Our book today is an awkward, adorable little children’s classic from the bygone era of 1944: Georgie by Robert Bright, an old-school hack of the first water (and Boston Transcript alum, if those two things aren’t already redundant) who wrote a kids book about a lonely ghost and watched in bemused wonder as that book not only caught on with readers but went on to form the basis for what the 21st century would nauseatingly call a “brand.” Georgie, the little ghost, went on to have a dozen adventures, but the magic all started here, in an unassuming, poorly-drawn, and completely wonderful 95-cent paperback.
When we first meet Georgie, he’s a ghost who knows his place in the world, a happy ghost. He haunts the little old New England house of Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker, where every night at the same time he gives a step on the staircase a little creak and the door to the parlor a little squeak – and these are the signals everybody’s waiting for. When they hear their little ghost moving around at night, Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker know it’s time to go to bed; Herman the house cat knows it’s time to begin prowling for mice (and they presumably know to start hiding); Miss Oliver the owl knows it’s time to wake up and start hooting. It’s a perfect arrangement, and Georgie always has a smile on his ghostly face.
But then one day Mr. Whittaker decides to oil the parlor door and nail down the stair on the staircase. Suddenly there’s nothing for Georgie to do. The old couple falls asleep on the parlor couch; Herman the cat stops prowling for mice; Miss Oliver sleeps right through her usual wake-up time.
And in the rootless way of unemployed ghosts, Georgie soon decides to take up residence somewhere else. But we’re told – in one of the book’s most offhand and creepy asides – that every other house in the neighborhood already has a ghost. All but one: the dark and scary mansion of old Mr. Gloam is ghost-free – because Mr. Gloam himself is so mean no spirit will haunt him.
So Georgie goes to a drafty cow barn and stays there – idle and miserable – for “a lot of time,” through rainy days and cold, snowy days. It’s only after a long time that Miss Oliver flies over to the cow barn with word of an unexpected reprieve: the cold and the rain have loosened the floorboards in the old Whittaker place and rusted the hinges – Georgie is needed again! He enjoys a happy homecoming and gets right back to work causing the gentle creakings and squeakings by which everybody sets their own timetables.
Re-reading Georgie after all these years raised the same questions in my mind that I had the first time I read it: who is Georgie? Why is it that every single living thing in the book – Herman the cat, Miss Oliver the owl, the other ghosts, Mr. Gloam, the cow in the cow barn – can see Georgie, but Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker cannot? Is he perhaps the ghost of a long-lost son of theirs? And what happens if Mr. Whittaker decides to fix the stair again?
But I’m reminded that ghost stories always leave me asking the same kinds of questions. Earlier this year, I asked them all while watching David Lowery’s beautiful movie A Ghost Story, for instance. Fortunately, they don’t ever diminish my enjoyment – I loved Georgie all over again this time around.