Yes, You ARE A Monster

Yes, You ARE A Monster (cover)Next year, I’m hoping to release two novels, The Fantasy Reader and Hello World, as ebooks. More about them at a future date. To dip my toe in the whole publishing process, though, I put together this oddity: Yes, You ARE A Monster, a short self-help guide to would-be vampires, werewolves, and other oddities. For the next five days, it’s available for Kindle, free, from any of the various Amazon flavours.

Carefully transcribed from the crayoned ravings of Edweard Deadwitt, Yes, You ARE A Monster tells you all you need to know on your way to becoming a monster: there’s a Monstrousness Test (complete with inkblot), real-life stories (not based on real life), as well hints and tips on developing a Monstrous Growl, developing an Evil Plan, and dealing with such normal, day-to-day matters as holding down a job while being a monster. Plus much more…

Okay, it’s not a self-help book at all.

Get it now on Kindle from Amazon UK, US, or any of the others.

Yes You Are A Monster cartoon

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

Puffin cover to The Dark is Rising, by Michael Heslop

Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a Christmas fantasy novel. But whereas C S Lewis brought in a rather out-of-place Santa Claus — which makes me feel Lewis wasn’t, at that point, taking his story, or his audience, sufficiently seriously — Cooper brings in stag-antlered Herne and the Wild Hunt. Hers is a far different sort of Christmas.

The Dark is Rising is about the initiation of eleven-year-old Will Stanton into the ranks of the Old Ones, guardians of the Light who’ve been staving off the Dark for thousands of years. Among their number are Wayland the Smith and Merriman Lyon (Merlin), Will’s guide as he learns that he, as a seventh son of a seventh son, is the last-born of the Old Ones, and fated to be the Sign-Seeker: his task, to bring together six signs of power that can be used to quell the latest uprising of the Dark.

Fittingly for a book about initiation, it’s full of rites, ceremonies and pageants, of things that ‘must be’, and of ‘the right thing… done at the right time’. Conflict with the Dark seems highly ritualised, not so much clashes of power as games of trumping one another with various ancient laws and prohibitions. This feel of everything Will does being fated (he ‘plays his part’), or at least in some way laid out in timeless laws and traditions, blunts (for me) the story’s involvability — and also Will’s active part as a character — but Cooper makes up for it by presenting us with a world infused with dark, secret, pagan magic, a world where there is a second level of timeless reality the Old Ones can, at any moment, step into, freezing the mundane action, to play out immensely dangerous and power-charged stand-offs with the Dark. Meanwhile, even the mundane ‘action’ of Will’s family celebrating a rural Christmas is full of the rituals and traditions of an ancient festival, as well as family rituals — rituals, in this book, are what bind families and societies together, what roots them, and what protects them both from the magical Dark and the lesser, yearly dark of the Winter solstice, before it turns towards a new year.

Over Sea Under Stone (cover)

Puffin cover to Over Sea, Under Stone, by Michael Heslop

The Dark is Rising was published in 1973, and follows on from Cooper’s previous novel, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965). Although both feature Merriman Lyon as a character (he’s Great Uncle Merry in the first book), and both are about the quest for an object of power (the Grail in Over Sea, Under Stone), The Dark is Rising has an entirely different feel, so much so that although Cooper says Over Sea, Under Stone is the first in the series, some readers prefer to think of it as a prequel. Over Sea, Under Stone is far less magical, but also far more conventional. Started by Cooper at a friend’s suggestion as an entry to a competition to write a ‘family adventure story’, it’s a Blytonesque children’s holiday adventure of a rather standard sort (the Drew children describe their enemies as ‘perfectly beastly’ — need I say more?). The Dark is Rising, right from the start, feels like Cooper has undergone one of those authorial moments of transformation I so like: suddenly, she’s writing very real-seeming characters (the large, messy Stanton family), in a very real-seeming world (the South West of England, studded with recognisable landmarks). And the magical elements are the sort of revivification of British folklore that made up so much of late 1960s and 1970s fiction for youngsters, in the work of Alan Garner, for instance, or (as late as the 1980s) Richard Carpenter, in Robin of Sherwood.

The cover to the 1976 Puffin books edition (shown at the top of this post) haunted my childhood. I can’t remember reading the book at the time, but I certainly remember being deeply struck by that cover (by Michael Heslop, who now specialises in equestrian and golf painting). There was something about the mix of grainy, wintry black and white, and the weird, pagan face of galloping Herne (‘a masked man with a human face, the head of a stag, the eyes of an owl, the ears of a wolf’), all enclosed in a full-moon circle. The central coloured circle always made me think someone had Herne in a rifle’s sights — which isn’t the case, but it seemed to sum up, to my mind at the time, what was so engaging about the cover: that it mixed ancient pagan wild magic and something obviously modern, bringing a very real and dangerous-seeming wonder into our world. It’s still one of my favourite covers of all time, and seems to sum up that whole wintry-folkish-rural magic I crave from fantasy (Mythago Wood being an excellent example), something that for me encapsulates an era, and an entire imaginative feel I still seek, for instance, in the kids’ TV of the time (The Moon Stallion, The Changes). There’s something of the same feel about the A Year in the Country blog, whose wintry, black & white images of trees recall, for me, the uncanny feel of Heslop’s painting.

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

The Blazing World (Penguin) coverThe Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish — or, to give both their full titles, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle — was first published in 1666 (‘a year of blaze and revelation’ as Alan Moore calls it, as it also saw the Great Fire of London), oddly paired under the same covers as her non-fictional Observations on Experimental Philosophy. But Cavendish regarded the two pieces of writing as complimentary, as though the ‘fantastical’ narrative rounded off the rational one. The two parts, she said ‘were joyned together as Two several Worlds, at their Two Poles’, which is how The Blazing World itself starts, with its protagonist, known at first only as the Lady (later, as the Empress), kidnapped by a merchant who wants to marry her. But the boat in which she’s carried away is somehow drawn to the pole, where, it turns out, two worlds touch. Everyone in the boat is killed by the extreme cold, except the Lady, who survives ‘by the light of her beauty, the heat of her youth, and protection of the gods’. It feels like an allegory of the human brain, divided into the rational and imaginative, joined at a central bridge-point, through which the rational (the men in the boat) can’t pass.

Having travelled to the Blazing World, the Lady meets some bear-men, who decide to take her to their Emperor. On the way, she meets various other fantastical beings: fish-men, bird-men, fox-men, worm-men, geese-men, even lice-men and spider-men. The Emperor’s Imperial City, Paradise, is reached through a winding watery passage between rocks, a little reminiscent of the sea-maze that protects Melniboné in the Elric books. The Emperor is instantly fascinated with the Lady and marries her, whereupon she settles down to improving this already magical world by gathering together its various ‘natural philosophers’ and quizzing them on what they’ve learned. Rather a lot of the book is made up of these inquisitions — which aren’t really interesting, except to throw some light on the scientific speculations of the time, perhaps — but we do at least learn why this world is called the Blazing World:

‘Having thus finished their discourse of the Sun and Moon, the Empress desired to know what Stars there were besides? But they answer’d, that they could perceive in that World none other but Blazing Stars, and from thence it had the name that it was called the Blazing-World; and these Blazing-Stars, said they, were such solid, firm and shining bodies as the Sun and Moon, not of a Globular, but of several sorts of figures: some had tails; and some, other kinds of shapes.’

Soon after this, things get a bit metafictional. The Empress summons the spirit of the Duchess of Newcastle to be her scribe. (It’s only at this point that we learn that the world the Lady originally came from is not our world, as I’d assumed, but another one.) After being told all about the Empress and her story, the Duchess becomes melancholy, as she’d like to be Empress of a world, too. The Empress sends out her spirits to find a world the Duchess can rule, but they come back saying that though there are infinite worlds, they’re all inhabited, and to rule one would mean having to conquer it first, and ‘for the most part, Conquerers seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared than loved, most commonly come to an untimely end’.

The spirits, though, have another suggestion:

‘Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are, and all this within the compass of the head or scull; nay, not only so, but he may create a World of what fashion and Government he will…’

The Duchess, then, resolves to make her own world in her own head, and be its Empress. She tries out various approaches to world-creation, based on the thinking of various philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, Descartes and Hobbs. None work. With the Pythagorean approach, for instance:

‘…she was so puzzled with numbers, how to order and compose the several parts, that she having no skill in Arithmetick, was forced also to desist from the making of that World.’

Or a world based on the ideas of the atomistic Epicurus:

‘…but the infinite Atoms made such a mist, that it quite blinded the perception of her mind; neither was she able to make a Vacuum as a receptacle for those Atoms, or a place which they might retire into…’

Eventually she settles on her own approach:

‘…she was resolved to make a World of her own Invention, and this World was composed of sensitive and rational self-moving Matter; indeed, it was composed only of the Rational, which is the subtlest and purest degree of Matter; for as the Sensitive did move and act both to the perceptions and consistency of the body, so this degree of Matter at the same point of time (for though the degrees are mixt, yet the several parts may move several ways at one time) did move to the Creation of the Imaginary World; which World after it was made, appear’d so curious and full of variety, so well order’d and wisely govern’d, that it cannot possibly be expressed by words, nor the delight and pleasure which the Duchess took in making this World-of-her-own.’

Great results, then, but it makes no sense to me.

The Duchess invites the Empress into her imaginary world, and the two travel there as disembodied spirits. Then, getting homesick, they travel to the Duchess’s home — our world — to visit her husband. As they’re spirits, they can’t talk to him. So, in a potentially awkward move, the Empress and the Duchess pile into the Duke’s body:

‘And then the Duke had three Souls in one Body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, only it would have been a Platonick Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers, and that Platonism, was Divine, as being derived from Divine Plato, cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie.’

So far, the book has been more about imaginative play and philosophical speculation than any sort of story (the Lady’s initial journey is over with very quickly), but in the final quarter, we do get a story of sorts, as the Empress hears that her original homeland is about to lose a war fought against all the other lands of that world. She decides to help it, using the natural wonders of the Blazing World, including wet-burning fire-stone and light-giving star-stone, and forces of bird-men, fish-men and worm-men. She trounces the opposition at sea, then harries them on land, planting fire-stone bombs under their very towns thanks to the worm-men being able to move through the earth. Then, much praised by everyone, she returns home.

Margaret Cavendish (portrait)Cavendish herself was quite a character, who ‘self-consciously produced herself as a fantastic and singular woman’ (as Kate Lilley writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition), at a time when just to be a woman who wrote was singular enough. The Blazing World is by no means a fantasy as we know it today, nor, really, is it much of a utopia (which is how it’s often classed). With utopias, you expect some sort of blueprint or example of how to change our world for the better, but the Blazing World is wonderful because it’s a place of wonders, not because it has any political or philosophical answers. If it’s selling anything, it’s imagination: the chance that everyone has to make a world for themselves, inside their own heads.

The thing that makes it still readable (though it has its longueurs) is its playful quality, the entirely innocent approach to fantasy world-making, which Cavendish says in her introduction is her main aim and pleasure in writing it:

‘That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.’

And, in a bold move that may well make her the creator of the Restoration equivalent of a multi-user dungeon — or which certainly places her alongside the likes of Tolkien, and MAR Barker, and the Lovecraft circle, as well of course as Gary Gygax & co., as people who don’t just make up fantasy worlds to tell stories, but keep them on as game-worlds and places to bring invented languages to life — she issues an invitation to her readers:

‘…and if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please.’

The Blazing World can be read online here.