Bunty Picture Library: #393
Artist: Carlos Freixas
The pupils of Ratcliffe Park Boarding School are temporarily relocated to Ratcliffe Manor when their school needs repairs because of structural damage from flooding. There are whispers from a couple of pupils, Emma and Mags, that the manor is haunted. Sarah and Sally, the protagonists of the story, don’t take the rumours seriously. But they are disturbed when they see the portrait of the stern-looking Lavinia Wykes, whose family were the first owners of the manor, and marvel at what a contrast it is to Lavinia as a child in another portrait.
Then the headmistress, Mrs Jonson, starts acting very strangely. Normally she is a kindly headmistress, but suddenly there are strange fluctuations in her behaviour. She starts turning into a Jekyll and Hyde character. At times she acts quite normally, but at other times she turns into a dragon, treating everyone in a manner that is not only extremely harsh but also Victorian in its thinking. She gives orders for the pupils to be served plain breakfasts consisting of dry bread and porridge. New rules are installed, and the girls are shocked and surprised at how severe they are: uniform to be worn at all times; no talking after lights out; no food in the dorms; no wandering around inside the house; and other rules listed that are not described. The caretaker doesn’t fare much better. When the school first arrives, Mrs Jonson tells him not to worry about cleaning the difficult-to-clean Victorian style windows. But then she does a very angry U turn, demanding they be cleaned “my good man!”
Sally and Sarah put her behaviour down to the stress of the move, and Mrs Jonson is indeed taken ill. But when the deputy head, Miss Greg, takes over, she starts acting the same way. When Mrs Jonson returns, she seems to be herself again and even gives the girls pop posters for their dormitory. But soon the same thing starts again.
Things get weirder and weirder. When sent to the upstairs room for detention, Sally and Sarah rapidly discover there is something strange about it. It is inexplicably hot, and soon there are strange lights and voices crying “No! No! No!” in the room. In the school grounds they encounter a strange apparition and catch the words “…and I will not tolerate it!” in a voice they don’t recognise.
Sally and Sarah now think it is time to look up the history of the manor. They search newspapers in town, which yields information that the Wykes family built the manor as a private house. Thirty-five years later it was converted into a girls’ boarding school, with Miss Wykes as headmistress. Two years after that, a fire broke out in a dormitory, killing Miss Wykes and several pupils.
Now Sally and Sarah believe the manor really is haunted after all, and the ghost of Miss Wykes has possessed Mrs Jonson (and Miss Gregg during her brief stint as headmistress). When they tackle Mags for information on what she said about the manor, she says she was just embroidering rumours she had heard from her gran.
The abnormal change in Mrs Jonson gets worse and worse. She even starts looking like Miss Wykes, calls herself Miss Wykes, and redecorates her office in a Victorian style and switches to kerosene lamps because electric light hurts her eyes. She also gets flummoxed when she encounters computer technology, but then seems to recover herself and tackle it comfortably. She had given the girls posters to decorate the dorm with, but then tears them down when she turns into the dragon that seems to model itself on Miss Wykes.
By now the headmistress’s behaviour has spread confusion and fear through the pupils. Because of it, they hate being at the manor and are desperate to go back to their own school. Sarah and Sally don’t want to start a panic by telling them what they think is happening, but they do take a third girl, Jane, into their confidence.
During another Wykes possession, Mrs Johnson scolds the girls for reading by candlelight in the dorm again – when there are no candles at all. At this, Jane, Sally and Sarah suspect that candles in the dorm started the fire.
They discover that records from the Wykes school are stored in the upstairs room – where the inexplicable heat, noises and lights are centred. That evening, they investigate the records, while the heat and noises start up again. They suspect this is because the original dormitory was located in the upstairs room, and where the fire started. A blueprint of the original school confirms their suspicions.
They then come across a teacher’s journal, which lists the same set of rules that Mrs Jonson set up. The journal reveals that the fire was indeed started by pupils reading by candlelight in the dorm, which they often did because Miss Wykes frequently punished them by sending them to bed much too early. It goes on to say that the manor had been a sinister place since the fire and would have been better off burning right to the ground.
Then the girls discover that the day is an anniversary of the fire, which can only mean that something terrible is going to happen. Right on cue, the voices start up again and a notebook starts floating. They realise that another school on the premises must have been what sparked it all off. They head off to the headmistress’s office, hoping to convince her that they are in danger. As they do so, they feel they are being followed.
They find no headmistress – but her office is on fire! They sound the fire alarm and the school evacuates. They hear another “No! No! No!” coming from the upstairs room, this time in Mrs Jonson’s voice. They find her in a very strange state, and she drops her lamp, which starts more fire that is not affected by fire extinguishers. The girls feel that these are not ordinary flames, and the fire brigade does not fare any better against them. This time the manor does burn to the ground, and the girls realise that the journal was right to say that it should – it is the only way to purge the ghosts. Mrs Jonson returns to normal and everyone is safe. The protagonists don’t dwell on wondering exactly what happened at the School of Shadows – they are just glad to see the end of it and return to their own school.
The harshness of old-style school discipline, particularly among principals who take it too far, or even let it turn into downright child abuse, has been a frequent one in girls’ comics. It often makes grim reading and a salutary lesson in not what to do in education. But when it is combined with the supernatural, as it is here, it makes for the most disturbing but compelling reading.
The haunting at the School of Shadows is all the more frightening and effective because the ghosts are kept obscure and it is never made clear just what the haunting is about. There are no supernatural beings actually appearing to frighten everyone, apart from the one in the grounds. No apparitions appear to speak to anyone, whether it is to make demands, threats, requests, or offer explanations and help. The ghost of Miss Wykes does not appear in person; you just get the impressions of both the ghost and the tyrannical headmistress it was in life, through its possession of Mrs Jonson. But this makes the haunting even scarier.
The ghost in the grounds is the only apparition to actually appear in the story, but just what it is – it does not even look like Miss Wykes or the pupils who died in the fire – what it wants, or what it means by “And I will not tolerate it!” are not clear. It does not even bother to actually scare the girls; it just drifts by them as if they don’t exist. Its purpose in the story is difficult to understand and it does not square with who is supposed to be haunting the manor. One gets the impression that Bunty was gilding the lily a bit there.
However, there are few nice touches about the haunting of Miss Wykes. The first is the glimpse of her as a cute-looking child in one portrait that is such a contrast to the formidable, unsmiling headmistress she has become in the portrait that unnerves the girls. So often do these stern, hard teachers that we see in so many serials forget that they were once children themselves, just like the kids they rule with a fist of iron. And the reader also gets a reminder that a horrible headmistress was a child once – something you don’t see every day in girls’ comics.
There are also dashes of faint humour that the tyrannical ghost of Lavinia Wykes is getting a bit of 20th century culture shock while she possesses the body of Miss Jonson. One occurs in the computer room where she is completely thrown by all the computer technology, and we get the impression she had to retreat there and let Miss Jonson return. Another occurs in her office where she can’t bear modern electric lighting and insists on the old-fashioned lamps.
The girls don’t dwell on pondering exactly what went on at the manor, but we will take a moment to do so. First, there cannot be much doubt that the combination of the upcoming anniversary of the fire and the presence of another school on the premises was enough to stir up the ghosts. Plus, it must have been a miserable school with the harsh, intolerant Lavinia Wykes as headmistress (mind you, we have seen worse in girls’ comics).
It certainly looks like Lavinia Wykes was reliving her time as headmistress through her possession of Miss Jonson – but for what purpose? Was the past just replaying itself through the guest school because of the upcoming anniversary of the fire? Or did the ghost(s) have an ulterior motive? For example, did Lavinia Wykes want to relive her time as headmistress all over again? Or did she react badly to the sight of the modern, progressive school and its easy-going headmistress and set out to impose her ideas of discipline on the school? Clashes between strict old-fashioned schools and progressive modern schools have occurred before in girls’ comics, such as “The Girls of Liberty Lodge” in Tammy and “Dracula’s Daughter” in Jinty. If Lavinia Wykes had been alive, there would certainly have been feuds between her and Miss Jonson over the way a school should be run.
Or were the ghosts out to exorcise themselves by recreating the past and then the fire? It is strange, the way the fire that destroys the manor does not seem to be an ordinary fire, and resists all attempts to extinguish it. But the ghosts don’t seem to be out to kill anyone with the fire, as there is no there is no attempt to stop them escaping with their lives.
There is no way to know for certain because there is not enough information given about the ghosts and their motives. Like the girls, we only know for certain that the ghost of Lavinia Wykes is no more by the end of the story, and are so glad.