Reprint: Misty annual 1980
Artist: Rodrigo Comos
Judy Mayhew and her friends Marilyn and Jen are starting their first term at the newly-built Newley Comprehensive. Judy is blown away at how modern and impressive the school is. Marilyn and Jen scoff at Judy for thinking that way, and say a school is a school and lessons the same old drag. However, Newley Comprehensive is built on the site of an old Victorian school, and Judy soon discovers that the Victorian past still haunts – in more ways than one.
The first hint is their form teacher, Miss Thistlewick; she is a dragon and more suited to a Victorian school than a modern school like Newley. But the trouble really starts for 2B when they run short of desks and bring up Victorian desks from the basement that Newley inherited from its predecessor. The moment Marilyn sits in it she starts acting like a Victorian girl. Later, Judy sees Marilyn and Jen in class at night. Both are sitting at Victorian desks, writing 1874 instead of 1974 on the blackboard. When Judy confronts them, she has a vision of being in a Victorian classroom and she gets caned by a Victorian teacher. Next morning, Judy finds her friends have no memory of what happened.
Judy soon finds that 2B reverting more and more to a Victorian pattern as more equipment comes up from the basement, such as hurricane lamps when the lights don’t work for no apparent reason. Marilyn and Jen are now talking and behaving like Victorian girls, and two more girls follow suit. They wear Victorian dress in class, which has the rest of the class thinking they are weirdos. They also refuse to participate in sports or domestic science, saying such things are unbecoming for Victorian ladies. They are permitted to do this with the blessing of the headmistress, who is now under the Victorian influence as well after receiving a parasol from the basement. Judy notes that Miss Thistlewick gave the headmistress the parasol.
Judy finds an old Victorian photograph of their ancestors and finds Miss Thistlewick in it as well. She comes to the conclusion that Miss Thistlewick is a ghost – a ghost who has some strange power over her friends. She becomes more convinced Miss Thistlewick is a ghost when she sees her disappear through an archway in the basement and her image does not appear in a photograph.
Then Judy discovers that she is a descendant of the last girl in the photograph – which means she is the next target for the Victorian influence! Sure enough, she finds herself being shadowed by her Victorian-dressed friends who are now trying to force her into a Victorian dress as well.
Eventually Judy does end up in Victorian dress, but is surprised to find herself not under the influence. Later, Miss Thistlewick has Judy put on her forebear’s Victorian dress, which does try to influence her. But Judy fights it off with some self-inflicted pain. Judy realises that Miss Thistlewick is administering the influence through some sort of telepathy. Judy also finds the power has a weakness – it fades over distance, and tries to think of ways to get her friends away from Miss Thistlewick.
Judy has another vision, in which she sees that Miss Thistlwick is responsible for a boating tragedy a hundred years ago. She took the other girls out on a boating trip, but ignored their warnings that they were too heavy for the boat and would sink it. As a result, they and Miss Thistlewick drowned. She discovers that Miss Thistlewick is now sending her friends out for another boating trip. Convinced Miss Thistlewick is trying to kill them, she heads down to the boating trip. But in her drive to get them away, she ends up making the same mistake as Miss Thistlewick. Moreover, their Victorian dress is too heavy for swimming, so now it looks like they are going to drown like their forebears.
But no – they are all rescued by a lock-keeper who says he was alerted by a woman in black who was dressed like them. Dressed like them? Yes, it was Miss Thistlewick, who now appears before them. She had not intended to kill them; she had recreated the boat trip in the hope of a happier ending so her guilty soul could find peace. And she did get a happy ending – by saving the girls. Okay, not quite what she planned, but now she can rest in peace and stop haunting the school.
Next day, Judy and her friends turn up in class in their regular uniforms, and give the pretext to their bemused classmates that the Victorian dress had been an experiment to see how people react to the unusual. They also discover that the headmistress is going to make a bonfire out of all the Victorian equipment in the basement. (Hmm, bonfire when the Guy Fawkes issue is four months away? Maybe the headmistress sensed something strange about that equipment too.) Their last link to the ghost of Miss Thistlewick is now going up in smoke, but they can now look forward to a normal school.
Ghost stories are always popular in girls’ comics. So the moment readers saw “Haunting” in the title, they expected to be in for a treat, and this story is hard to disappoint. Even before we meet Miss Thistlewick, we know that the old Victorian school is going to haunt its modern counterpart somehow. In fact, we sense that the Victorian school is not only going to haunt the modern one, but that harsh Victorian schooling is going to be contrasted sharply with modern easy-going education. So we would be even more appreciative than Judy that Newley Comprehensive is a modern school and not a strict old-fashioned school of a bygone era. We can imagine that at the end of the story, Marilyn and Jen would come to think the same way after scorning at Judy for being so impressed with the new school.
School stories are sometimes set up to make a statement about anti-authoritarianism, and this story certainly works it in with the supernaturally-enforced Victorian code upon the modern classroom. This is at its most frightening in the visions Judy has of the original Victorian classroom. The terrors of the cane turn into downright abuse, with one pupil getting a cut on her forehead and Judy getting one on her hand.
But the Victorian pattern also provides humour as well – something you do not often see in a serious ghost story. As the five girls become more and more possessed by the Victorian influence, they become confused and shocked by what they see in modern life. It starts in small ways, such as Marilyn writing old-fashioned script with a quill and censoring Judy that they must pay attention to the class. When the five girls are dressed Victorian, they think like Victorians as well. They do not know what cars are and think they must be steam driven. They refuse to change into PE gear because “a lady does not expose her legs to the public gaze. It-it’s not decent!” They cannot understand why they are being told off for disastrous cooking. “It’s just that young ladies don’t cook – they have servants for that!” At a Victorian exhibition they are astonished at a classmate calling a Victorian washing machine “an old piece of junk!” They reply, “It’s not junk! It’s the latest thing!”
It must be said that the portrayal of Miss Thistlewick is a bit puzzling. Guilt drives her to do what she does, but she does not give Judy or the reader the impression she is acting out of guilt. “You’re too nosey by far, Judy Mayhew! The time has come to teach you a lesson and to stop your meddlesome ways!” Later, when Miss Thistlewick thinks she finally has Judy under the influence, she says, “Excellent, excellent! Now nothing can stop me!” All right, so maybe it could be put down to psychological causes of some sort. But it is small wonder that Judy thinks Miss Thistlewick has evil intentions. And it is a bit hard to believe Miss Thistlewick is a ghost because at first glance she seems corporeal enough. It might have been more plausible to have a living teacher possessed by the ghost of Miss Thistlewick.
But overall, this story can be regarded as a strong start in Jinty’s spooky storytelling and seems to be one of her better remembered first stories. It is hard to go wrong with ghosts, and many readers must have enjoyed the historical aspect of it as well. Even readers who did not find history appealing would have enjoyed the clashes between Victorian lifestyle and modern lifestyle, portrayed in ways that are both scary and funny. And there is the drama and tension as Judy fights being taken over by the influence, and resorting to more resourceful yet desperate ways to save her friends – only for it to climax in irony. The irony when Judy almost causes the tragedy she was trying to prevent, and the double irony that it helps Miss Thistlewick to meet her objective and redeem herself.