in their original, unheralded appearance.  Right from the start we're confronted with a familiar situation.  You've got the family dynamic of a relatively unimaginative couple who are somewhat cold and distant to their children.  The kids, meanwhile, compensate for a lot of their familial shortcomings by falling back on the resources of their rich, imaginative inner life.  It's the same narrative configuration that Gaiman put to good use in his Memory series.  In stories like Mr. Punch or Violent Cases, you have child protagonists trying to navigate their way through a world of hostile grown-ups, and having to rely on the Imagination to see them through.  Gaiman and Pearce also share a similar narrative trait in that neither author bothers to give any specific name to their First Person Narrators.  Both of them seem content to let the content of their respective narratives be enough of a draw without having to worry about the main lead's title.

Though Philippa seems a bit more willing to extend this courtesy to her narrator's sister, anyway.  Also much like Gaiman's storytellers, Philippa is trying to tell us of an event that happened to them in childhood.  The main difference is that the former occupant of the Chamberlain house has little to no trouble recalling what it was like to be a child.  Gaiman was the one who hit upon the idea of playing tricks with the reliability of the narrative voice.  By making his characters the victims of their own faulty memories, the author is able to let his narratives enjoy a certain level of ambiguity.  The reader is left to decide for themselves whether or not the protagonist has witnessed or had anything like a genuine encounter with the fantastic or the Supernatural.  It's this familiarity with Gaiman's technique which makes it all the more remarkable to discover Philippa employing this same level ambiguity here, perhaps more than twenty years prior.  The whole story culminates with the death of an unofficial family pet, and all of the main cast of the story, except for the narrator and the Ms. Hardies, unsure of what has just taken place.  This is a scene that Pearce builds up to using one of the oldest traditions in the Horror genre's bag of tricks.  The image of a locked door, and the secret threat it holds within.

This image and its myriad content has managed to remain a reliable standby for the story of whatever goes bump in the night.  The poetry inherent in this picture is all down to its dramatic potential as a container of mysteries and surprises, most of them nasty if it takes place in a Gothic setting.  This is something that was explained to me once by Stephen King, in the pages of his study Danse Macabre.  There the Maine writer admits that this idea of a Door of Terrible Secrets wasn't an original idea of his.  He first "heard it expressed by William F. Nolan at the 1979 World Fantasy Convention.  Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door, Nolan said.  You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it.  The audience holds its breath with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approached that door.  The protagonist throws it open and there...(110)" is the part where both the final results and the audience's reaction sort of has no choice but to always vary.  King points out that Lovecraft, for instance, would often opt to never let the audience see what was behind the door, and let their imaginations fill in the gaps.  Arthur Machen, on the other hand, liked to produce and interesting variation on this time worn technique.  He found a riff on the formula.

In Machen's version, what happens is the main lead and the reader are lead up to the chamber where the final confrontation with the Horror is to take place.  When we get there, we find the door if already thrown wide open, and maybe there's things like eerie lights and sounds coming from within the room.  Machen would then unceremoniously shove his characters and audience into the Chamber of Terror where the Horror of the story is given the quickest, fleeting moment of glory in the spotlight, before the the audience finds itself yanked back out of the room as the protagonist starts to scream in mortal terror and agony.  That's the point where Machen would slam the door shut in our faces, with just the screams of the now helpless hero (or heroine) telling us all we needed to know.  Philippa's strategy in all this is to basically take the same route that King himself likes to use in his fiction.  She'll open the door just a crack, before letting it get stuck in its hinges.  This allows her readers to catch snatches and hints of what the true Horror of the story is, without ever giving the entire game away.  The reader winds up with just the faintest hints of what kind of Terror we're dealing with, yet we're never treated to the kind of splatter fest that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Instead, a sense of mystery is allowed to linger.

This is another variation on the technique of the locked door that is also not original with either King, Nolan, or Pearce.  I'd argue that all Philippa has done is to utilize a technique which might have been first pioneered by the early 19th century ghost story writer M.R. James.  He liked to open the door just a crack so that his readers could catch that same, fleeting glimpse of what was hiding in the dark as well.  James and Pearce are capable of  treating the Horrors in their stories with the same deft flair of restrained shock, for lack of a better word.  Like James, Philippa seems to know the value of presenting a gruesome death on her make-believe stage.  She also knows how to pull this kind of scene off with skill and genuine artistry, so that nothing comes off feeling cheap or garish.  Instead, the moment of shock is pulled off to make a complete Gothic effect, leaving the audience stunned and even more terrified than when the door was closed.  Pearce allows her readers just a handful of descriptions about what was going on in the old Chamberlain house, and as I've said earlier, she is able to take the techniques of M.R. James and take it all a step forward, so that the final result looks further on to the type of payoffs you might find in this same type of narrative whenever it is written by the likes of Neil Gaiman.

Which is to say that the story's final note is somewhat melancholic and bittersweet, as much as it is horrifying.  Philippa chooses to leave us in a realm where the closing argument of her story centers around questions of the regrets that some can wrack up for themselves in refusing to take the chances that life offered them once upon a time, and how sometimes this can result in the desire to want to go back and change things, even when it is too late.  This seems to be the lesson that gets driven home to the Carew children by what they find waiting for them behind the the door to Mrs. Chamberlain's house.  While it may have taken a close brush with death to make them learn this lesson, there's every implication that the children have been able to grow from their experience.  They will therefore be able to avoid the kind of mistakes made not just by grown-ups like their parents, but also by the likes of Mrs. Chamberlain herself.  All of these elements go together to create a winning combination as a short story.  In some ways, I kind of feel guilty for even having to bring someone like Gaiman into this conversation at all.  Not because there's any inherent problem with it.  It's just I can shake the notion that using and author of his caliber to help explain the work of another runs more than a few risks.

For one thing, it might serve to give an overall false impression of Pearce's own talents.  That I've given the reader an idea of the author as something she's not.  In other words, while I'd argue it's true to call Philippa one of the forgotten precursors to the work of later artists like Gaiman, that's still not the same as saying that both authors write in the same way, or that a read-through of either of their respective fictions comes off sounding just like one another, when its clear that each has their own distinct narrative voice.  That's far from the case.  I never mean to suggest that Philippa is some kind of literary copycat with no sense of storytelling originality or merit of her own.  That is even further from the truth.  In fact, if you want to know the difference between these two scribblers, all you'd need to do is stop and think about how Gaiman would have written this scenario.  It would have all culminated in something like the two children finding a hidden society of the animal world, and being trusted to keep all of its secrets, or something like that.  Pearce's, approach, meanwhile, belongs more to that of the straightforward Gothic yarn.  It's the type of story where the humans trespass on what is implied to be a somewhat yearly ritual conducted by the Otherworld, and a price gets exacted from them for it.

This is where comparing Pearce's efforts to those of M.R. James becomes a bit more apt.  More than anything else, Philippa appears to have been one of the great, unsung names in the history of children's Gothic fiction.  It was for the Young Adult market that she seems to have devoted the vast majority of her output toward.  The genre she chose to express all of her talent in the most of all was that of the Ghost Story.  Her work in this regard bears one more literary resemblance toward that of yet another author, Stephen King.  Like him, Philippa's work can be divided into the realms of straightforward tales of the supernatural, mixed in with occasional slice-of-life, coming of age stories where the main action centers on child protagonists dealing with the challenges of growing up, rather than any direct contact with a spectral realm.  This latter type of narrative are on best display in short stories like "The Rope", or "Inside Her Head", where children find themselves having to rely on their own inner resources in order to learn how to live a normal life.  These concerns can be as mundane as learning how to conquer one's fears of a make-shift public swing, or else discovering the joys of being able to climb a tree.

Her more fantastic tales can contain and continue all of these and related childhood themes.  They just do so set against a backdrop that features challenges that are more phantasmagorical in nature.  In this too, there are similarities to her work and that of King's.  The thing to be kept in mind about it all is that Philippa is very much an author in her own right, one with a distinctive narrative voice.  That voice has its own rhythm and cadence that will be familiar to anyone who grew up as a bookworm during the later years of the twentieth century.  Philippa seems to belong very much to that same reader's demographic that also included the likes of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, John Bellairs, and Betty Wren Wright.  In many ways, she could even be described as Wright's British cousin.  These were the kind of writers who specialized in finding all the rights ways to entertain their child audience in a manner that never felt like you were being talked down to.  Writers like Blume, in particular, knew how to make any young girl who picked up her works feel like they were not alone.  Gothic practitioners like Pearce, Bellairs, and Wright, meanwhile, would find their own ways of encouraging their YA charges.  There's just more of an emphasis on the macabre and the arabesque.  This seems to have been deliberate in some ways.

If you go through Pearce's works long enough, it doesn't take too long to figure out what she's up to with her Horror tales for young kids.  Like a lot of the best workers in this particular office space, Philippa seems to have found the Scary Story congenial for the way it allowed her to talk about a lot of the more difficult aspects of life.  In her stories, the ghosts and horrors tend to function as symbolic reflections for the struggles that her child characters are having to deal with.  Which means that in her Gothic stories, most of the encounters her YA protagonists have with the supernatural tend to leave them with a greater sense of self-recognition, but also a better awareness of their situation in relation to the adults in their life.  In that sense, it becomes obvious that what attracted Philippa to the story of the supernatural was how it could serve her talent in a double function.  On the most obvious hand, it was a good vehicle for exploring a lot of the difficult themes about growing up in a forum that allowed her to address a lot of sometimes hard issues without having to sugarcoat, while also letting her readers know that she, at least, would never let go of their hand.  At the same time, it gave the author a chance to put her own peculiar notions of life out there, for all to see.  The other reason Philippa liked to write Horror stories was for the way it could suggest that human beings are part of an even greater mystery.

That seems to be one of the genre's most over-arching themes, and like a lot of its best literary voices, Philippa appears to have had the kind of outlook that would easily be drawn to the one type of story that was the most tailor-made for exploring such concerns.  That's the other reason why so many ghosts and other fantastic creatures keep showing up in her work.  Or why the author might sometimes indulge her own sense of philosophic exploration by, say, working the speculations of someone like J.W. Dunne, into framework of her most famous story.  It might sound like an odd thing to do, yet the reason for it seems simple enough.  Philippa was the type of person who always saw human beings as living in the midst of an unseen wonder and mystery.  There would always be a part of her that wanted to explore those ideas further in her stories.  The good news is she's a hell of a writer.  She has a good understanding of children, and hence the play-actors on her make-believe stage have this innate sense of realism to them.  You get the feeling these could be real kids.  Philippa paints her imaginary charges with a kindness and understanding that never gets abandoned even when the bad stuff begins to hit the fan.  Instead, she's the kind of writer who believes that even consolation can have its place in the Tale of Terror.  In addition to this, it doesn't hurt that she's one of those scribblers gifted with a natural way with the written word.  It's easy enough to see when you come across passages like the following:

"We brought with us the salty smell of the seaside rising from our hair and skin and clothing and from the collections of seashore pebbles and shells in our buckets. That saltiness, together with fresh air from newly opened windows, soon began to get rid of the stuffy, rather unpleasant smell of an empty house shut up for a whole fortnight.  Soon our home was exactly as it had always been, and so it would remain for another year...(272)".  This simple paragraph is really just a hint of the greater sense of prose lyricism that Philippa is able to inject in her stories.  It works well enough as a beginner's sample, however.  It's just possible to catch a glimpse of what kind of writer she is in even the merest description of a family arriving home from a long beach vacation.  What's interesting to note is that even in her descriptions of the Summer, the author's seasonal prose always tends towards those types of expressions best suited to the months of Autumn.  This is something she carries over into the rest of her work.  In a way, I suppose it makes sense claim Philippa as something of an British Gothic Pastoralist.  When it comes to describing the English countryside she has an innate talent for making the reader understand not just the Lyrical, but also the inherent Epic quality of the landscape of her native environment.

While never once coming close to writing anything even remotely resembling the vast scope of Lord of the Rings, she nonetheless appears to have found  a way to master that same mythic voice when it comes to bringing the nature of the Isles to vivid life, so that the landscape seems to jump off the page, and make a permanent imprint in your mind.  It takes a great deal of skill, and Philippa possesses this unique quality in spades.  It's a talent she shares with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ray Bradbury.  Like the detective mystery writer, Pearce has the natural skill of giving the reader this almost pristine sense of what the Earth in Britain is like, and the ways in which its medieval history has lent the setting a mythic quality that is able to exist both on and off the page.  Like Bradbury, she tends to concentrate these qualities into in a near constant Autumnal form of expression.  A lot of it is down to the fact that she seems to be the most comfortable in the genre of ghosts and monsters.  It's the type of generic setup that leaves plenty of room for the kind of landscape that features the Sun going down on a late October afternoon.  The curious thing about the way Philippa writes these scenes is that even in her darkest moments, there's still plenty of room left over for a kind of nostalgic fondness.  This is something else she shares in common with Bradbury, both writers like to look back at life through a lens of Amber.

Philippa's Gothic Lyricism is in no way as skilled as the one you can find in the pages of Dandelion Wine, yet the same basic idea of this narrative seasonal quality appears to be operating in each respective work.  She just manages to put it to the kind of use that puts one in mind of a more child friendly M.R. James.  Or else she's like a slightly darker version of Edith Nesbit.  One who isn't afraid to give young adults a good jolt of fright every now and then, while still maintaining that sense of good humor and encouragement.  Even when she manages to scare you to death, Philippa always lets the audience know she's still on their side.  For me, this story was like catching up with an old friend.  It had a familiar, cozy feeling that I tend to associate with the kind of fiction I read in Elementary school.  Those were the days when my interests in literature began to take on a serious tone.  By that time, a burgeoning awareness of the Gothic genre had begun to make me hungry for more of where that came from.  It was somewhere in or between the third and fourth grades that I began to take an interest in names like Jack Prelutsky, Lois Lowry, and Bruce Coville.  I never had the chance to find out about Philippa's work in all that time.  It's a shame, because if this story is anything to go by, I would have found a new favorite.  In a sense, that's what wound up happening here, one way or another.

From reading her stories, you can tell Philippa Pearce belongs to the that late twentieth century cohort of authors who somehow managed to carve out a permanent place in the minds of an entire generation of  lucky readers.  This was the domain of Louis Sachar, semi-forgotten players like Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Robert Munsch.  Then there are the even more obscure toilers in the ink-stained trenches.  I'm not sure how many out there even remember Judith Bauer Stamper, for instance.  Yet she's the one who both satiated my appetite for the macabre and left me hungry for more with her Tales for the Midnight Hour series of books.  On a related note, John Ray Barnes Jr. and his pal Martin Engle collaborated on a short-lived competitor to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps franchise by churning out their own brand with a similar premise called Strange Matter.  The handful of entries from their efforts that stick with me today are ones that involve a new substitute teacher who is a ravenous, bestial werewolf, a trapped in the mountains with a the Yeti yarn, a haunted house tale based on the real life Glamis Castle in Scotland, then there's an entire book about a Loch Ness Monster style creature featuring a fun water slalom for its heart-pounding climax.  The best text in that series for me, however, is the one I still own.  It's a love letter to Drive In Schlock films of the past, and it's called Creature Features.

I bring all of these seemingly unrelated aspects of the past up because the accumulative effect of Pearce's short story about a haunted neighborhood residence is to precisely bring my memories of all these other long gone authors and their efforts back to vivid life.  That's because she was a close contemporary of all of them.  Philippa found that she had a knack for entertaining children best of all, and in doing so found herself joining the same ranks of grade school entertainers as Coville, Lowery, and Engle.  Also like Stamper, Prelutsky, and Barnes, all she found out was that her talent for artistic expression always tended to reach it's greatest form within the confines of the Horror story.  As a result, while it's true that I never really got to know her as just a small, impressionable young fourth grader, there is a sense in which perhaps I really should have.  Her stories evoke that same stock response of childhood dread laced with a helping dollop of wonder.  She writes the kind of penny dreadfuls that aren't afraid to let their young adult readers know that they can be justified in being scared.  At the same time, they always tended to agree with a maxim handed down by G.K. Chesterton.  What was important wasn't so much that things that go bump in the night could exist, but rather that they could be beaten.

It was the rare example of a modern Horror story with an otherwise healthy outlook undergirding all of the typical ghoulish happenings, and it was these stories by the likes of Stine and Pearce that made me a fan of the genre for life.  Reading the story of a little old lady next door, and of her determination to keep the party going long after everyone thinks she's gone has done a lot to remind me of what it was like to be the kid that I used to be, learning how to enjoy Gothic fiction for the very first time.  Because of this, the story of "Mrs. Chamberlain's Reunion" gets a very welcome recommendation from me.   

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