Published: M&J #182 (5 November 1994) – #186 (3 December 1994)
Artist: Norman Lee
Writer: Maureen Hartley
Over the holidays, Laura Willoughby and her family move into Lower End Cottage, where Dad plans to set up a nursery business after losing his job. The cottage is a rundown place, and the villagers soon reveal that it has a reputation for being jinxed. People don’t live there long because they have nothing but bad luck in it. The Willoughbys find themselves avoided by a lot of villagers for this reason.
Soon the cottage’s reputation for being jinxed becomes manifest – the family have nothing but disaster there, something always goes wrong with everything they do, the cottage seems to hate them at every turn, and they suffer injuries from a lot of accidents. Laura also notices there is something weird about the garden too: no insects buzzing, no birds singing, and no flowers blooming. There is also a dirty pond in the garden (note this).
Then Laura finds an old sign that says the cottage used to be called “Happiness House”. She deduces the problem is that the cottage is unhappy for some reason. As Laura loves the cottage despite everything, she sets out to find out why it is unhappy and if anything can be done to make it happy again.
Enquiries with a more helpful villager, Mrs Broadley, reveal that a little girl named Bessie Sawyer had an accident at the cottage years ago, and there is an old song about it:
Bessie Sawyer, Bessie Sawyer, fell into the muddy water.
Bessie Sawyer’s queen today, now poor Bessie’s gone away.
Laura tracks down Bessie’s grave. Most of the inscription has worn away, but what remains reveals that Bessie died 1 May 1865 at the age of seven (the same age as Laura’s sister Jenny). Laura then borrows a diary kept by the vicar of the period. It reveals that when Bessie was christened in March 1858, her parents were overjoyed because they had despaired of ever having children. At this point the cottage was still called Lower End Cottage, and Laura construes that they changed its name to Happiness House because they were so happy to have a child at long last. Next, Laura revisits the dirty pond, and recalling the “muddy water” bit from the rhyme, deduces that it must be the spot where the accident struck seven years later.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family have become fed up of all the bad luck at the cottage and are preparing to move out. As they pack up, Jenny finds an old doll, which Laura retains in case it has some bearing on the Bessie mystery.
At the library, Laura finds the final clue in a display of photographs of village life in the 19th century. Among them is a photograph of May Day celebrations in 1865, and the May Queen is a little girl who wears the same costume as the doll.
Putting all the pieces together, Laura surmises that Bessie was crowned Queen of the May in 1865, and her mother dressed up the doll in the same May Queen costume. But on the same day, Bessie somehow fell into the pond and drowned. The tragedy shattered the happiness of Happiness House and cast a pall over the place that still lingers.
Not knowing what else to do to put things right, Laura cleans up the doll and takes it to Bessie’s grave. It does the trick: when Laura returns, birds are singing and flowers are blooming in the garden, and the cottage itself looks happier. Within days the family (who know nothing about Bessie or Laura’s investigation) have noticed they seem happier in the cottage and they are having no more bad luck. They decide to give the cottage another chance, while Laura puts the “Happiness House” sign back up.
Stories on jinxed houses that cause trouble for whoever lives there because there is something wrong with the place that needs to be put right (or the house just gets destroyed) have appeared before. But I have seen the premise used more for complete stories in annuals, such as “House of Secrets” in Jinty annual 1978, than for serials. The serial itself could fit into an annual as it is only five episodes long. The short length works well, and enables the mystery to be unravelled in record time without unnecessary padding added to drag it out and prolong the family’s suffering in the place.
The story is one of my personal M&J favourites. The story is straightforward and engaging. The tragedy of Bessie is certain to bring a tear to the eye, and we also feel for the family as nothing but disaster strikes them. The discovery of the Happiness House sign shows that the cottage is not downright evil; it is acting more like a human being who is unhappy and takes it out on others by dragging them down to the same level of unhappiness. We do notice that the bad luck does not seem to strike Laura herself. Perhaps the house senses that she is trying to help and is leaving her alone? The artwork of Norman Lee also adds to the story. Lee was a popular artist, and his style works well with the rural setting of the story and hints of the period aspects.