On this Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM I was thinking about bad luck. The show was pre-recorded the previous day… which was Friday the 13th. So I guess that got me think about superstitions and luck. Instead of just talking about generally unlucky literary characters, I thought I’d take a look at a selection of books featuring omens of bad luck (albeit in different ways!).
As promised on the show, here’s the list of books I chose. Do you disagree with my choices? Have I missed your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
So, I decided to start with a maritime superstition about bad luck – and one of the best known ones – the albatross as a harbinger of bad luck at sea. The obvious choice here would have been Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and that nearly was the first book on my list. But I decided to swap it for a rather different book – in fact, the book that taught me the word ‘albatross’ (and the associated superstition) in the first place.
The Short Voyage of the Albert Ross, like many of Mark’s books, takes a sensitive and nuanced look at the way friendships develop (and end) when we’re children. Steven – an imaginative boy who enjoys exploring – and his next-door-but-one neighbour John discover a raft down by the river. The book’s blurb will tell you that John is a bully, and that Steven has to learn how to stand up to him, but Mark’s story is really much more complex than this. This is a story about what happens when you get a little tiny bit older, and your former friendships start to change. The raft – named ‘Albert Ross’ due to Steven mishearing John’s explanation of an ‘albatross’ – is actually the last thing that the two boys share, and their plan to take it for a ‘short voyage’ is a captivating, and occasionally rather tense, tale of accepting different priorities and personalities. The ending is perhaps not what you’d expect, but it’s a satisfying and realistic conclusion to a thoughtful story. I was very fond of this book as a child, but sadly it’s not that well-known now. Perhaps it’s time for a Jan Mark revival? (I included another book by Mark, one of my other childhood favourites – The Dead Letter Box – on my Friends Special back in 2018.)
Obviously, as I recorded the show on Friday 13th, I wanted to include a book that references one of the many superstitions that surround the number 13. In particular, I was thinking about the superstition that having thirteen guests at dinner or a party brings bad luck (especially to the thirteenth person to sit down). The obvious choice for me here would be Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner (US title), Or Lord Edgware Dies (as it’s known in the UK), but I’d already included that one on my Fictional Comedians show back in August. Fortunately, the British Library Crime Classics series has another excellent candidate for this list…
Thirteen Guests is a country-house mystery by J. Jefferson Farjeon (author of Mystery in White, the book that really cemented the popularity of the BL Crime Classics back in 2014). Like a lot of the series, the joy of Thirteen Guests lies in the evocation of time, place and atmosphere – though there’s a pretty good mystery at the heart of this one as well. The novel takes place at a hunting party at Bragley Court, the home of Lord Aveling. There are to be twelve guests attending, who make up a bizarrely diverse crowd including a gregarious widow, a gossip columnist, a ‘lady novelist’, a painter and a sausage magnate. There’s also a strange couple – the Chaters – that none of the other guests seem to know. However, the party is expanded unexpectedly to include a man called John Foss. Foss injured his ankle at the train station and was brought to Bragley Court to recuperate. He is the ominous thirteenth guest, forced to watch the strange goings-on unfold from an invalid bed in one of the sitting rooms. But does Foss have his own secrets? (Probably, as everyone in Thirteen Guests has at least one secret!) Farjeon’s novel is a bit of a slow-burn, more preoccupied with afternoon teas and seemingly inconsequential social interactions, but as the strange incidents escalate and Inspector Kendall is called in the investigate, a curious puzzle emerges to be solved.
I chose this next title because it (sort of) hits two superstitions in one. Of course, I wanted to include a book that features magpies, but Baines’s book is also published by Salt, which can (if spilt) be another bad luck omen. I should say that I do not advise throwing any Salt books over your left shoulder though! It’s much better if you just read them!
Too Many Magpies is a novella narrated by a unnamed young woman. The narrator is married to a scientist who prides himself on being logical and rational, and she has two young sons under five. The woman and her husband plan to contol their children’s ‘futures’ through ‘scientific’ principles (e.g. restricting sugar intake and growing their own vegetables) – though the logic and rationality of some of their choices in questionable. This life is unsettled by the arrival of a charismatic but mysterious stranger, and the narrator begins to fall for the new arrival. But Too Many Magpies is not a simple romance story; instead, it focuses on the effect this new relationship has on the narrator and, more strikingly, on her children (particularly her eldest son, Danny, who has been acting very strangely). It’s a haunting book, heavy with a sense of forboding. Who is this stranger? why is everyone acting so weirdly? is this post-natal depression? or is the world really coming to an end? and why are there so many magpies?
Another omen of bad luck for this next one… the doppelgänger. The idea of running into someone who looks just like you (but isn’t related to you) is unsettling enough, but superstition has it’s even worse than that: if you see your double (sometimes imagined as a spectral double or apparition), it’s a harbinger of death. A number of writers have tackled this idea in fiction – from the philosophical to the Gothic to more science fiction takes – but I’m going to go with a detective novel for this list.
As I’ve mentioned on the show before, I really like Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. The first book in the series, In the Woods, was on my reading list for my Friends Special back in January 2018. As became standard with the series, the book that followed picked up one of the secondary characters from In the Woods and made them the protagonist. The Likeness is Cassie Maddox’s story, and it begins with the discovery of a body that bears an uncanny resemblance to the detective. Weirder still, the body is identified as Lexie Madison… only Lexie Madison doesn’t exist. It was a fake identity created for Cassie Maddox when she worked undercover. Cassie’s mentor, Frank Mackey, persuades the detective to go undercover as Lexie Madison again – this time to solve the murder and find out the truth about the doppelgänger. The investigation takes Cassie into a close-knit circle of friends, and the boundaries of identity begin to blur. The Likeness is a compelling and unexpected story that’s much more than a murder mystery, and it’s an excellent follow-up to In the Woods. Frank Mackey, Cassie’s unorthodox mentor, will get his own outing as a protagonist in the next book in the Dublin Murder Squad series: Faithful Place.
So, I started the show by talking about the numerous bad luck superstitions that sailors have. But now it’s time to turn to another rather superstitious profession… actors. Perhaps the best-known theatrical superstition is the interdiction against mentioning Macbeth backstage (you must always call it the Scottish Play and use nicknames for the characters). I considered including Shakespeare’s play itself on today’s list, but that seemed a bit obvious. I chose instead to go with a book that offers a creative reimagining of the Scottish Play.
The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove was Lauren Kate’s debut novel, though it got a bit more attention after the publication of Fallen, the first book in her YA fallen angels series. When I first read The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove, I didn’t know that it had any relationship to Macbeth – it isn’t something that’s spelt out in the blurb or marketing – though I really should have paid attention to the chapter titles, as they are all quotes from Shakespeare’s play! However, after a couple of chapters, I had the funny feeling that there was something very familiar about this YA story about high school rivalries… Natalie Hargrove is determined to become the Palmetto Princess (a kind of prom queen award at her school) with her boyfriend, Mike King, as her Prince. When Justin Balmer (J.B.) looks like he’s going to get in the way, Natalie persuades Mike to play a pran on him… and things start to get a bit dark. With some lovely nods to Shakespeare’s original, though given an American high school flavour (I particularly enjoyed the first dialogue we get from the ‘Juniors’, a group of New-Agey girls who hang out in the school toilets and offer some… erm… commentary on Natalie’s predicament), this is an imaginative and rather clever, but not straightforward, retelling of Shakespeare’s story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the books has some twists and turns related to Natalie’s backstory that raise it to another level and adds a bit of punch to the ending.
And finally, as someone who was a kid in the 80s, I thought I’d go a bit retro with my last choice. Although my last themed show was all about fictional letter-writing, there was one ominous type of letter that I didn’t include on that list… the chain letter. Although chain letters adapted to fit new technologies (faxes, emails, social media), the old-school handwritten, hand-posted correspondence has a peculiar potency as bringer of bad (or good) luck.
And today’s list ends with Christopher Pike’s teen horror novel: Chain Letter. It’s the story of a group of seven friends, one of whom receives an unsettling letter signed ‘Your Caretaker’ that demands the completion of inexplicable and dangerous tasks. The letter’s recipient must watch for a personal ad in the local newspaper that will explain their task, and once they’ve completed it, they have to pass the letter on to another member of the group. Okay, so not exactly a standard chain letter… but it’s pretty bad luck nonetheless! In Chapter 3 we get a bit of background explanation: the seven friends, Alison, Fran, Brenda, Kipp, Tony, Joan and Neil, did something bad last summer. And now, it seems, someone knows what they did last summer. In the early chapters, it almost feels like the chain letter isn’t such a bad thing. Some of the early tasks are easily completed (even resulting in good luck for some of them), and there doesn’t seem to be any real negative consequences when one of them, Kipp, decides to ignore the letter and not do his first task. But, as you might expect, things ramp up a level… and then another level… and it looks like some of the seven might not make it through alive. Admittedly, this isn’t so much a book about ‘bad luck’ as it is about karmic comeuppance (they really did so something bad last summer), but there are some great bits of suspense and uneasy horror, as the protagonists realize that the ‘Caretaker’ is watching them.
To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here: