Books in the Blood # 8: Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken


I love bit of melodrama.

Give me a man with a handlebar moustache, tying a whey-faced heroine to railway tracks and I’m your woman.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember me discussing my theatrical exploits as a child going on to a self-conscious, no-please-don’t-look-at-me-I’m-too-hideous-teen. Well, one of my towering performances at secondary school was as the wax-moustachioed villain in a Victorian melodrama. I blew the other performers offstage, sweeping around the school gym/ hall in my top hat and cape, declaiming ‘Drat!’, ‘Blast!’ and ‘Foiled again!’ – always with the exclamation mark, of course.

My acting was variously described as ‘A performance of honest to goodness genius’: ‘Bravura – the best you’ll see this year’: ‘Sod the National Theatre and the RSC – St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Comprehensive’s summer play is the one to watch’. Well at least I’m sure, that’s what the reviewers would have said if we’d had any.

Following my big break aged eight as one of the Three Wise Men, I fear I could’ve been typecast as a man. Not sure where this trend came from, though perhaps the fact that even before puberty  I was able to fashion my own luxuriant facial hair into said top lip face furniture may have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, for good melodrama there are a few ingredients that are a must:

A heroine (usually a vulnerable heiress, often a bit wet and simpering and prone to bouts of fainting, but can have spunk if you’re lucky).

A villain (preferably moustachioed, definitely money grabbing). This man hasn’t lost his moral compass: he had one but decided he had no use for it so smashed it into tiny pieces, gathered those pieces together in a dirty hanky and buried them somewhere – probably under his neighbour’s prize-winning roses – the cad.

A hero: (usually a bit soppy-arsed like the heroine). Often a craftsman, for some reason: a carpenter, a stonemason, a cordwangler. Clearly nothing speaks decency like a man who’s good with his hands.

You can add various other characters if you wish – a side kick for the villain is common, as is a father for the heroine, though you might want to consider bumping him off early in the narrative, so you can have your heroine nicely vulnerable and available to take advantage of – protective fathers do tend to block the narrative flow. Of course, you can always make him a step-father instead, for if literature has taught us anything, it’s that step parents uniformly loathe and despise their step kids, and aim to be rid of them, by hook, crook or – in the case of Snow White – by huntsman, as quickly as physically possible.

Now, I must confess this preamble has been triggered by my having a senior moment. Well, a middle-aged lady moment anyway. I needed to remind myself of the plot of today’s Book in the Blood. You see, I know Midnight is a Place made an impact on my young mind, that there is a terrific, terrifying scene in it where a house burns to the ground, but I couldn’t remember the details.

On a visit to author Joan Aiken’s website, I found the book described as a melodrama, hence the above ramblings.

I was surprised by this, as the word has rather negative connotations – overblown, high camp. And anyway, if you’re looking for traditional melodrama, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

There’s a heroine but she’s only a child, she’s not of marriageable age and she doesn’t have a fortune . There’s a hero and he’s also a child, although he does get a chance to use his hands a lot. There’s a villain, but he gets charred to a crisp relatively early in the story. There are other baddies too, but the real villain is an industrialised society that chews up and spits out young lives as if they were so much grist to the cotton mill.

I remember Midnight is a Place as a rollicking good read, with plenty of action, adventure and scares.

And like all good melodrama, it has a happy ending.*

*It also has a very good title. The house the children come from is called Midnight Court, and a darker, drearier, less homely home you are never likely to find. So you have a house which embodies all of the frightening, other worldly, creepy aspects of the witching hour, hence Midnight is a Place.

Here’s the folky theme tune from the late seventies TV series. Altogether now – ‘Midniiiiiiiiiiiiiight is a Plaaace …. ‘

10 thoughts on “Books in the Blood # 8: Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken

  1. Sorry no one gets tied to the tracks, but the heroine does have to face the GIANT Carpet Press, and there is certainly a very sparky relationship between her and the young hero – and after all it was aimed at younger readers, so it is scary but not steamy… Thanks for the link!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading! Using the word ‘melodrama’ to riff on was meant as no slight on the book at all 🙂 It’s a landmark from my childhood, with the perfect amount of adventure, scares and triumph against adversity. I would still recommend it to any young reader – or an older one!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you…! It was one of her favourites too, she said it was inspired by a terrible nightmare about a 19C factory, and when they filmed it for TV and researched carpet factories it turned out to be not so very different from the real thing…even more scary!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Strange, how we don’t think of carpet factories often – it’s always cotton mills that float to the top of the mind when thinking of 19th C textiles. But, of course, they must have been just as dangerous for young people as any other machinery-led environment. Horrifying that these things went on

        Liked by 2 people

  2. That was a hilarious post.

    “always with the exclamation mark, of course.”
    “probably under his neighbour’s prize-winning roses”
    “by hook, crook or – in the case of Snow White – by huntsman,”

    Hilarious. Good one. Keep up the good work. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve just started this, having never seen it (let alone read it or seen the TV series) until its recent re-issue, so very much appreciated your review. Joan revisited the child labour issue many times in her Wolves series, notably in Is, and of course Blastburn appears there (though the events in MIAP don’t get drawn into Dido’s world).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really? I didn’t realise. I can’t think off hand which of her other books I read – MIAP stayed with me the most.
      She definitely had a strong social conscience – such important things for a children’s author to write about. She was very, very good. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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