What was the sinister secret of the black-magic cave? Meg and Kerry were soon to find out…
Background: From the 1950s through the 1970s Whitman published a huge number of these squat, dust jacketless hard covers, separately targeting boys and girls. Some of these were based on TV shows, some were based on celebrities having imaginary adventures and solving crimes (Annette Funicello! Patty Duke!), and some were original series about plucky eponymous girl-heroines solving mysteries, having adventures and learning valuable lessons: your Trixie Beldens, Ginny Gordons and Donna Parkers.
While Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden series is probably the only one of these that can be considered a certified classic, the others are, at least by reputation, satisfyingly solid efforts.
We’re getting a late start on our annual autumnal extravaganza, so let’s start by checking in with our old chum Meg Duncan.
The Plot: When last we left the tweenaged sleuths, they had solved a very mildly baffling mystery regarding some missing silverware and forged furniture, found a home for an archetypical Red Headed Orphan Boy, and spent a few nights trapped in a caved-in cellar. All in day’s work for sensitive, artistic Meg and her excitable tomboy BFF, Kerry Carmody.
Sometime later, Meg and Kerry are jetting off to solve a mystery with Meg’s endlessly indulgent bachelor Uncle Hal. Uncle Hal has cancelled his trip to Hawaii after receiving a mysterious letter from his lady-friend Emily Hawthorne, who has recently taken a job as a school teacher in her hometown of Merrybones, Maine, where Uncle Hal keep his fishing lodge.
Traumatized by her father’s death as a young girl, Emily has spent most of her life living in California with her aunt, and upon her return to Merrybones has become the target of a “poison pen” campaign to run her out of town:
TEACHER, TEACHER KEEP YOUR COOL;
DON’T TELL STORIES OUT OF SCHOOL.
PACK YOUR BOOK AND FLY AWAY-
IF YOU DON’T YOU’LL RUE THE DAY.
The message was unsigned. A five-pointed figure had been crudely sketched in black ink. Within it was printed the number thirteen.
The magic pentacle.
Most long-running series go through a dozen or more ghostwriters. While the original “Holly Beth Walker” was likely identified as Whitman house writer Gladys Baker Bond, the authors of the remaining five volumes in the series remain a (wait for it) mystery. Generally Whitman’s series manage to keep an admirable consistency in tone and characterization with its ghost writers (ok, except that one time where Trixie Belden and the gang uncover drug trafficking in Sleepyside. That was very weird); however in this case Meg and Kerry’s story is so different from the first two books that it seems almost like an entirely different series. And that is for both better and worse.
On the downside, Black-Magic Cave takes us out of suburban Hidden Springs, Virginia and away from the familiar established characters (there’s not even a cameo from Meg’s unsociable Siamese cat, Thunder!), introducing a whole new supporting cast without giving the reader enough time to care about any of them. On the other hand, Meg and Kerry’s investigation into occult happenings in Merrybones is much spookier than the other mysteries they’ve delved into, with a genuine sense of peril in their adventures this time around.
While Uncle Hal retires to his fishing lodge, Meg and Kerry are put up in a room at the main house, which has been converted into a country inn. While the girls are initially put off by the cold reception they receive from the inn’s proprietress, Mrs. Stoner, and her young daughter, Betsy, Meg and Kerry soon make friends with some of the other children in town. However, after a day trip to Wigwam Cave and a strange encounter with another of the local school teachers, Meg and Kerry begin to suspect that Merrybones’ most respectable women are using witchcraft to drive off Miss Hawthorne!
While the local coven of witches turns out to be a benign group of Ya-Ya Sisters (who are firmly scolded by the local constable), the threats against Miss Hawthorne continue, and the behavior of young Dr. Willoughby and his devoted Nurse Armstrong becomes stranger and stranger.
Working on a hunch, Meg examines the register at the inn and discovers that Dr. Willoughby had visited Merrybones long before he arrived to practice medicine- in fact, it was around the very same time Miss Hawthorne’s father died!
While Dr. Willoughby tries to flee, Meg and Kerry get Nurse Armstrong to ‘fess up that she knew about the doctor’s past, since she had secretly been reading his diary; since he had saved her brother’s life, she planned on taking his secret to her grave and protect him from anyone who might reveal it.
And what was that secret? Well, when Meg, Kerry and Uncle Hal catch up with the doctor at the local airfield he confesses all: as a teenaged vagabond he’d arrived in Merrybones seeking work at the local lumber mill, only to find that it had closed. However, he did come across Emily and her father hiking in the woods; when the older man had a heart attack, young Willoughby tried to save him, but when he failed instead stole the “several thousand” dollars the man had on him.
Overwhelmed with guilt, he used the money to attend medical school, and then returned to Merrybones and repay the town by establishing a medical practice. He and Nurse Armstrong only wanted to get Emily out of town so they could anonymously return the money.
“I don’t think we have to worry,” [Uncle Hal] said. “Emily said she’ll refuse to press charges, and officer Sykes appeared to be satisfied with her decision.”
So morally ambiguous!
Sign It Was Written In 1971 Department:
“The so-called art of black magic is still practiced among primitive tribes- and among some foolish people in our own country, I’m afraid.”