A new look, and other updates

Prompted by Google’s mobilegeddon, I’ve updated Mewsings’ look, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Hope you like it. It should be more readable on tablets and mobiles, now. I’ve also been updating other parts of the site in a similar way, so now my Spacewreck music project’s mini-site is mobile-friendly, as is the Alice at R’lyeh mini-site. I’ll be working on a major overhaul of the rest of the site at my usual slow pace… I have to say, making a site mobile-friendly isn’t very difficult if you’ve got a CSS-based site to start with. I found the Responsive Web Design Fundamentals course at Udacity all I needed; it’s quite short, and free.

Meanwhile, I’m still working at bringing out a novel or two this year. (Not writing them — that’s already done. It’s all the details of publishing that’s taking the time.) First to come will be The Fantasy Reader. Here’s the cover:

The-Fantasy-Reader-mje

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.

High-Rise by J G Ballard

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard's High-Rise, by James Marsh

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard’s High-Rise, by James Marsh

As with 1966’s The Crystal World, there’s a feeling that High-Rise (published in 1975) grew from a single image that could have been a surrealist painting — in this case, that of a well-to-do middle-class man crouching on his apartment balcony, roasting a dog over a fire made of telephone directories — and that the rest of the novel is merely a Ballardian extrapolation of that one image.

High-Rise is J G Ballard’s insistence that the utter breakdown of society to be found in Lord of the Flies needs neither an isolated island, nor children without adult supervision to take hold. We can have it here and now, in modern England, in a fully-populated high-rise tower block, tenanted entirely by the most educated, professionally responsible classes. In fact, Ballard seems to be saying, we can not only have it, but we secretly long for it.

tarot_towerThe novel kicks off at the moment the newly-built tower block reaches ‘critical mass’, as the last of its residents move in. From that point, a slow but steady escalation of petty social tensions, technical teething troubles and Ballardian psychopathology takes its grip, as the residents of the building — ‘a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people — lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians, and trios of air hostesses sharing apartments’ — become increasingly violent, territorial, and tribal. At first maintaining a flawless facade towards the world outside, going to work each day in immaculately pressed suits, the residents return each night to spend more and more time engaging in vandalism and violence, finally forgetting the world outside altogether, to concentrate on their new, almost entirely primitive existence enclosed within the self-contained forty-storey apartment block, whose corridors, garbage chutes, elevator shafts and swimming pools are clogged at first with rubbish sacks, then, towards the end, human bodies.

High-Rise follows not one but three protagonists, chosen from the three social tiers into which the forty-storey apartment block divides itself — a division that can’t help seeming arbitrary, homogeneous as the residents are. We start with medical lecturer Robert Laing, who lives on the 25th floor (throughout the book, as well as the usual Ballardian habit of identification-by-profession, minor characters are labelled by their floor of residence — so we get ‘a 28th floor account executive’, ‘a radiologist from the 7th floor’, ‘a newspaper columnist on the 37th floor’ — thus emphasising the social surface, in contrast to the violent or irrational behaviour they’re engaging in). We then switch to Anthony Royal, the high-rise’s architect, living in its penthouse apartment, who, like some sort of Bond villain, wears a white safari jacket while being accompanied by an arctic-coated Alsatian dog. He also has a walking stick, thanks to a recent car crash, which makes him seem, as well as a Bond villain, like an image of the author himself: jg_ballardBallard, who wears a white suit in his author photograph, had also recently been through a car crash of sorts — the writing and publication of his 1973 novel Crash. Third in this trio of protagonists is Richard Wilder, a pugnacious TV documentary maker from the lower floors. Of the three, Wilder is the only one who has a real story, as such — a determination to climb the high-rise and inveigle himself into the top floors, under pretence of making a documentary. Laing, is, generally, too languorous to do much other than forage for food and join in with the occasional sortie against other floors, while Royal soon loses any sense of being a Bond villain, and retreats into a mix of traumatised detachment and a feeble longing to see the high-rise in terms of some sort of transformation:

‘…the present breakdown of the high-rise might well mark its success rather than its failure. Without realising it, he had given these people a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organisation that would become the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks.’

But you don’t read Ballard for the story. It’s the ideas, the images and the writing that ensure High-Rise is never static. Throughout Ballard’s works, there’s a longing for the outer world to match the trauma, chaos and perversity of his characters’ inner worlds, as though he were egging us on to become the people he knows we really are beneath the civilised surface — or at last the people he’s seen us becoming, in his prison-camp childhood in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. But also, there’s a sense of striving for a new sort of freedom, even if it takes violence to reach it.

HighRiseBut is that what the residents of this high-rise achieve? Towards the end, as tribal divisions break down and the residents retreat individually into their barricaded apartments, there’s a sense of stagnation — ‘sometimes [Laing] found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted’ — or reversion, as the social breakdown, at first presented as a sort of inner fulfilment of what these over-conventionalised professionals really need to live fuller lives — ‘All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months’ — starts to feel more like a regression, a retreat. Laing reforms his childhood ménage with his sister, and settles into petty power games with her and another bedridden woman he rescues from a nearby apartment; while Wilder, finally reaching the roof, sees children playing in the sculpture garden and doffs his clothes to join them. (Royal’s ending is the most disappointing of all — I was really expecting him, Ballard fashion, to be eaten by his beloved gulls, or perhaps to think he was one of them and attempt to fly off the tower-block roof.)

High-Rise was the first of Ballard’s novels that I read — thanks, of course, to Hawkwind’s song of the same name (whose lyrics paint a more science-fictional and socially rebellious picture of the same theme), released a bare four years later (but recorded in 1977, only two years after the novel came out). It is, I think, the perfect Ballardian novel. The story may at times feel static, but the writing never flags, with Ballard still pulling new images, ideas, and angles out of this situation right up to the final chapters. It also represents something of a change in Ballard’s writing. Before it, despite the careening handbrake-turn from his early disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World) into the transitional, highly experimental work of the late 60s and early 70s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash) his writing focused on the individual’s response to a disaster, however worldwide or (in the case of The Crystal World) universe-wide, that disaster was. Here, though, we get to see more of the response of a whole section of society, which is more the style of Ballard’s latter novels (Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, and I haven’t yet read Kingdom Come, but I’m assuming that’s similar).

Apparently, before starting the novel, Ballard penned a 25,000 word summary, ‘in the form of a social worker’s report on the strange events that had taken place in this apartment block…’ — which I’d love to read, though in the same quote, Ballard says: ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’ !