The book that most influenced me

The Scarecrows

It was the night before the Fund-raising Effort that the devils came. So it seemed to Simon Wood ever after …

Do you have a favourite novel of all time, or one that’s influenced you more than any other? You might think that’s an impossible questions to answer; if you’re anything like me then your response might be something like, ‘heck, where do I start, there’s so many?’

Yet in my case, there is one that stands out above all others. It’s called The Scarecrows by Robert Westall. I’ve posted a full review on Goodreads, which you can read if you’re interested. But here I’ll try to briefly explain why it was such a significant influence for me.

I first read The Scarecrows at the age of thirteen, which happened to be the same age as the main protagonist, Simon Wood. Its original attraction – the reason why I picked it off a bookshelf in the first place – was that it’s a ghost story, and I’ve always liked those. But there turned out to be much more to it than that. In fact it’s roughly one part ghost story, one part psychological thriller, and one part emotional drama.

Central to its power is the main character. Simon is utterly believable as the lonely, angry and confused boy who idolises his late father and sees his relationship with his mother begin to disintegrate after her remarriage to a man he hates. Simon is not always a nice person – in fact he’s sometimes pretty horrible – and so Westall did a brilliant job in making the reader root for such a dark and complex character.

What makes the story so gut-wrenchingly real is that it’s mainly Simon’s own inner demons that are tearing his family apart – and as his misery and isolation grows, so the unquiet ghosts in the ruined water-mill across the fields begin to stir, grow in power and move closer and closer … and yet, cleverly, you’re never completely sure to what extent the ghosts are ‘real’ versus how much Simon is imagining the whole thing. Nor is it at all obvious which is the most terrifying of the two prospects – you end up hoping the ghosts are really there, because the alternative – that Simon’s mind is sliding into madness – seems even worse.

Re-reading the book recently, I was able to appreciate afresh how well it’s written. The quality of Westall’s writing is superb throughout, clearly superior to most other writers (childrens’ and adults’) that I’ve seen since. It hooks you from the intriguing first sentence (at the start of this article) to the rather abrupt, slightly ambiguous ending. There’s the odd flash of humour too, despite the dark themes.

So, in conclusion, how exactly has this book influenced me? Well, aside from becoming a confirmed Westall fan, it’s no coincidence that when I finally got round to writing myself, my first two novels have been YA ghost stories, both with a background of domestic pain and upheaval, the characters contending with family strife as well as troublesome phantoms. Although I read a lot more than paranormal stuff now, and I don’t expect all my future writing to be necessarily quite so haunted (and in fact most of my short stories aren’t), my love of all things-going-bump-in-the-night was confirmed by The Scarecrows.


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