Saturday, May 7, 2016


by Stephen Elboz
Recommended Ages: 12+

Amazon informs me I bought this book more than eight years ago, apparently when reading the Kit Stixby quartet kindled an interest in its author's other work. A sticker on its front cover lists the price at £--60, which I guess means I got it from a used-books dealer in the U.K. (If you're interested, used copies of this book are still available online.) Why has it taken me until now to read it? You wouldn't ask if you had any idea how rapidly I was acquiring books at that time; far faster than I could read them. It isn't that I wasn't interested in the book, or that I'm incapable of reviewing a book when it's hot off the press. Rather, let the fact I kept it through several changes of address bear witness that, despite a thousand other books to read, this has always been on my "to-read" pile. It's just a ridiculously tall pile. And then a Stephen Elboz book (The Prisoner's Apprentice) came up in the "what shall I read next" lottery, after which I had to ransack my shelves for anything else by him. So, with apologies for tardiness...

Ewan Niles isn't thrilled when his parents receive an invitation from his dad's godfather to send him for a visit. Only the rare luxury of a first-class train ticket softens his resistance. But at the other end of a tiring journey, the sight of Dr. Malthus' house, with its unkempt garden and its lack of modern comforts, immediately makes him regret coming. It isn't fun to be entertained by a host who has no interest in seeing him, leaving him under the tut-tutting housekeeper's supervision, and forbidding him to climb the one good climbing tree in the garden - the one planted in memory of the doctor's son Ziggy, who died when he was Ewan's age.

Just when Ewan writes a letter to his parents urging them to bring him home, odd things start happening that soon change his mind again. He begins to suspect the house is haunted. Soon enough, he knows it for sure, as Ziggy's ghost introduces himself and flies Ewan to the graveyard to meet all his friends. No sooner has Ewan made up his mind that seeing dead people is fun, than the needle on the adventure-meter swings over to "dangerous and scary," thanks to a local coven of witches whose powers are drawn from enslaved ghosts. Behind them, and behind a kitschy theme park that uses genuine ghosts to provide thrills and chills, something even more sinister is at work. Ewan must join forces with some unlikely allies to save Ziggy and his ghost friends.

This is not a particularly thick book - my edition of it weighs in at 119 pages, divided into 18 chapters. But it is packed with excitement and fun, populated by memorable characters, and oozes imagery that will delight all the mind's senses. While Harry Potter fans - always the set I have in mind when I review books like this - may wrinkle their noses at Mrs. Mulligan's view of witchcraft as a vice of idle, uppity women, Phyllis Flight and her cronies make it fun to share that view. Also, I think Elboz may have found a better use for an endearingly silly headless-knight ghost than J.K. Rowling did. But this book's biggest shock for Potterheads may be its depiction of a poltergeist as a figure of terror rather than mere mischief. It's a ghost story that talks you out of being afraid of ghosts, before presenting something much, much scarier. If you're ready for such a book, now you know where to find it.

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