by Marcus Sedgwick
At first, Jamie isn't too worried about the bad dreams he's been having since coming to his aunt's house. Most people awoken in the middle of the night to find their house burning down would probably have nightmares, too. But instead of fire, he keeps dreaming of a "horrible, scary old woman," relentlessly coming after him for some awful, inexplicable purpose. Even though he's come to Aunt Jane's to recover from the fire's aftermath, he doesn't want to bother her or his cousin Alison with his silly fears. He can see that they are very busy with their village's community service project--cleaning off an age-old carving on the side of hill that overlooks the town. But when the carving turns out to be a peculiar primordial figure instead of the "crown" that the people of Crownshill expected to see, and Jamie uncovers evidence of an ancient witchcraft trial in local history papers, he is swept into a centuries-old mystery to which he unwittingly has the key. Who is the old crone chasing him, and what does she want? Jamie will have to endure an experience worse than fire to find out.
Marcus Sedgwick is one of those authors I'd never heard of before until I came across his Swordhand Omnibus over on Goodreads. After that, I started seeing his books everywhere. His work sounded pretty interesting, so I found myself a second hand copy of Witch Hill on Abebooks for around £2, and when I eventually got around to reading it I read it in about an hour. My edition is only 161 pages long, so it's definitely more of a novella than a novel.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite my rating, which is relatively low, I actually have a lot of good things to say about this novella, so I'm going to start with those!
I would definitely class Witch Hill as a middle grade novella, but I'd be a big fat liar if I said it didn't give me the creeps. A lot of this story focuses on the nightmares Jamie has been having since going to stay with his aunt and his cousin, and the descriptions in his nightmares gave me the heebie jeebies. In fact reading those dream sequences was quite nostalgic, it reminded me of the way I felt as a child when I read ghost stories before bed that I probably shouldn't have been reading. I find myself reading middle grade so rarely these days that it was a real joy to read it again!
As I've grown older and learned more regarding the history of witchcraft, I find myself sympathising with the word 'witch' rather than fearing it. This book, in the hour I read it, reminded me why witches can still terrify children; in fact it reminded me of those frightening, self-inflicted afternoons of my childhood when I would watch Roald Dahl's The Witches.
Having said that, one of the elements of this story I appreciated the most was its historical accuracy, and I think that's especially important in a middle grade story; writers of historical fiction should try just as hard to be accurate for their younger readers as they would their adult readers. One of the characters is a historian from whom Jamie learns a lot about the witch trials in the 17th century; she shares information with him such as crushing the myth that accused witches in England were burned at the stake.
Alongside the terrifying woman on the hill, we also have the story of a young girl from the 17th century who was accused of witchcraft by her neighbours, and murdered because of it. Honestly it was nice to see Sedgwick use the old witch for the fright factor, but also use the story to remind his readers, most of whom we can presume are children, that the witch trials which occurred in our past were incredibly unjust and resulted in the horrific deaths of many innocent people.
Now, it's time we moved on to some of the stuff I didn't like that much.
I have to admit I was expecting a different kind of story when I started reading Witch Hill. The blurb on my copy is a little different to the one at the top of this review, and when I first read it I assumed the story was going to be about a modern day boy befriending the ghost of a 17th century girl who was wrongly accused of witchcraft, and the evil, old crone was going to fit into the story somehow. Honestly, I sort of wish it had been that story and I can't help thinking that, my edition at least, was a little misleading. The story is much more focused on Jamie and his fears, which isn't a bad thing, but I did sometimes find him a little boring as a narrator.
In fact the other major problem I had with this novella is that Jamie's narrative voice seemed to be all over the place. I kept having to remind myself that he was 12 years old, because at times he seemed a lot younger and then at other times he said something that made him sound more like a teenager. I would have liked to have gotten more of a sense as to who he was. Despite the story being told from his POV I don't think I could tell anyone anything particularly interesting about him; as far as I can remember he doesn't seem to have any hobbies or interests. He just felt a bit bland.
Though there were definitely elements of the story I appreciated and enjoyed, I thought the story as a whole was underwhelming and pretty obvious. However, I am in my 20s so I'm not exactly this novella's target audience, which is why I have such mixed feelings about it. While I might not recommend this book to one of my friends, I definitely recommend it to younger readers; especially younger readers who like their stories on the spooky side, or readers who have an interest in history but don't want to dive straight into historical fiction.
This story might not have blown me away, but parts of it still creeped me out so I'd like to check out more Sedgwick in future - I'm interested in seeing what some of his YA fiction is like.