Coal House is an easy read ghost story set in Wales in the 1950’s, Clara and Finn Harper live in London and have turned to the property development market.
Whilst taking a break in Wales they rashly buy a property, unseen at a local auction for just £250. However locals are quick to hint at legends and rumours that the house and land are haunted. Whilst Clara returns to London to settle their affairs, Finn moves into the fully furnished property and immediately experiences eerie night noises and ghostly happenings.
The paranormal activity increases with the return of Clara and when a local tragedy occurs Finn believes it is all linked. His hopes of settling in Wales and raising a family look doomed, especially when Clara reveals a secret from her past. Are the ghosts a hoax from the locals to drive them away? Are the legends true? Or do they genuinely exist?
This is a quick read and easy introduction to the ghost story genre and for #HistFic readers who might enjoy the setting.
I want to tell you all about this great book I just read. It’s about a girl whose family has been systematically picked off for generations by… [Crap! Spoiler.]
Maybe I could just say that C. S. Boyack’s Will O’ the Wisp is about a girl who discovers that her legacy from her murdered uncle is… [Darn! Again with the spoilers.]
Okay, let’s try this. Patty Hall is a fifteen-year-old high school freshman in the mid-1970s. She and her two best friends are the outcasts at Burkeford High. Laura was the tallest girl in their junior high, while Petey (“Just Pete now. We’re in high school and it’s time to grow up”) is one of the few black students at their Virginia high school. Patty herself has worn leg braces all her life, leading to the nickname Quacking Boot.
Like any coming-of-age story, Patty has conflicts with her mother over the braces—and of course, just about everything else in her life. She taunts her stepfather Rick with “I’ll bet my dad would’ve helped me out.” Her brother can’t help because he’s fighting in Viet Nam. Her two friends are moving away from her socially, with dates for the Homecoming dance. So she dreams of becoming an astronaut, freed from weak legs in the weightlessness of space—even though she realizes that all the astronauts were products of military schools that don’t accept women.
But this isn’t just a tale of angst-ridden teens overcoming handicaps and prejudice. When Patty and Pete stumble on a group of college students partying in the woods, they’re horrified to see one of them attacked by a glowing ball of light. As more deaths target her family, Patty’s search for information about the weird light becomes tied to her research into local and family history for the freshman report, her high school’s critical first-year assignment. She learns that her family has always seen the strange lights, which they call Will O’ the Wisp. She also starts to put together the untimely and unusual deaths of her father and almost all of his family back to Reverend Jonathan Hall, an early settler from more than three hundred years earlier. But Patty’s research becomes much more urgent when she realizes that she, her family, and her friends are also targets.
So far, all of that—glowing orbs of light, infected victims coughing up gallons of mucus, victims drowning on dry land—sounds like tales you’d tell around a campfire to scare your friends. But that’s where author C. S. Boyack changes the equation. He takes the Judy Blume-meets-Stephen King mashup and turns each trope upside down.
Coming of age? Yes, there is the obligatory experimenting with drugs, fighting with parents, and all-important pivotal combat moment. But (it is the seventies, after all) the magically/ pharmaceutically-enhanced trip helpfully reveals a solution Patty couldn’t have found on her own. Her battles with her mother are tempered by Mom’s obvious if (through teen-aged lenses) overprotective love and concern. (“I wanted to talk to Mom, but I didn’t want her to think I wanted to talk.”) And some of the most lovely scenes in the book involve Patty’s growing bond with her stepfather Rick. His quiet support takes the form of teaching her to drive, challenging her physically, and then publicly acknowledging her achievements until she finally realizes what he means to her. “Rick wrote me out a permission slip, and it was legitimate. He was my father now.”
Hero’s journey? Most interesting to me is the way Patty does a lot of this in reverse—she fights most of her battles in her own hometown, and with her own internal resources. That’s not to say that there isn’t one HELL of a fight against the Big Bad. But leave it to author Boyack to make that all about the seventies. I don’t know if those who haven’t lived through that decade could possibly enjoy Will O’ the Wisp as much as I did, but I have to say that I can remember our first microwave. We thought we were The Jetsons, and didn’t realize that we were dedicating a disproportionate share of countertop real estate to something that really wasn’t going to excel at much more than reheating coffee for at least another twenty years. I absolutely loved it that the witch’s spell was reheated in the microwave, and that Patty’s “skyclad” invocation was the Mashed Potato and the Swim danced to her transistor radio.
Ghost Story? Oh, trust me—it’s good. But [curse you, spoilers!] you’ll have to get that part yourself.
If it was just the ghost story, I’d give this three stars for chills and some good suspense. But the way Patty grows over the short term of the story from a typical, whiny, self-centered teen to a… [damn! Not again..] I-can’t-tell-you-what-but-I-loved-it!, combined with the lovely touches that were so perfectly mid-1970s, makes this a five star read for me. If you like coming-of-age YA, or know a reader who appreciates a good ghost story, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Will O’ the Wisp.