Published: Mandy Picture Story Library #226
We continue commemorating the Halloween season with “The Barn”, as it’s got owls and a haunted barn.
Beth Braden and her parents move to the countryside when Dad gets a job on an estate with Mr Horden. Beth is soon settling into the country life, though Horden rapidly makes it clear he is not the nicest of bosses to work for. Beth soon discovers that Horden has big plans for developing the estate. Moreover, he does not care how he goes about it, or who or what gets in the way.
Beth comes across an old barn and immediately likes it for its character and historical feel. She also finds a love heart carving that says BB loves LD, and is struck at how she shares the same initials as BB. She is dismayed to hear Horden is planning to develop the area for a luxury villa, which would look awful in that area. It would also demolish Beth’s beloved barn, which looks like it has heritage values too. Unfortunately she can’t do anything to put Dad’s job in jeopardy. Later she learns she has BB’s old room in their new cottage when she stumbles across BB’s box hidden under the floorboards. The box contains a pressed flower and a silver owl brooch.
At the village disco Beth meets a boy who has the same initials as LD – Luke Daniels. Beth learns that Luke’s father lost his job on the estate when Horden took it over, and for this reason he gets frigid with her once he hears who her father works for. But they soon come together again when they find an injured barn owl. Luke has been taught a few things in how to nurse the owl. They decide to keep her in the old barn where they can continue to nurse her. There is an owl window in the barn too, which suggests it has been used for owl watching before.
Then Beth and Luke overhear a conversation between Horden and Councillor Roberts. They realise Roberts is helping Horden to get council permission for the development plans as part of an illegal deal.
Beth’s father also tells her that Horden is trying to get permission to pull down an oak tree despite it having a protection order because it houses rare bats. Learning that buildings that house rare creatures could get them protected too, Beth realises that if they can get the barn owl to settle in the barn, they could get it protected. But it’s not just because of the owls; it’s also for BB and LD because Beth senses it means a lot to them. Beth also feels there is a presence in the barn that does not want the barn to go.
The owl begins to settle into the barn, and her mate turns up to feed her. But Horden’s application for council consent to convert the barn is now moving, so they have to come up with a way to stop it, and without Horden knowing Beth is part of it. They hit on the idea of entering a photo of the owls in a junior wildlife photo competition in the newspaper, with a note to say where the owls live, in accordance with the rules. But it will be entered under Luke’s name only to protect Beth.
There is something spooky about what happens when Luke takes the photo of the owl feeding its mate. Beth could swear she heard someone gasp as it was being taken. Luke thinks there was something odd about it too – he is not much good at photography, yet he seemed to know when to take the photo. Beth now really begins to suspect something in the barn wants it to be left intact. It’s no surprise that the photograph wins the competition.
The owls have settled into the barn so well that they have started nesting. A reporter who runs the nature column in the newspaper comes to do an article on the owls and hears about Horden’s application for planning approval. He gets the application blocked, much to Horden’s fury and Luke and Beth’s delight.
However, Beth and Luke soon learn that Horden is not going to take it lying down. He poisons the two nesting owls and all that is left are their new chicks. The kids now raise the chicks themselves, and it is not long before the chicks are learning to fly.
Then BB’s diary turns up from under the floorboards. It dates from 1913 and also contains a record of owl watching, which BB used to conduct with a boyfriend called Len. Their chicks are almost ready to fly by the time Len goes into the army. The silver owl brooch was his parting gift to BB, and she says the owls would help to keep them close. Sadly, Len was KIA. The diary ends with BB reporting hearing strange noises in the barn and thinks it is a tramp. Luke and Beth then find evidence that there was a fire in the barn once. BB does not mention this in her diary, which suggests that the fire was after her time.
All of a sudden, fire strikes again in the barn, courtesy of an arsonist. The smoke nearly claims the lives of Beth and the owls, but Mr Daniels puts the fire out in time. He then explains that BB – full name Beth Baxter – perished in the other fire, which was accidentally started by the tramp. Sure enough, she used to live in the cottage and she was owl watching too.
Horden is jailed for attempted bribery of the council. So he has been forced to sell up. The new owner is a much nicer man who is happy to employ both Mr Braden and Mr Daniels. He also agrees to leave the barn and its owls as they are.
This is a story you have to love for the wildlife caring, the dash of the supernatural and the hints of romance. Though there is no sign of romance between Beth and Luke and they seem little more than close friends, we will not be surprised if it goes that way at some point. That was the way it went between the two predecessors who parallel with them so much, right down to the initials. Even before we learn the full story and names of BB and LD, we get the impression that their story ended tragically. After all, how else could the haunting have started? We get the feeling the story is going to go in the direction of a haunting once Beth sees the love heart in the barn, even before the supernatural is introduced. The supernatural touches are very deftly and cleverly done. Instead of apparitions, objects moving and spectral warnings, the haunting is kept indistinct and gives little more than subtle nudges here and there to influence events in saving the owls and the barn.
Many could regard Mr Horden as just a ruthless, greedy man who stops at nothing and nobody to get what he wants. Yet he can also be seen as an allegory of the destructive forces of greed and profit at the expense of the environment and driving our fellow species into extinction (as exemplified in bowling over the rare owls and bats), and not giving a damn about it. Councillor Roberts could be regarded as even more distasteful because he’s corrupt. He’s breaking council rules and the law in order to help Horden because he stands to have his share of money out of Horden’s venture. Just how these two are caught out is not revealed, evidently because there were not enough pages to go into those details. Perhaps the arsonist was caught and made a confession.
The artwork does a brilliant job of bringing the story to life. It has a rugged, even heavy feel at times that blends in perfectly with the rural setting and depicting the owls and the barn, especially when the supernatural elements are introduced.