Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, March 2010
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship is a young adult novel that works very effectively for younger readers, but has a little less to offer to older readers. This is largely because older readers are likely to spot the twist at the end very early on; but in part also because each of the individual stories that make up the novel are likely to seem familiar to older readers.
The story opens in the middle of a vicious storm. Ethan and his younger sister Cathy are violently ill, and their father has left them alone to go and fetch the doctor. In the worst of the storm, a stranger knocks on the door, begging for shelter. Despite his misgivings, the partially recovered Ethan can’t bring himself to refuse anyone shelter on such a night. He allows the stranger entry, and reluctantly agrees to having the visitor tell him and Cathy terrifying tales to pass the time. Ethan and Cathy like scary stories, but some of those the stranger tells scare even them; and Ethan remains uneasy about the stranger’s real intentions.
Each chapter of the novel consists of a short interlude in the inn where Ethan and Cathy live, and a horror story told by the stranger. Each chapter is of much the same length; the stories have a similar rhythm and length. And it’s true that some of the stories are quite chilling. They probably won’t terrify older readers, but they could certainly put a good scare into some younger readers. There is a sense of familiarity about the stories. This is in part because they follow the traditions of ghost/horror stories, and in part because Priestley uses a slightly old fashioned cast to his language. This is very effective in placing the novel in the past; Priestley doesn’t overdo it or use awkwardly old-fashioned language which could make the book difficult to read. But he’s found a particular turn of phrase and sense of atmosphere which conveys a sense of a different time and place, and maintains this well throughout the book. However, although the language is effective in this sense, it will add to the impression for some older readers that these stories are familiar. As far as I can tell, though, each story is original.
This structure of interlude followed by a longer story narrated by the visitor doesn’t allow for a great deal of character development. For me this was ultimately the greatest weakness of the book. The structure lends itself to easy reading for younger readers, with each chapter having a climax and a sort of conclusion. At the same time, the ongoing thread about Ethan and Cathy waiting for their father provides a reason to keep reading. However, we don’t really learn a lot about Ethan and Cathy. The visitor is deliberately a little shadowy, and the fact we don’t know a lot about him fuels Ethan’s suspicions. It’s Ethan and Cathy we should engage with and sympathise with, and although I did this to some extent, I really didn’t get particularly involved with either of them. Largely, we see them sitting in a room listening to stories. Through Ethan’s thoughts we do learn something about their past and their life, but it was very difficult to care much about the ultimate outcome of the night.
However, to be fair, this was partly because I had a pretty good idea by chapter two of what the end of the novel was going to reveal. Younger readers may not spot it that early, and so they may find it easier to get caught up in the tension, and in getting involved with Ethan and Cathy. In addition, they may find the individual stories more gripping than I did.
This book is best suited for readers at the younger end of the spectrum (although you should be aware that it could be frightening for some of them). Despite this, I found it enjoyable; I just didn’t find it overly memorable or particularly rivetting. Younger readers may find it makes a greater impression on them. Older readers are likely to find it enjoyable enough, and a quick read, but nothing too special. This is recommended for younger readers; older readers won’t go amiss reading it, but it’s not really aimed at or especially suited to them.