Johnny and the Dead (1993): Terry Pratchett

★★★

Johnny Maxwell: Book 2

It was just a matter of time. I wrote a few days ago that we’ve been exploring some of our local cemeteries during the lockdown, piecing together the stories of the families buried there, and judging people on the quality of their gravestone poetry. Inevitably, this reminded me of one of my few childhood books that I brought with me to London: Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, which I promptly unearthed (‘exhumed’?) from my bookshelves. I don’t remember the circumstances of this purchase – I never read the other Johnny Maxwell books and this was long before I started reading Discworld – but my parents got it right. There’s something ineffably British about Pratchett’s story of a young lad who realises to his alarm that he can see dead people in the local Victorian cemetery. And, as he’s apparently the only one who can talk to them, he feels that he’s the one who has to break the news. Because the town council has decided that the cemetery is no longer relevant, and has decided to sell it off to a glossy modern company for a glossy progressive modern office block. Needless to say, the dead are not happy…

It’s 1993 and Johnny Maxwell is pretty sure that he knows what dead people should be like – largely thanks to his friend Wobbler, a connoisseur of horror movies. There should be ectoplasm, and definitely a bit of lurching, and someone’s head will probably spin round at some point, so Johnny just hopes it won’t be his. But Hollywood conventions don’t seem to have made it as far as the depressed northern town of Blackbury, where the dead people insist on looking pretty much as they did when they were alive, just thinner. It all starts when Johnny knocks on the door of a mausoleum for a laugh, only to have it politely opened by Alderman Thomas Bowler. When they start talking (after the screaming and running away and coming back part), Johnny realises that the dead actually aren’t all that different from us. They’re bored, because they’ve been waiting around for a very long time for whatever happens next, and they’re desperate for a bit of conversation, and they’re rather curious about the world that’s going on around them. That’s how it all starts. Johnny manages to get them a cheap radio and a local paper, so that they can see Blackbury’s progress without leaving the cemetery (that’s one of the Rules). And that’s how they see the news about the proposed sell-off.

Johnny is pretty sure that the cemetery can’t really be that expensive (which is what the council claims), and that it’s much better to have this green space than the United Amalgamated Consolidation Holdings building, no matter how pretty it looks on the sign (which is clearly optimistic by virtue of the bright blue sky shown in the picture). But how on earth can a twelve-year-old boy change anything? At least Johnny has help: the aforementioned Wobbler, whose chief relationship is with the local burger restaurant; the diligent Yo-less, who couldn’t be less stereotypically West Indian if he tried; and Bigmac, a wannabe punk who lives on the terrifying local estate. They know more or less how adults think. If they can find someone famous who lived in the cemetery, then they’ll be sorted – people will put up plaques and form committees and then it’ll be safe. But they have to hurry. The council are holding a ‘public meeting’ about the cemetery very soon, and time is of the essence. And besides, it’s Halloween tomorrow, and after decades of following the Rules, the dead are getting restless…

In its structure, this is very much a classic ‘kids save the day’ story, with a band of four friends courageously going up against the corporate villains – and, because this is Pratchett, the ‘kids’ are fully aware of it (‘“Best ending,” said Wobbler… “Nasty men foiled. Kids save the day. Everyone gets a bun”‘). It’s the spiritual successor to Enid Blyton and The Hardy Boys. Reading it was immensely nostalgic, partly because it now feels very dated: this is a world of transistor radios, arcade games, and research on microfilm at the local library. I’m just about old enough to remember the pre-internet world, but I wonder how it would resonate with young readers today. It’s still a good story – probably not a classic to ride out the ages, but full of shrewd points about heritage and memory and the importance of being able to see and touch the past. And enjoyable simply as a period piece. Interestingly, one of the few scenes I could remember from the book was the episode with the Blackbury Pals in the car park of the crematorium – something I remembered being moving, but which actually made my cry when I read it this time (in a coughing, awkward, ‘No, no, there’s just something in my eye,’ kind of way).

Like all Pratchett’s books, this works for adults too – I daresay you get more of the jokes, like those about particle theory – but of course it isn’t quite as complex as Discworld (let alone Good Omens). The humour lies mainly in the fact that a staple Hollywood plot – the dead are rising! – is happening in a small, shabby northern British town, and that the only one who can do anything about it is a rather self-conscious twelve-year-old schoolboy. (A similar thing happens in Only You Can Save Mankind, another of the Johnny Maxwell books, where the aliens in an arcade game offer surrender to Johnny. I haven’t read that, but I saw a musical adaptation of it at the Edinburgh Fringe many years ago.) Regular Pratchett readers will also notice a cameo here by a particular VERY FAMOUS CHARACTER, which completely passed me by as a child but made me grin now. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, very British, and very much of its time.

I’ve also been rereading another childhood favourite, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, so you can look forward to a post on that at some point soon. That has lasted much better – probably because Pratchett’s book is a children’s story that adults can also enjoy, while Adrian Mole is only pretending to be a children’s book: it’s actually aimed at grown-ups.

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