The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst
Author: Griselda Heppel
Cover: Hilary Paynter (wood carving)
Original Publication Year: 2015
Edition reviewed: PB 2015
About (from Matador):
In the shadows of Walton Hall a demon lurks. His name: Mephistopheles. In 1586, young John Striven struck a bargain with him in return for help against his murderous foster brother. Nice work for a demon – or it should have been. Because somehow, his plan to trap the 12-year-old went wrong. All he needs now is another soul, in similar desperation, to call on him.
Enter 13 year-old Henry Fowst. A pupil at Northwell School, Henry longs to win the Northwell History Essay Prize. Exploring the school’s sixteenth century library, he stumbles across the diary of a boy his own age beginning this 20th day of Januarie, 1586… Soon Henry is absorbed in John Striven’s struggles with his jealous foster-brother, Thomas Walton, who, it seems, will stop at nothing to be rid of him.
Then matters take a darker turn. Battling to escape his own enemy, Henry finds his life beginning to imitate John’s and when the diary shows John summoning ‘an Angellick Spirit’ to his aid, Henry eagerly tries the same.
Unfortunately, calling up Mephistopheles lands both boys in greater danger than they’d ever bargained for.
Griselda Heppel’s first book, Ante’s Inferno, was one of my favourite reads from 2012 and I eagerly awaited her second title. My knowledge of classics is fairly limited – I’m aware of the Faust legend in the sense that it involves someone making a pact with a devil – but no prior knowledge is assumed and this Fowst has more chance of redemption, if he can best Mephistopheles.
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst is told from three viewpoints, mostly modern-day Henry and Tudor John but with the odd malevolent musing from Mephistopheles itself. Starting in the sixteenth century, we learn about John Striven and his murderous foster-brother; skipping forth and back to modern day where the Hall John Striven lives in is now a school (the same one attended by Antonia Alganesh in Ante’s Inferno) where Henry Fowst is on a scholarship.
Mephistopheles is attracted to both the boys’ misery and attempts to entrap them. Connected across the centuries by the old library of the Hall, Henry finds John’s old diary and willing to try anything to escape his bully (and protect his family from shame) he repeats the ceremony John tried to summon the devil…
Aimed for 10/12+, the novel is gripping and more-ish. Skipping between past and present leaves you needing more of each story, and wondering how they combine. I admit I couldn’t understand why Henry was so willing to summon Mephistopheles without finishing reading John’s diary first, but I’m no longer twelve and choices can seem a lot more limited when you’re being bullied. My children are a little young to read this yet, so this is from my viewpoint only, but I’m glad there was redemption available and the novel shows how it is possible to change from bad choices, even when things seem helpless.
With a mix of history, modern day, spooky school buildings, secret hiding places, supernatural goings on, and a tie-in to the previous novel (although each stand alone), The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst is an absorbing read. I look forward to the next novel (I hope there is a next novel!)
On a final note, there was one tiny scene that made me giggle when I read the book two months ago, and now I know it will make today’s children giggle too. Henry’s sister is singing in the bath: “She’s the top – she’s fantastic – she’s the strongest, she’s the smartest, Rachel FOWWWST!” – which of course I instantly heard to the tune of Danger Mouse. With the new Danger Mouse series, it’s even more spot on. Griselda’s writing is full of tiny observations that add up to a believable world. Highly recommended.