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Haunted Families: Penni Russon’s Favourite Ghost Stories

WORDS||Penni Russon

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Making this list makes me realise The Endsister shares many themes with these novels. The ghosts in The Endsister represent unresolved histories and the stories that loop through time and involve themselves with the living. The ghosts also represent the idea that being part of a family, especially a family who knows their own stories, is to belong to something bigger than yourself. History is full of people wearing funny hats and corsets and dying of the plague, and some of those people are threaded to you, the choices they made are why you are here, living where you live. The ghosts also represent all those things that families try to repress – worried or distressing thoughts, negative emotions – and how in the end it is only by acknowledging and accepting our thoughts and our feelings that we can diminish the power they hold over us. The stronger we try to control them, the more they control us!

All families are haunted by stories, memories, sorrows, and trauma. It’s been shown that trauma can be passed down genetically, but also it’s been shown that knowing your extended family’s stories (especially the sort of stories that go: we’ve had good times and bad times but we stuck together and pulled through in the end) helps us be more resilient. I find that idea fascinating. My mother was born in 1943. My father was much older than her, he was born in 1925 and served in the Navy during the second world war. My beloved Nana was born at the turn of the century and lived with us when I was a teenager. They were all storytellers and I knew a lot about who they were and who I was, how I had come to be born in Hobart Tasmania in 1974. My father had emigrated as a Ten Pound Pom, my mother had been born in Tasmania, but how her forebears came to Tasmania – well that’s quite a story! It involves a castle, a gardener, a countess, a secret affair, an unwanted baby, a large sum of money, a long voyage…

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting…” 

This is a story about a blended family getting caught up in an ancient story. Alison feels compelled to trace the pattern of plates and this draws the three teenagers in the house – Alison, her step-brother Roger and the servant’s son Gwyn – into re-enacting an ancient love triangle. It has been years since I read this, and my main memory is Alison’s compulsive retracing of the plates and the haunting quote above.

Elephant Rock by Caroline Macdonald

Elephant Rock is about a young girl, Ann, whose mother is dying. Ann and her mother have returned to the NZ beach town her mother spent time in as a young girl. I can’t really remember what was going on with the adults in the story, maybe they’re staying with extended family or old friends who want Ann out of the way, but I do recall Ann’s loneliness, drifting around on her own. The magic in the story is connected to the rock, Ann ‘slips’ (or ‘drifts’) back in time and relives her mother’s memories. I have never forgotten the connection between Ann and her mother. This was the first book that made me cry.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston

Like Elephant Rock, this is very ghostly story is about place and the way memory and experience imprints itself permanently on a landscape, and the way the past repeats in the present. Tolly’s parents (his father and stepmother) are living in Burma, when news arrives at Tolly’s boarding school that a long lost great grandmother, from his dead mother’s side of the family, would like him to live with her. And so he catches a train, is rowed across the flooded fields by Boggis, and ends up at an enormous mansion, haunted by the ghosts of three children, who become Tolly’s companions. What radiates in this story is the love between Great-Grandmother and child and how instinctive and natural it is.

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

Barnaby’s dead! Barnaby’s dead! I’m going to be very lonely.”

In the late 90s I studied children’s literature at Monash University under Heather Scutter, and one of the set texts was Mahy’s The Catalogue of the Universe. I loved it with every fibre of my being and I sought out every book that she’d written. The Haunting is a slim little book without a word out of place. The strange husky voice 8 year old Barnaby hears turns out not to be a haunting at all, but a long-lost member of the family beckoning, believing young Barnaby carries the line of the family magic… until it turns out he’s sniffing around the wrong Scholar. I do like a long lost member of the family, because my own family identity was greatly changed when I was eighteen and my father’s estranged and “long lost” children from a previous marriage entered my life. Mahy more than anyone presents the family as a strange sort of magical ecosystem in which old histories of love and betrayal implicates everyone.

Cicada Summer by Kate Constable

What if the ghost who was haunting you wasn’t from the past, but from the future? Would that make you the ghost? This exquisite novel by my very good friend Kate is one of my favourites. I am enchanted by the lovely story, but to me it is also a snapshot of Kate and her daughter Alice at a time in their lives that is irretrievably past now that beloved Alice has grown into an ‘old’ teenager, but that I remember so vividly. I thought it was genius that Kate created a fictional world in which she got to play with her own daughter.

Starry Nights by Judith Clarke

Even putting this on a list of books about Haunted Families is a bit of a spoiler, so I won’t say anything more about this than it is ever so sad and ever so good.

Ghosts by Reina Telgemeier

I am a massive fan of Reina Telgemeier’s work. This is a Day of the Dead themed graphic narrative about a family who move to Northern California in the hope that the climate (fog and wind) will be good for the health of Cat’s younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Cat is resentful about the move and anxious for her sister and when ghosts appear Cat tries to hold them at bay (like bad thoughts or unwanted emotions, and just like thoughts and emotions, they insist on bobbing back up again). Cat learns to be with her fears and emotions, while Maya finds comforts in the ghosts.

Further reading:

Read more about family stories and resilience here.

About the Author:

Penni Russon is a freelance editor with a special interest in books for children and teenagers. She studied Children’s Literature at Monash University and then Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. Penni began her writing life as a poet, and UNDINE and BREATHE are her first novels. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and two children.


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