The evil lurking in Old Scratch Wood…

Having totally freaked myself out reading Emily Diamand’s Ways To See A Ghost recently, I decided to give myself one more scare (because sometimes scary is pretty fun) – and this time the scariness came in the form of Sandra Greaves’ 9-12s debut novel, The Skull In The Wood, runner up for this year’s Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize. I mean, the blurb didn’t sound toooooooo frightening (‘In Old Scratch Wood, cousins Matt and Tilda find a buried skull. From that moment, black things begin to happen: birds and animals go bad, and there’s talk of the return of an ancient curse. But what can Matt and Tilda do to stop it…?’) but after reading the first few chapters, things started to get REALLY creepy…

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Eager to get away from his Mum’s ‘four-eyed pillock’ boyfriend, Matt decides to spend half-term with his cousins on their farm in Dartmoor. Although his Uncle Jack and youngest cousin, Kitty, welcome Matt into the family, twelve-year-old Tilda is burning with resentment. Matt treats Tilda with the same contempt and their animosity gets even worse when they uncover a sinister-looking skull in Old Scratch Hill… The Skull In The Wood feels like a classic ghost story, not unlike Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Just as Conan Doyle paints the moors as a bleak and forbidding place where dark things could happen at any moment, so Greaves presents Dartmoor as an unsettling backdrop to Tilda and Matt’s story – a place steeped in ancient folklore and restless ghosts: ‘Imagine a wilderness that goes on and on and on. Acre after acre of desolate landscape covered in dead bracken. That was Dartmoor.’

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Whilst the story has its roots in ancient folklore, Matt and Tilda are two fantastically current and real protagonists. The hatred between them is tangible, even if remarks like ‘Chickens are the closest living relatives to Tyrannosaurus Rex’ and ‘We shouldn’t even be talking to him, let alone feeding him. It’s like offering your supper to a cannibal’ sometimes ease the tension. But their hatred blinds them to the sinister course of events lurking out on the moors. Even the brilliantly depicted Gabe cannot make them see: ‘It’ll be the birds first, I reckon. They’re the omens. The harbingers.’ And before long, Matt and Tilda are caught up in events that neither of them can control.

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The suspense is brilliantly crafted: ‘Another crack, only nearer. What was it? An animal? I could hear it breathing now, great breathy breaths and scufflings. I looked around wildly, my hands scrabbling on the ground for something to defend myself with’ and ‘I can see black fur and teeth and drool-flecked jaws, and I sense bellies empty as stones and a hunger that drives them.’ And the action scenes are executed with pace and urgency: ‘You know normally you don’t notice your internal organs? Suddenly they were all there and larger than life – stomach, lungs, heart, the works. I could feel my blood hot and violent in my veins. All the saliva had disappeared from my mouth.’ But perhaps what makes such suspense and action all the more intense is the contrast of it with Kitty’s gorgeous and often humorous nature: ‘Kitty beamed like a demented frog.’ Her angelic presence makes the dark events darker, Tilda and Matt’s anger stronger… Because in amongst the darkest of tales (and this is one) you need hope and goodness, so when the harbingers come, when the gabbleratchet materialises, when almost everything seems lost, there’s still a goodness bigger than all of that, bigger even than the menacing skull found deep in a rotting wood…