Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Late For Hallowe'en: A Book Review

"A shiver ran down Judy's spine, but not entirely one of fright. It seemed as though she was on the threshold of a completely new, rather wicked, but very exciting world, a world that went on by itself quite independently of the human one. She was at once thrilled and apprehensive."
Every now and then I run across a book that I could have read as a kid, that I probably would have read as a kid, or that maybe I even did read but lost in the mists of time, so simply and easily it slips into the shelf by old favorites and odd influences. Such a book is Late For Hallowe'en, by Camilla Fegan.
It is the story of ten year old English girl named Judy, and what happens when a witch named Murgatroyd and her black cat Hornsbydale set up housekeeping in the rhododendron cave at the bottom of her garden. Murgatroyd has missed the Annual Witches' Dance on Hallowe'en (hence the title) where the flying spell on her broomstick can be renewed, and so she is stranded for a year.
Judy is a kind and curious girl with an eye for wonder. Murgatroyd is selfish, snappy, and has a thirst for power, but is not without a sort of off-handed generosity. The cat Hornsbydale is a mischievous tattletale, as likely to reveal the witch's secrets to Judy as to tell Murgatroyd what Judy is up to. And Judy does have her own secret agenda when Chinquintafizz shows up.
Chinquintafizz (Fizz for short) is a wise and benevolent dragon that Murgatroyd has released from a painting on an old lacquer tray, so she can learn the magic of Fizz's ancient master, the Chinese magician Fly-by-the-Moon. Fizz wants only to keep Judy out of the hands of the witches and return to Fly-by-the-Moon where he now dwells in the Perfect Beyond.
Judy, who learns more and more about the magic world as the year progresses, must come to terms with what this knowledge means to her, whether she will become a witch as Murgatroyd wants or follow a more enlightened path as Fizz counsels. It all comes to a boil on "The Night of a Hundred Witches," when Hallowe'en rolls around again.
A large part of the charm of this little book (it's only 109 pages long) are the set pieces of description. They are never so long as to slow the story, or so detailed as to paint complete pictures, but are intricate and vivid enough to give the imagination fine food to chew on. For instance, here is the rhododendron cave after Murgatroyd has set up residence:
"There was a bright fire burning in the centre of the cave, with the cauldron slung on a tripod over the centre, giving forth a soft, greeny-colored steam. There was a three-legged stool, and three shelves around the walls. The ends of the shelves balanced on the branches. One shelf was laden with bottles, one with jars, and one with a number of books, all so tattered and blackened with age that it was a wonder they didn't fall to pieces. Propping them up were bookends made of little stuffed barn owls. All the bottles and jars were labeled, and full of peculiar colored mixtures and powders."
Once a scene is set, it is seldom referred to again. The action proceeds briskly. There is never a time when Judy stops to consider the oddity of her adventures. She accepts dragons and witches in much the same way she accepts mice and lizards, owls and bats, simply as another datum of the world in which she lives. But in contrast to Murgatroyd, to whom magic is a matter of everyday business, Judy holds all things, mundane or magical, in wonder.
If I had to guess, I would place Late For Hallowe'en's literary ancestors as The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, Bed-knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton, and Carbonel, The King of Cats by Barbara Sleigh. The illustrations by Eileen Armitage are also reminiscent of Carbonel, being squiggly and suggestive rather than having pinned-down details.
This book was first published in 1966 in Great Britain; the American edition (the one I have) in 1967. Right now, available copies of it seem thin on the ground. A quick search revealed that it is on a "Deserves To Be Reprinted" list, that it evokes fond memories from those who recalled it, and the one edition for sale on Amazon was going for $165. I got mine for fifty cents at our local school book sale. This seems magical enough to me.


Brer said...

What happened to my spacing?! Everything's reduced to a block of text. I work hours on this thing, and this is what I get!

Babel said...

Sounds great. The illustrations reminded me at first glance of those for "James and the Giant Peach." Sounds like Murgatroyd got to your formatting!

Col said...

I read Late for Halloween when I was about seven or eight in the mid-70's and it is one of my top children's books, and my own children love it too. It is very atmospheric and the characters very well drawn: Murgatroyd grumpy but slightly dangerous, Hornsbydale snarky and untrustworthy, Chinquintafizz just lovely. You don't forget spells like the Purple Parasol or the ring that Fizz gives Judy. Quite magical, and deserving of reprinting.

Anonymous said...

I've also got a copy of this - it's actually my favourite book of all time - a true 'fairy tale', a simple story with, for me, great purity. The perfect book.

Anonymous said...

A truely amazing, pure 'fairy tale', I have a copy of this book and it is my favourite, after all this time. Definely worth a reprint - so others can enjoy it...

AMS said...

I'm so glad other people remember this wonderful book too! It's a favorite from my childhood and now. I hope it is reprinted, it certainly deserved to be. I'm glad bought my copy long ago as they seem to be getting harder and harder to find.