“The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall”, only mostly for kids

Posted by Bridget Rohde on December 13, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, 2010)

Reviewed by Bridget Rohde

A dark and stormy evening, gardens devoid of life, an old stone manor in the isolated countryside, long-lost family… When Florence Crutchfield steps out of the coach near her great-uncle’s estate in Mary Downing Hahn’s newest preteen ghost story, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, she is already well set up to embody the typical Radcliffean heroine. Florence has spent the last seven years behind the strict and dour walls of a London orphanage, her whereabouts only recently discovered by her last remaining relations. But death has marked this branch of the family as well; the first anniversary of her cousin Sophia’s demise rapidly approaches. Though Florence has never met Sophia, she grieves already for the loss of a sister-friend, and a close relationship she desperately desires. Then the heavy manor door opens under the hand of her wraith-like aunt, and we see Florence in her true role: Sophia’s living double—one might even say “the good twin”—by nature the same and by nurture different.

The two, we’re told, could easily be taken for sisters. Great-Aunt Eugenie immediately mistakes Florence for her ghostly counterpart, and becomes outwardly hostile when she realizes the dead girl has not, in fact, returned to life. This marks the beginning of Florence’s usurpation into the household, a transition Aunt (and Sophia herself) will fight to the almost-death.

Though Crutchfield Hall is written for a younger audience, the first-person narration retains a formal eloquence that assists in the creation of a Victorian atmosphere, ripe for a winter haunting. Themes of displacement and invasion harken back to the old childhood fear of abandonment, of somehow losing a parent figure’s love. The past seeks to rule the present, which in turn cannot help but show unhealthy fascination for its predecessor due to a shared underlying desire for companionship and acknowledgement.

Crutchfield Hall is a manor ruled by memories of a “glorious” history, over which Sophia retains an iron grip. Aunt refuses to move beyond the memory of her favorite, cousin James is confined to his bed in a self-imposed state of constant sickness brought on by fear of his dead sister, and most of the servants deliberately avoid all mention of their former young mistress. An inscription on a plaque in the garden reads “Here, there, everywhere,” and indeed, this defines the girl’s ghostly influence (58). While the picture Aunt paints of Sophia is one of perfection, the actions of the other characters, including Uncle, suggest that the girl was quite the opposite, even cruel. Spratt, the gardener, tells how Sophia once deliberately threw a ball in front of a wagon, prompting James’s dog Nero to follow after it to his doom. Needless to say, when Sophia reveals herself to Florence with a proposal of friendship, we cannot help but question her motives and predict peril to follow closely after.

This is a ghost story. Of course we are right.

Like her aunt, Sophia simply cannot let the past rest in peace. She holds James responsible for her premature death and has decided that with his death, she can return to life. But the resentment goes deeper than that. From the moment of James’s birth, Sophia resolves to hate him since his very presence forces her to share attention. Her jealousy grows through life and actually causes her death, as she dares him to walk the rooftop and subsequently slips off herself. Ghosts epitomize a world askew, and she sees her presence in the earthly realm as proof that she was not supposed to die in the first place, instead of as an indication that her strong desire for revenge will not allow her to move on and forward into death. Convinced of her own superiority, Sophia becomes single minded to her purpose but without purity of motive, for it is only self-love that dictates her steps—she feels this same superiority over Aunt, of whom she freely admits to having manipulated in life for dolls and dresses. In essence, Aunt loves a girl who never existed, and this Sophia cannot help but resent.

The shattered and blood-stained photograph from the cover art, taken from an incident in the book where Florence accidentally breaks the glass and cuts her finger, reveals the true state of Sophia’s inner self. On the outside she is pretty and polished, a model of what a young girl should be. Inside, however, she is a fragmented mess of selfishness and deadly motive. In typical double fashion, Florence becomes subject to the will of her darker self. Whenever Sophia is near her, she likewise acts cruel and condescending toward others, wanting to slap the servant girl and verbally abusing her. Under Sophia’s control, she strips away the protections that prevent the ghost from entering James’s bedroom. Similar to Dr. Jekyll, Florence cannot escape her cousin, who “could be anywhere, visible or invisible, hiding in dark corners, watching and planning, mocking me, scaring me, a presence following me as closely as my own shadow” (92). Sophia is a part of her, a double of her mind as well as her body, the secret shadow that haunts every breath and invites her to act out. This concept seems like it could be chilling at the outset, but instead evokes frustration as Florence deliberately seeks out the ghost and goes along with her plans until they endanger James. There is never much doubt about which girl will survive as the last one standing.

The effectiveness of the ghost story comes most successfully in the ambivalence that surrounds Sophia’s fate. In many ways, this is the most shiver-inducing segment of the narrative, for though James has overcome his fear and Florence has filled the place of loving sister, Sophia maintains a faint, watery presence, this time on the outskirts of the storyline. Perhaps her intentions have altered, perhaps she is merely biding her time—or perhaps all that is truly left of her is what remains in their minds.

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall may suffer from predictability in its overall storyline and typecast characterization, but it also manages to transform this into a musty atmosphere capable of supporting a vengeful yet pitiable ghost. If the deeper themes miss their mark on the book’s younger audience, the smooth style, easy pace, and well-navigated plot will set them up for the rush of a danger-wrought climax and spookily ambiguous conclusion. Enough layers exist to hold older readers’ interest as well, though the gullibility of our heroine and less-than-creepy events that plague much of the story will dissuade those looking for a good and thorough scare. A mildly entertaining read, one to keep in mind for the ten to twelve year-olds of your acquaintance, but not one I would return to for an encore performance.

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