This week I’m recommending a story which begins with a pig bursting out of what should be an empty cupboard. It makes for an unforgettable opening page and yet Penelope Farmer’s “A Castle of Bone” is no longer as well known as it should be. When this short book was first published in 1972 it was described as being for “readers of eleven and over” but “A Castle of Bone” could also be seen as a story about teenagers for adult readers. Thankfully, most of Farmer’s fiction remains in print. You can get this novel in paperback or as an ebook.
“A Castle of Bone” is centred on four school-age teenagers: Hugh and his sister Jean and their next-door neighbours, Penn and his sister Anna. Aspiring artist Hugh is in trouble with his mother for having too much clutter in his room. She decrees that he must have a cupboard, so Hugh’s father takes him out to look for one. In a local junkshop, Hugh spots an ugly wooden cupboard and, “Immediately he had never wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints”. On the first night that the cupboard is in his bedroom, Hugh dreams about walking through a wood, meeting a strange black-haired girl and seeing a distant castle which he longs to reach.
Since Penn and Hugh are close friends, the four teenagers spend a lot of time hanging out together. They are in Hugh’s room when he hears strange noises coming from inside the new cupboard. All of them see the large white sow emerge and chase her into the local park. After this impossible pig evades them the friends can’t agree about what has happened. Anna points out that the only thing in the cupboard was a pig-skin wallet which she had tossed in there. Hugh is willing to believe that the cupboard has transformative powers but Penn and Jean are sceptical. When Anna puts a sweater inside the cupboard and reopens the door to find it reduced to a pile of wool, everyone has to admit that something very strange is going on. Over the next few days, Hugh tries putting different things in the cupboard. Each night, his dreams about the ominous wood and the white castle become more vivid and they seem to be affecting how Hugh experiences the world in daytime.
When the cupboard turns a cat back into a kitten, Penn doesn’t want to believe it out of pride and Jean out of fear. They all know that they ought to be more careful but a stupid quarrel leads to a shocking transformation of one of the group. The remaining teenagers are left with a major problem to conceal from their parents. As his dreams become ever more real, Hugh seeks answers from the old man who sold him the cupboard. Can its magic be reversed and what will happen when Hugh finally enters the Castle of Bone which haunts his dreams?
If this story was being published for Young Adults today, Farmer would probably have been pressured to make it longer, more sequel-friendly, and less intellectually demanding. The original novel packs a great deal into its 154 pages. I would call it more short and sour than short and sweet. The writing is full of sharp observation and unsparing character dissection. Many extraordinary things happen in “A Castle of Bone” but Farmer provides few explanations. She sets up parallels between contemporary events and the wilder fringes of Greek and Celtic myth and then leaves it up to her readers to notice and interpret the patterns.
This is similar to the way that Alan Garner used a story from “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012) as the underlying plot in his famous novel “The Owl Service” (ditto). “A Castle of Bone” doesn’t have the powerful sense of place (a wet Welsh valley) which you get in Garner’s masterpiece but I prefer Farmer’s more fluid and elusive use of myth. The central image of the castle keeps changing, as the shadowy Spiral Castle does in Celtic myth. Inside you might find a magical apple tree, the Cauldron of Rebirth, witch-queens and goddesses, all of which make it a dangerous place for male intruders.
If I’d simply summarized the plot of this novel without trying to convey the tone, it might sound like a comedy. Spells that go wrong, or have unintended consequences, are common in light-hearted Fantasy fiction for children. Some of the events in “A Castle of Bone” reminded me of the kind absurd things which happen in E.Nesbit novels such as “Five Children and It”. In Nesbit’s work (see my March 2016 post on her “The Book of Dragons”) the magical mishaps are played for laughs but in Farmer’s novel they seem part of something sinister and increasingly dangerous. Some episodes in “A Castle of Bone”, such as the wild chase after the pig and an embarrassing trip to the chemist where Hugh has to buy things that a teenage boy definitely shouldn’t need, are told with a humorous edge but they remain disturbing. The feeling of dread is closest to the surface in Hugh’s brilliantly described dreams which begin to bleed into his waking life, making him see new threats and possibilities in familiar places and people.
In “A Castle of Bone” the story is mainly told from Hugh’s point of view. We get an in-depth portrait of this rather uptight young man whose creative side is stimulated by the extraordinary potential of the magical cupboard. Farmer is more interested in psychological realism than in making Hugh likeable. He’s a believable self-centred teenager, who despises his irresponsible mother and finds his sensible sister boring. Hugh and his family seem emotionally repressed in a typically English way when contrasted with the flamboyant Celtic temperament of Penn and his family. The two boys are both friends and rivals. In the course of the story, Hugh comes to realize that Anna isn’t a nice person but there is latent attraction between them. For much of the book I was rather irritated by the way that Jean is portrayed as a timid traditional homemaker – a Good Girl to contrast with Anna’s daring and capricious Bad Girl. However, at the climax of the novel, it is decisive action by Jean which determines her brother’s fate. Anyone who is experiencing, or who remembers, the painful changes that all teenagers have to go through will find “A Castle of Bone” an interesting read. Fantasy Reads is taking September off but I’ll be back with Ghost Month in October.