Appreciating Josephine Poole – Moon Eyes


First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together…

The original dust-jacket for Moon Eyes from 1965 – as artfully composed as a movie poster and bursting with Josephine Poole’s imagination

For three days wind filled the valley, running wild like an animal. It hunted down over the blue meadows, that were striped across and across with long black shadows, as if they had bones humping up under the grass; it entered the woods, making them flap in brown and green flags; it whisked the whole landscape into movement, and it made the earth race with reflections of the clouds it pelted through gun-grey sky. Those nights the house nearest the woods seemed balanced in a giant pair of hands, rocking and knocking, with a tapping and drumming of finger-ends against doors and windows, so that every board creaked and loose bricks tumbled down inside the huge old chimneys…

Both ‘Billy Buck’ and ‘Moon Eyes’ feature an L-shaped stone house: this image appears in Poole’s 1977 title ‘When Fishes Flew’, which weaves together a series of Westcountry folk myths into a family’s move to an old farm

I’ve already talked about Josephine Poole’s Billy Buck, where an Exmoor village is exploited by way of revels and ancient folk dances to a disturbing hysteria by the sinister Mr Bogle. Moon Eyes is an earlier title from 1965, also set around Exmoor. It begins with cryptic phrases scratched on a stone urn in the grounds of a country house called Hurst Camber: First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together. Poole excels at creating tension, and details such as telling the story in three parts: ‘Whistling’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Dancing’ are smart.

I need a name for this type of story – ‘British Ancient Landscape Hauntological Domestic Realist Wilderness’ anyone? There are plenty of requisite details hereย  regardless: Widowed artist grieves wife and leaves eldest daughter in charge of mute son while he recovers (absent parental figure); Mrs Beer, a comfortable housekeeper from nearby cottage (salt-of-the-earth figure steeped in local history who dispenses tea, cake and common sense); rambling old house (gothic architectural landscape)… into which steps the enigmatic, beguiling Rhoda Cantrip (spark for age-old battle of light and dark) and her canine companion.

A reprint from the early seventies – and a striking sci-fi makeover…

It’s all a little more than the standard mythic battle though – although conventional in its telling, Moon Eyes bristles with metaphors of fear of the alien stepmother figure, and all the fairy tale associations – but at the stage of what might be called a preventative cure.

Poole dedicates the book ‘To all children with a battle to fight’ and young Kate’s plight is well-drawn to address issues around defining identity and independence: when does unease become manifest and how is it faced? Who do we trust? How do we achieve control of what happens to us? How do we deal with responsibility?

Once again Poole uses folklore and myth intelligently and authentically – rarely does she fall into Disney’s traps and her cooking pot (or cauldron) of prose simmers with full summer in all its moods and herbs such as St John’s Wort.

Minor characters are neatly sketched with depth too, such as Kate’s tutor Miss Bybegone:

It has been said that Miss Bybegone hated the country. As a protection against any rustic scent or sound that might assail her, she went about on an automatic bicycle, very old, very noisy, very smelly, that enveloped her genie-like in a cloud of blue smoke. Seated upright on it, every hair miraculously in place, she sped about at breakneck speed, a hazard to the countryside.

So far so Bedknobs and Broomsticks – but even this minor character is developed with pathos, for later we are told:

She hurried from the room in an agitation of mauve artificial silk. In fact she was a devoted daughter, and nobly supported her mother, a rather short-tempered old lady who found her infinitely ridiculous.

The author from the cover of Billy Buck (1971). Ms Poole, we salute you. Someone else who could mend a nuclear power station and still look cool while the rest of us are ineffectually fiddling with our phones

Josephine Poole has written widely and successfully, including a lyrical picture-book story of Joan of Arc and a retelling of Anne Frank’s life, both beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Angela Barrett. In the early eighties she contributed scripts to a low-budget but intriguing collection of supernatural Westcountry folk tales called – unsurprisingly – Westcountry Tales – which is well-known to anyone of a certain age from the viewing region. Her later novels I haven’t read – I imagine they’re just as good but were victim to dull and lazy marketing.

The two books here really should be in print and as oft-mentioned as Penelope Lively in this field.


14 thoughts on “Appreciating Josephine Poole – Moon Eyes

  1. forestfae

    I am going to have a look see on Amazon if I can find a kindle copies of Josephine’s work. From just a phrase or two I could glean that she writes in a beautifully descriptive style.
    And now I have something for you ๐Ÿ™‚

    I do hope you enjoy this, Madame Tutli Putli is one of my favorite every short animated films, rich with symbology and meaning.

    • That’s very David Lynch-ish… I love the moth. Things that are really open to interpretation like this are great: you could watch it over and over and get something new. Thanks very much! She did remind me of Winona Ryder (possibly after a shoplifting spree!).

      • forestfae

        My pleasure, glad you enjoyed it.
        Yes the Moth is all about transformation, well for me at least. You are quite correct in that one can watch this little short film and always discover something new. It has so many layers of meaning. Even the crude bit with the gross man sat opposite Tutli-Putli could be interpreted in many different ways, from his viewpoint, from hers, from the joint scene looking in as an oberver. Interesting stuff ๐Ÿ™‚

        And yes, lol, there is something eerily similar around the eyes. I just love how they used stop animation but with real eyes so there is more emotion to this film than what normal would be.

  2. thewitchspromise

    These books sound really interesting and you’ve made me want to find out more. I don’t like the sci fi makeover of moon eyes, the original cover is so much better.

  3. Dear Whistles in the Wind,

    I’m so happy to have discovered you and to read this excellent tribute/review to Josephine Poole. I have read and re-read her works (and especially Moon Eyes) since the 4th grade. In my opinion, she is up there with the very best and deserves a lot more recognition.

    Thank you for giving her the publicity she should have!
    Rebekah Bales-Dunford

  4. I have the original print of the book, and although I didn’t read it as a child, it quickly became a favorite and treasured book, which I re-read often. I always wondered why more people didn’t know her work. Moon Eyes is chillingly creepy, yet totally addictive. Also, and I am not sure that I can describe it accurately, it is a book that literally “envelops” you in a haunting and confining solitude. It’s you and Kate, no matter how many people are around you in real life. However, what I love the most about this book is that, aside from being mysterious and spellbinding, it is also exquisitely written literature. It’s scary without gore, and fantastic, while realistic. And yet, at the end, it’s all about hope, love, and kindness. SO worth reading! Thank you so much for your evocative review! I will be looking for Billy Buck soon too! ๐Ÿ™‚

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