A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

cover illustration by Jim Kay

Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s been through it before, and both she and he talk as if this were just one more round of treatments, horrible to go through, but necessary to get her better again. Only, the treatments aren’t working and she’s not getting better. Meanwhile, Conor is being bullied at school, something he endures so stoically it’s almost as if he welcomes the punishment, and also has to put up with being looked after by his grandmother, a busy, efficient and scrupulously tidy woman not used to having to deal with a troubled boy.

And Conor is troubled. He’s wilfully isolated at school and hopeless about the future. He knows, deep down, what’s going to happen to his mother, and knows it will mean he’ll either have to live with his grandmother, whom he hates, or his divorced father, who’s far more interested in the new family he’s started in America.

And then, to top it all, Conor is visited by a monster. Woken in the darkest hour from a recurring nightmare, he sees the yew tree from the graveyard at the back of his house form itself into a monster and come to stand outside his bedroom window.

It’s not there to frighten him, though. It’s there to help him. Only, not in an easy or obvious way:

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley… I will come to you again on further nights… And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before… And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.

The stories the monster tells are far from comforting. And after each telling, Conor finds himself landed with some massive inconvenience to have to deal with, like a floor covered in twigs or yew-berries. (It gets much worse later on.)

A Monster Calls coverI found A Monster Calls an utterly compelling read. Patrick Ness (working from an idea from author Siobhan Dowd) follows Conor into some pretty dark, uncomfortable situations, and part of the compulsion in reading is to see how Ness deals with what is, after all, an awful situation. It’s obvious there’s no magic waiting in the wings to cure Conor’s mother. So how can it be turned into a story that ends in anything but despair?

Most of the trouble in the story is caused by the fact that nobody can come out and admit that Conor’s mother is dying — not Conor, not his mother, not any of the largely well-meaning but helpless adults — but then again, who could? It is, then, ultimately a story about having to face a cold, brutal, and unavoidable truth when you’re the only person who can force yourself to face it.

There’s something a little Pan’s Labyrinth about A Monster Calls. In both, we have a young protagonist — thirteen years old in the case of Conor O’Malley, about eleven in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia — visited by a monster on three significant occasions, each time with a challenge (or, in Conor’s case, a story, which are all pretty challenging). Both Conor and Ofelia are in similar situations, each having only one proper parent — and a sick one, at that — whose sickness puts their child in the care of a less-than-satisfactory replacement (Conor’s grandmother, Ofelia’s stepfather). In both, there’s a feeling that not only is the child protagonist on the verge of adolescence, but are also about to be abruptly exposed, with no parental protection, to a grim and uncaring world.

In mixing very fairy-tale like fantasy with brutal reality, both Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls seem to be asking what use the happily-ever-after promises of fairy tales can be in such an un-fairy-tale-like world that contains things like fascism and cancer. In both cases, though, stories are seen as vital ways of learning to adjust to that reality, never as a means of escape or retreat from it.

Early on in A Monster Calls, the monster says:

Stories are the wildest things of all… Stories chase and bite and hunt.

And I found myself thinking, at first, this was just the sort of thing writers like to write about their art, but was it merely self-congratulatory rhetoric and hand-waving sorcery, or was it true?

A Monster Calls, US coverCertainly, a story like this — a story nobody forced me to read, and which I happily and hungrily devoured on my own — can take you into some pretty uncomfortable situations, ones you wouldn’t leap into cold. So, reading A Monster Calls really did feel, at times, like riding a wild rapid, being jolted and knocked at every bend, with the very real-seeming threat of being completely thrown.

What kept me reading was, I suppose, the promise the monster made — ‘And when I have finished my three stories… you will tell me a fourth… and it will be the truth.’ — and my wanting to know what the fourth story, that truth, would or even could be. It was the very uncompromising nature of the book, and how it dealt with the situation of a young teen faced with his mother’s terminal illness, that compelled me to read. Had Patrick Ness at any point shied from being as unflinching as he was, I might easily have lost faith in the book. As it was, I think the result was spot on.

One thing I was glad to note was how the monster introduced himself:

I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!

Good to see the Deer-antlered One is still plying his weird, wild trade with Britain’s youth!

Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Sphinx by David Lindsay (cover)I was doing some research into David Lindsay’s third novel, Sphinx (published in 1923) — whose title refers to a fictional piece of piano music composed by a fictional composer, Lore Jensen, that’s played early on in the book — when I found that there actually was a piano piece of that name, published in 1908, fifteen years before Lindsay’s novel, and so quite possibly still in circulation at the time the book was written. I’m certainly not going to make the case that Lindsay must have known about it, or that it might have played some part in inspiring his novel (in which the fictional piano piece is mostly there to spark off a conversation about the book’s themes), but it’s fun to explore the possibility, largely because of one further coincidence I’ll come to in a moment.

The real-life 1908 “Sphinx” was composed by Cyril Scott (1879–1970), who was considered by some to be ‘in the forefront of modern British composers’ in ‘the first quarter of the last century’ (the quote is from this 2005 article), though after the Second World War he seems to have drifted from favour. One speculation is that Scott, being continentally-educated and more modernistically-inclined, didn’t fit in with the emerging idea that English music should be about English-educated composers reworking native folk themes.

Cover to score for Cyril Scott's SphinxAnother possibility is Scott’s interest (like many artists and writers of the early 20th Century, such as Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle) in the occult and supernatural. Some of his works, such as his 1917 opera The Alchemist, and his 1932 ballet based on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, reveal this interest, and he also wrote books on these (and other) subjects. This is something that fell out of fashion in post-WWII culture, and may have had a distancing effect on the critical elite.

Scott’s interest in metaphysics was sparked by the pianist Evelyn Stuart, who was a Christian Scientist, and who championed his work, premiering many of his pieces, and who introduced him to his publisher. (Scott published a lot of miniature pieces for piano, of the sort that people at the time bought as, later in the century, they’d buy singles. His producing what might have been seen as populist, commercial work is cited as another potential reason for his disfavour in the post-WWII years.)

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Stuart.

In Lindsay’s novel, the short piano piece is described as follows:

‘It was what used to be called a “tone-poem,” a work built round a single central idea. Evelyn evidently found its freshness attractive, for she played it with far greater sympathy and feeling than either of the Chopin pieces. Despite her protestation, she made no obvious blunders. It was quite short, in length a mere trifle, but after the first minute Nicholas grew interested and impressed. The opening was calm, measured and drowsy. One could almost see the burning sand of the desert and feel the enervating sunshine. By degrees the theme became more troubled and passionate, quietly in the beginning, but with a gradually rising storm—not physical, but of emotion—until everything was like an unsteady sea of menace and terror. Towards the end, crashing dissonances appeared, but just when he was expecting the conventional climax to come, all the theme-threads united in a sudden quietening, which almost at once took shape as an indubitable question. It could then be seen that all that had gone before had been leading the way to this question, and that what had appeared simple and understandable had been really nothing of the sort, but, on the contrary, something very mysterious and profound. . . . Half a dozen tranquil and beautiful bars brought the little piece to a conclusion. . . .’

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Cyril Scott’s “Sphinx” (Opus 63) is similar in many ways. It’s reasonably short, as classical music goes (4 minutes, 27 seconds in Michael Schäfer’s recording, available digitally from Amazon UK and US), it opens quietly — in a way that immediately reminded me of the opening of one of my favourite pieces of creepy film music, Christopher Young’s spine-tingling end theme to Hellraiser — gradually rises in both intensity and dissonance (‘Mysteriously, and sustained’, the score says), then lapses back to its initial quietude.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Lindsay was thinking of Scott’s real piece when he was writing about Lore Jensen’s fictional one — his description, after all, is a pretty obvious structure for any piece of short, mysterious music — but reading Lindsay’s prose, and listening to Scott’s composition, it’s easy to imagine it leaving you with the sense of “an indubitable question”, even if the question is only, “Did David Lindsay know this music?”

The novels Lindsay published during his lifetime have been in the public domain since 2016. After thinking someone, surely, would bring the more obscure ones out as ebooks, I gave up waiting and this week published Sphinx on Kindle and other ebook formats. Hopefully this will help make the rest of Lindsay’s work, other than just his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus, accessible to a wider readership.