They slowed as they reached the gate: two stone columns each with its own crumbling angel perched on top. The angels help up a rusty, wrought-iron arch that read, in curling, serpentine letters: SHIVERTON HALL.
Arthur Bannister has been unexpectedly offered a place at Shiverton Hall, a school steeped in tales of curses and evil. But at least there are a few friendly faces: George, who shows him around; also Penny and Jake. However, there are some friends who you don’t want to have at all, as Arthur is soon to discover…
I love a bit of YA and was a big Point Horror reader, back in the day, so I was really intrigued by Shiverton Hall, the debut from Emerald Fennell. There’ve been comparisons to the Harry Potter series but really the trope it emerges from is much older than that – the boarding school adventure going back to Tom Brown’s School Days, as well as female favourites like Mallory Towers. Also, I think it’s a shallow likeness because at Hogwarts, the students are living in a fantastical world of wizards and magic, whereas Shiverton Hall is home to normal, everyday young people facing terrible spectres and paranormal goings-on.
Straight away, I found Fennell’s prose open and accessible, while still very capable of creating a tone of menace and danger. After a brief introduction, we head off to Arthur’s new school, with its imposing buildings and archaic traditions, not to mention some rather terrifying ghost stories about its past. Fennell uses the idea of a book of historical ghost stories written by the grandfather of Arthur’s friend George to share with the reader the ominous past of the Hall. I felt this worked very smoothly where, dealt with in a different way, it might have been contrived. George is keen to share the ghost stories with Arthur, so we learn at the same time that he does the horrible fates of the previous residents.
Some of the ghost stories are really quite scary, or at least surprising, for an adult reader. They all result in some sort of death or disappearance and some are particularly grim and gory. The book seems to be aimed at children of 9 or 10 and over, but some might find these scenes a little much. Slightly older readers will no doubt relish them.
I enjoyed the range of characters in the book. Fennell certainly draws on the idea of meathead bullies and oddballs sticking together, but there’s a reason these are such popular ideas – they’re often true – so again, what could seem repetitive is fresh and enjoyable because the characters are very believable and sympathetic.
My only real criticism of Shiverton Hall is that there are a couple of ‘bloopers’ which I felt could have been easily sorted out and which seem to have been missed. At one point, a character uses the phrase “beyond reproach” to mean ‘so awful that there’s no point in criticism’ when it means ‘so perfect as to be beyond criticism’.
There are also a couple of points which seem inaccurate, historically. One of the ghost stories mentions the owner of Shiverton Hall (supposed to be somewhere in the north of England) beating his slaves viciously in 1799. While the slave trade wasn’t abolished in the UK until 1807 and slavery throughout the Commonwealth until 1833, no one in the UK had been permitted to have their slaves in this country since 1772, even if they could still trade and own slaves for ‘use’ abroad. I had a feeling it was wrong when I read it, and a quick Google showed my feeling was right. Something else which jarred was a nouveau-riche character, who’d made his money from textiles, described as wearing “a foot-high powdered wig” in what must have been the mid-1800s. Really – a Victorian new-money mill owner in a powdered wig? Those sort of wigs were a phenomenon of the late 1600s and 1700s, and fell out of fashion in the UK with the French Revolution (and probably in France too, as the sort of people who wore them didn’t keep their heads anyway). Even if the character is supposed to be a bit ridiculous, it seems unlikely he would have been wearing something 50 years out of date.
Perhaps I’m being really picky here; generally I very much enjoyed Shiverton Hall, reading the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s quite possible that most people wouldn’t notice these things. I suppose, I just think, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Having just read Wolf Hall, it’s emphasised to me the importance of doing your historical research thoroughly, even if it is just about a wig! Even so, I would certainly recommend this to young people and their parents, as well as grown-ups who enjoy a bit of adventure, and I’m hoping there’ll be a follow-up in the not-too-distant future.