Susan Cooper is best known for her five-part The Dark is Rising series, a sequence of fantasy novels that any self-respecting lover of fantasy should have on their bookshelf. Among her lesser known works is the time-slip adventure King of Shadows, a picture book trilogy based on Celtic legends, and two stories chronicling the doings of a Scottish boggart: The Boggart and its sequel The Boggart and the Monster.
In the Western Highlands of Scotland lives a mysterious and mischievous spirit known as a boggart. Living at the ancient Castle Keep (but often moving about the countryside), the creature of Wild Magic delights in the confusion and amusement that its daily tricks create. But when the elderly Duncan MacDevon dies in his sleep, the inheritance of the castle falls to his great-nephew Robert Volnik and his family living in Toronto, Canada.
The Volnik children are twelve-year old Emily and nine-year old computer-genius Jessup, who are surprised and delighted at the prospect at a holiday in Scotland. Their visit involves meeting Tommy Cameron (who secretly knows all about the boggart), seal watching, sightseeing and rationalizing the strange occurrences at the Keep. As the holiday draws to a close, each sibling is promised one bit of furniture each before the castle is sold: and Emily chooses a beautiful old writing desk. Unbeknownst to all, it is here that the boggart has curled itself up to slumber, and ends up traveling with them to Toronto.
The collision of the modern world and Wild Magic brings exactly what you’d expect: havoc. Exploring the technological wonders of this new world whilst keeping to its mandate of mischief making, the boggart eventually causes some rather dangerous mischief. The Volnik family don’t know what to make of the surge in bad luck and strange phenomena, but eventually the children stumble to the idea of a boggart thanks to the wisdom of their father’s theatre crew. Now their only concern is how to return the homesick boggart back to his rightful home: magic has long since seeped from the world, so perhaps a technological solution can be found…
The Boggart is a beautifully written, thoughtful and interesting book, taking a unique premise and exploring it in both a contemporary and more old-fashioned setting. Cooper is wonderful at describing countryside, circumstances and human reactions to both the mundane and the supernatural. Poignancy is also her specialty; witness a scene in which a grieving boggart affects the sleep of the entire community, who experience the shared dream of an ancient funeral. It’s both eerie and poetic.
However, Cooper is on less firmer ground when she reaches Toronto. Although the boggart reacts to the change in scenery amusingly, and the chaos that it creates carries a somewhat darker edge to it, she also introduces several characters and situations that are not dealt with in a particular satisfactory manner: such as Jessup’s groups of friends who (with the exception of Barry) have no real place in the story, and the character of Doctor Stigmore. He witnesses some of the boggart’s behavior and believes that it is Emily’s doing through telekinesis; he begins to harass the family and notifies a television show, but both of these plot threads are left hanging, with no resolution at all as to what happens.
One thing I did appreciate was how this story fits in nicely with The Dark is Rising sequence, where Cooper goes into more detail on the nature of Wild Magic. Although there is no mention of Old Ones or any other components of that series, The Boggart does fit into the literary world that she created there. The kids are interesting and realistic, the parents sympathetic and delightfully eccentric, and the Boggart is a character that shines throughout the book; a true creature of wild and untamed magic.
Long before J.K. Rowling gave us the spooky Boggarts that inhabit dark places and take the form of your darkest fears, Susan Cooper brought us this spritely, loveable, intriguing figure of Scottish legend. Look out for its sequel The Boggart and the Monster.