Poor Tom’s Ghost by Jane Louise Curry

As the story begins, Roger and his family, father Tony, stepmother Jo and stepsister Pippa, are driving out to the home they’ve just inherited from Roger’s father’s aunt. As a semi-itinerant acting family, their living situation had been penurious and transient enough in the past that owning a home would have been impractical if not downright unaffordable. Tony’s career, not to mention Pippa’s, have finally reached a stability that the gypsy life is no longer necessary, and the children old enough that they can be left along briefly should the parents need to be away for a day or two. This house, unfortunately, has been occupied by a series of tenants over the years since Tony last saw it, not all as respectful as they might have been. The beautiful parquet floor in the entry hall has been splintered by the tenant who used the house as a warehouse, dragging heavy machinery about with little care for finish. The quasi-religious group has ignored the house entirely, living only in the rooms that they needed. The house itself has been renovated and ‘modernized’ over the years to the point that there is only the barest indication of the original structure.

As the family settles in and makes a start of cleaning out the debris, it become clear to all the members that there is a ghost in the house: Roger, Pippa and Jo hear the ghost moaning up and down the halls that first night, and Tony sleepwalks, or rather sleeprows, later. As the family’s investigation of and tidying up of the house deepens, so does Tony’s subconscious involvement in the history of the house. He continues wandering in his sleep, and awake having what seem to be attacks of absentmindedness in which he confuses the modern London with some imagined or misplaced memory of what he believed to be there. To compound his problems and his family’s worries, Tony’s speech patterns begin to change. While in rehearsal he flubs what ought to be a fairly basic role for a leading man in a Shakespearean troupe, Hamlet, garbling Hamlet’s lines with those of Guildenstern, he turns in the inspired performance of a lifetime in the first ‘live’ performance…as if he were channelling the spirit of an actor who’d worked with The Bard himself…

…which he may well be.

Roger’s dreams draw him deeper into the mystery of their new house, which seems to have been owned originally by an actor well-known in 1603, Tom Garland. Tom played Guildenstern in one of the earliest performances of Hamlet, for starters. He also believed that his wife, Kittie, ran off with another man. It is up to Roger, in the dream-guise of Tom’s self-centered brother Jack, to put things straight by delivering a letter that went astray, intentionally or not, in the first years of the seventeenth century.

As Roger wakes from his last dream, he finds that what he thought to be the last five days had never happened: no ghost, no started renovations, no hospitalized father and most importantly no rift in his family. All is well, though not entirely forgotten.

Poor Tom’s Ghost reminded me a bit of King of Shadows by Susan Cooper—the latter being the book I’d read first, though strictly speaking, Poor Tom’s Ghost was the first written by about thirty years. As with many books that end with “…and then he woke up from the dream.” the time travel device here is a little less definite. Roger did have some influence on the past, as evidenced by the changed house in the present day, but it’s not entirely clear whether he went back physically or influenced someone already there indirectly.

I was reminded more strongly, however, of L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, though this might not have occurred to me if I hadn’t read her memoir Memory in a House, in which she describes renovating a house which she believed to be no earlier than Georgian…but which turned out to be medieval at its core. Specifically, there are parallel scenes in Poor Tom’s Ghost and in Memory in a House in which the new owners remove decades and even possible centuries’ worth of renovations—layers of paper and plaster, lathe and flashing—from a penurious little fireplace that enlarges, as the masking stuff is removed, to the sort of giant Elizabethan fireplace in which the whole family could keep warm even as they were roasting a whole hog. I don’t know if Curry had read Boston’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised; she would have been at about the appropriate age when they were being published.


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