Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Lavondyss UK HB cover by Alan Lee

UK hardback cover by Alan Lee

Whenever I read Mythago Wood, I vow to work my way through the whole of the Ryhope Wood series. Then I read Lavondyss and stall. This isn’t because Lavondyss is a very different kind of tale from the straightforward fantasy-adventure narrative that drives Mythago Wood — I like the fact Holdstock sets out to do something different in the second book of the series. It’s more to do with a contrast within the book itself. Lavondyss in its second half is a very different book from Lavondyss in its first, and it’s the jarring jump between the two halves that has, until now, always succeeded in putting me off. On this most recent read, though, I finally realised how powerful a novel Lavondyss is, and how it’s actually doing everything Mythago Wood does, only deeper, and weirder, and far more unrelenting in its exploration of what myths are for, and the very human forces that lead to their creation.

Lavondyss is the story of Tallis Keeton, the younger half-sister to Harry Keeton, the airman who accompanied Steven Huxley into Ryhope Wood in the first book, seeking a mythical place he believed could be found deep within the wood, where his facial burns would be healed. The book starts with the disappearance of Tallis’s grandfather, who leaves his baby grandaughter a hastily scrawled and (from the point of view of Tallis’s parents, anyway) rather disturbing letter about stories and myths and the strange powers of nearby Ryhope Wood, before walking out into the snow and dying. Tallis’s later childhood is marked by a second loss when her half-brother Harry’s plane is shot down during the Second World War, and he’s at first believed to be dead. Even when he returns, it’s only briefly, before he sets off on a quest into the depths of Ryhope Wood with Steven Huxley. Lost, then recovered, then lost again.

Lavondyss UK PB, cover by Geoff Taylor

UK paperback, cover by Geoff Taylor

Tallis vows to go into the wood and bring Harry back. Before she can do this, though, she must complete her education in the strange wood and its ways, learning its stories and the secret names of the fields, stones, trees and pathways that she’ll have to use to enter it. Guided by a trio of hooded, masked women who emerge like shadows from the trees to whisper fragmentary tales, Tallis — who in this first half of the book resembles the semi-feral young girl from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” — is basically undergoing a shamanic initiation into the ways of working a mythago-rich world. Under the three women’s guidance, Tallis makes masks and dolls, and learns to use them to open ‘Hollowings’ into the mythago-reality that surrounds Ryhope Wood.

When a book starts with the initiation and education of a young woman into the secret magic world surrounding her, and with her learning to master her own burgeoning power to interact with and control that secret magic, you can’t help but expect a coming-of-age narrative, a sort of twiggy, muddy Harry Potter with masks instead of wands and a vast, stinking, bellowing monster stag called Broken Boy instead of Hedwig the Owl. But once Tallis enters the wood (sooner than she’d hoped for, and breaking a promise to her father as she does), the book jumps ten years, and when we next see her, she’s a grown woman, scarred, lost, and carrying the remains of her dead child.

This is no coming-of-age tale. It’s a book about what (it’s suddenly obvious) Mythago Wood was also about, only, with that book, it was easy not to see it because of the wonder of entering the depths of Ryhope Wood for the first time, and the danger and excitement of that brother-versus-brother adventure story. Both are books about loss, and in its second half Lavondyss is relentless in its exploration of loss, broken promises, and failed intentions. And if you think about it you can see that loss is rooted deep in the very idea of the Ryhope Wood books, in the idea of the mythagos themselves, for mythagos are the ghosts of myths: the lingering never-never remnants of the desperate hopes of past ages. In Lavondyss, mythagos are what remain after the loss of loved ones, or the loss of hope. But mythagos offer no comfort. They’re too brutal and strange. (Still, the humans cling to them as a way to undo loss, by remaking, in mythago-form, what was lost — as with Christian Huxley, in Mythago Wood, journeying into Ryhope in search of a new version of his dead mythago wife Guiwenneth, or, in this book, the half-mythago Morthen saying, after she loses her brother and first love: ‘He’s dead… Now I shall return to my father. From his own first forest I shall find my brother once again…’ But it’s always a forlorn and futile hope.)

Lavondyss is also about art. Tallis’s shamanic initiation can be seen as the birth of an artist. What Tallis-as-artist must understand is that the stories she learns aren’t playthings, but sacred truths which have to be treated with reverence. Speaking of her cache of folklore, she says:

‘It all belongs to me, yes. But it has been passed on to me by someone… Someone else owned the stories first. I mustn’t try to tamper with them. They’re only partly mine, and in any case they are only mine for a while…’

The contrast between art that is treated with reverence — with ‘the unknowing knowing that is at the heart of magic’ — and the latterday remnants that litter the culture with hollow relics of once-true tales, is brought out in the folk rituals of Tallis’s home village:

‘There is no magic left in the festive practices of Oxford, or Grimley, or whatever — the Morrismen and Mummers — no magic unless the mind that enacts the festival has a gate opened to the first forest…’

That ‘first forest’ is Lavondyss, ‘the unknown region’, ‘the place where the spirit of man is no longer tied to the seasons’, ‘the way home’, the depths of the human mind. It is:

‘…both the desired realm, or the most feared realm; the beginning place or the final place; the place of life before birth, or life after death; the place of no hardship, or the place where life is tested and transition from one state of being to another is accomplished. Such a realm would appear to exist in the heartwoods…’

For Harry Keeton, it’s a place of healing, but it’s not going to heal him simply by removing his scars. It’s not a place you come away from without being utterly changed. It’s a place where you must be unmade before you can be remade. It’s where myths are born, and myths aren’t created by human beings when they’re happy. They’re created out of situations of desperation, and it’s just such a situation that we see when Tallis finally finds her way there.

After which she says:

‘I feel violated, consumed; yet I feel loved.’

And it’s far easier to feel that ‘violated’ and ‘consumed’ than it is to feel the ‘loved’.

Lavondyss illustration by Alan Lee

illustration by Alan Lee

Lavondyss is a far more challenging book than I had expected the first few times I read it. The signs for the sort of book it is are certainly there in Mythago Wood, but it wasn’t till now, on what must be my third or fourth read, that I’ve finally been able to see them. Now I can see it’s a book that’s more similar to, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, than the sort of fantasy book I was expecting.

And that’s certainly set me up for going ahead with the other books in the series. The question is, having taken his series so quickly to such heights of intensity, where can Holdstock go from here?

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 Suart, 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 Suart. (Thanks to Séan Martin for pointing out my previous error in calling her 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.

The Height of the Scream by Ramsey Campbell

The Height of the Scream UK 1978 HB cover

The Height of the Scream, Millington (1978). Cover design by Lorie Epstein.

Ramsey Campbell’s third collection, The Height of the Scream, is less of a defining moment than his second, Demons By Daylight. Demons, released in 1973 by Arkham House, was his post-Lovecraft book, the statement of his move away from Lovecraft’s style and subject matter to something more true to his own voice and experience. In The Height of the Scream, he’s consolidating that voice. But there’s also the fact that the stories in Scream cover a period from 1965’s ‘The Cellars’ to 1974’s ‘The Shadows’ (the book was published in 1976 by Arkham House — his last from them till 1993’s career retrospective, Alone with the Horrors — and in the UK by Millington in 1978), so at least half of it overlaps that covered by Demons By Daylight. (Confusingly, one story, ‘The Telephones’, even appeared in both The Height of the Scream and a 1979 US edition of Demons By Daylight.)

My three favourite stories from The Height of the Scream are all, though, from 1973. In the title story, the narrator’s friend Martin reveals he’s discovered an unwanted ability to cause aggression in the people around him. After sparking a very public argument between a couple, and then a violent suicide, these aggressive impulses start to turn on Martin himself, with ultimately fatal consequences — but not before he’s told the narrator that he has the same ability growing inside him, too.

The Height of the Scream, Arkham House

Arkham House HB

‘The Words that Count’ was one of the first Campbell stories I read, and though it might be dismissed by some as a gimmick tale, I still remember the thrill I felt on discovering the trick he’d played with it. (And I think it still works as a story even once you’ve seen it.) It’s narrated by a young woman living with her strictly religious father and beginning to feel the first stirrings of a conflict with his beliefs, as she’s now got a job (in a Christian bookshop) and a boyfriend, and she wonders which she’d side with if it came to the crunch: her boyfriend or her father. She has literary ambitions, and ‘The Words that Count’ is her attempt to write a story about something that happened to her (‘write what you know’), when an unusual pamphlet is put through their letterbox. Each page of the pamphlet has a single word printed on it, and she finds the colours and shapes of the words individually beautiful, so much so that she doesn’t take in what the sequence of words is saying. Her father does, though, and denounces the pamphlet as evil. But by that point it has already started to have its effect.

The best story in the book, for me, was ‘Horror House of Blood’, a deliberately lurid title for a subtle tale about a couple who agree to let the final scenes of a low-budget horror movie be filmed inside their house, and how, afterwards, this creates a charged atmosphere of expectation, as though something is awaiting — and encouraging — the real bloodbath to which the filmed scenes were merely a rehearsal.

The Height of the Scream, UK paperback

Star paperback

In all three of these stories, the horror emerges from the psychology of the characters. The narrator and his friend in ‘The Height of the Scream’ indulge in marijuana, and at first the friend’s belief that he’s causing this aggression in others could be dismissed as pot-smoker’s paranoia. The weirdness of ‘The Words that Count’ emerges through its narrator’s aesthetic sense, which blinds her to the message in the pamphlet, a message that nevertheless implants itself in her head (and replicates itself through her own writing), with the added implication that it may be latching onto a latent desire to kill her over-controlling father. In ‘Horror House of Blood’, it’s ambiguous what the source of the horror is — is it the nastiness of the cheap horror film, the barely contained brutality of its director, or something already present in the house, waiting to be awoken? Whichever it is, it only gains hold thanks to the two lead characters’ increasing obsession with the film’s implied act of bloodshed.

The feeling is that, through delving into dark areas within their own psychologies, the characters in these stories somehow make contact with a supernatural order of reality, one that’s not awakened or active in most people. It’s the characters’ unusual psychological states that connect them to it, and unleash dark, often self-directed, enmities or powers. In a way, then, these stories are still Lovecraftian, in that they’re about how delving into areas better left alone leads to a revelation of horror. But where Lovecraft used scientific or occult research — forbidden knowledge — to achieve his dark revelations, in Campbell they come through the exploration of strange psychologies, the breaking of self-imposed barriers or norms — forbidden experience — something that’s often achieved through encountering or creating art (music in ‘The Dark Show’, shadow puppetry in ‘In the Shadows’, comics in ‘Smoke Kiss’) or through deliberately experimenting with new perceptions (drugs in ‘The Height of the Scream’, metaphysical speculation in ‘Litter’).

The Inhabitant of the Lake by Ramsey CampbellIn some of the stories in this book, rather than bringing in the Lovecraftian entities of his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake, Campbell brings in something from the standard trappings of horror — Satanism, voodoo, exorcism — as though feeling the need to provide some sort of justification or explanation for the horror in the story. But this isn’t true of any of the better tales in Scream, where no explanation or justification is offered, or needed. Here, the supernatural doesn’t explicitly emerge — it’s suspected to be there, and the story ends at the point where the protagonists are about to surrender to it, but often before we, as readers, feel there definitely is a supernatural element, meaning the protagonists may be about to do something horrific with, possibly, no need to, beyond being caught up in a deluded belief or obsessive idea.

Campbell’s horror works best without explanation or justification, but as pure experience — his horrors are, fundamentally, horrors that emerge from subjectivity, but which use that subjectivity to open up a potential loss of identity and sanity, isolating his protagonists, or trapping them in patterns of behaviour that can only lead to worse horrors still.