Jenny Jones’ Where the Children Cry is by turns a ghost story, a horror, a history lesson and a gazetteer of the ancient city of York. The heroine, Louisa, looks back from the present day to a harrowing episode in her childhood when one of her classmates, a young Jewish boy named David, is mercilessly bullied to his death – an event which has chilling echoes of the massacre in 1190 of the Jews of York by a mob of townsfolk led by a sinister white-robed figure. When another Jewish family moves into Louisa’s neighbourhood this coincides with a rising of similar anti-semitic tensions and the terrifying reappearance of the unnamed figure in white. The author concentrates on building up an atmosphere of tension and a sense of impending doom rather than resorting to outright ‘horror’ as such (although there is one particularly toe-curling moment in the middle of the book which I would recommend any animal-lover to skip over). The real strength of the novel, however, is the vivid description of York, a city which Jones clearly knows well, and is hence able to depict in all its historic, brooding glory. In many ways York is the perfect setting for a ghost story, especially given that it is often regarded as the most haunted city in England, with a recent survey claiming that it has been the site of over 500 recorded hauntings.
York is perhaps the most compelling city in the North, a place whose history, said King George VI, “is the history of England”. Whilst this may perhaps be an overstatement, the comment reflects the significance of a metropolis that, until the Industrial Revolution, was second only to London in population and importance, not only at the heart of the country’s religious life, but also a key player in some of the major events that have shaped the nation. Many of the street names in York tell of the profound influence of the Vikings, who named the city Jorvik when it fell to them in 867, and there is a fine museum which stands to this day as a monument to this crucial formative era in the city’s history. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 York was to become inextricably associated with Catholicism – the infamous Gunpowder Plot conspirator Guy Fawkes was born here and the city suffered particularly during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the English Civil War King Charles I established his court in exile in York, which was strongly Pro-Royalist and hence invited a Parliamentarian siege which was eventually lifted by the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Today, York continues to play a prominent role as the seat of the Archbishop of York and home of York Minster, Britain’s largest Gothic building and home to countless treasures, not least of which is an estimated half of all the medieval stained glass in England.
For a city so rich in history, it is perhaps not surprising that virtually every room, building and street in York seems to be haunted. The oldest ghosts in York are said to be almost 2,000 years old – a lost Roman legion who are rarely seen but often heard marching on their own familiar road all the way to York Minster. In the 19th century, an orphanage known as the York Industrial Ragged School was the site of ghastly killings caused by an avaricious headmaster who spent so little on clothing and feeding the children in his care that they died in great number. He left the bodies to rot in a locked cupboard and there the ghosts of the children are said to remain, their spirits alternating between laughter and horrifying screams. Another story which perhaps inspired Where the Children Cry is that of Clifford’s Tower. In 1190, the Jewish population of York took refuge from persecution in the tower, which was then burned with them inside. Every hundred years, on the anniversary of the persecution, the tower mysteriously turns red, in remembrance of the fire, and all those who shed blood and died on that night.
If you’re ever in York and interested in finding out more about the supernatural history of the city, then the best way to do this is to join the Ghost Walk which meets nightly at 8pm in front of the King’s Arms Pub near the Ouse Bridge, where you will hear some of the most famous tales of ancient betrayal and persecution. For something different, the York Boat Ghost Cruise is an interesting option for fun mixed with fright while yet another place meant to educate and scare is the York Dungeons. With tales of the plague and infamous executions, this museum brings together the fun of gore with the fascination of history. There is also a guided tour of 14th century York, infected by the plague, where you can learn how the disease started and spread, while surrounding yourself in the awful experience of terror and death. It’s not a bad idea to have Jenny Jones’ novel to hand if you ever do go wandering around York, especially after dark – that way you know exactly what places to avoid!