A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer

Puffin edition, 1974, cover by Peter Andrew Jones

I managed to end up with two editions of A Castle of Bone before I got round to reading it. Two editions with different covers, each suggesting a quite different kind of book. The Puffin cover from 1974 was the first commercial work from fantasy & science fiction artist Peter Andrew Jones. It suggests an exciting, danger-filled adventure in which young teens are menaced by a somewhat science fictional-looking castle, spiky, dark, and (seemingly) revolving. The other cover, by Angela Maddigan, is from a 1973 hardback edition issued by the Children’s Book Club. It suggests a much more laid-back, poetic kind of fantasy, a journey of wonders and discovery rather than dangers. Halfway through reading Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, I began to wonder if either of these covers actually suited the book. There had been brief, dreamy trips to another land that centred on a castle, but after a while these seemed to have been dropped for a completely different plot in which three of the four teen protagonists are having to look after a baby, while keeping the fact secret from their parents. There was, in the end, one more trip to the land of the castle, but it was far stranger than either cover suggested. (And there was no rending of blouses as in the Puffin cover, though nor was it as placid as the Children’s Book Club cover.) But I’d be hard pressed to say what might make a good cover to this very strange book, which took me some time after I’d read it to figure out what it might even be about.

Children’s Book Club edition, cover by Angela Maddigan

The book starts with arty, somewhat spacey-headed teen Hugh (or borderline-teen — he’s about twelve, I think) being told by his mother that he needs to acquire a cupboard so he can tidy his room. His room is somewhat of a problem, as it has an awkwardly sloping wall, meaning it’s hard to find something that will fit, and Hugh is precisely the sort of youngster not to mind living in a room strewn with clothes worn and unworn. He’d far rather be either painting or staring into space.

But a cupboard has to be bought, so he and his father set out, and find an antiques shop (“junk shop,” his father says), where Hugh sees, and instantly realises he needs, the perfect cupboard. (His father calls it “monstrous, abominable.”) They take it home — it seems, oddly, almost “supernaturally” heavy — and install it, whereafter Hugh forgets about putting any of his clothes into it, and that night finds himself in a strange land, working his way towards a castle that always seems to be changing — sometimes it’s shiny, sometimes dark, sometimes it’s see-through. When he wakes up the next day, his feet are dirty.

Hugh’s best friend Penn lives next door, and he and his sister Anna come round to visit Hugh and Hugh’s sister Jean. At some point Anna (who is even more given to dreamy absences than Hugh) puts Hugh’s wallet in the still-empty cupboard and closes the door. A moment later, odd sounds are heard from inside. They open the door, only for a live pig — “quite unmistakably a real pig, with hanging dugs and crude, prehistoric-looking skin” — to flop out and make a dash for the exit. The pig escapes, but the cupboard remains. Soon, the four teens realise it has a magical quality: if you put something inside and close the doors, when you open them again, that thing will have been transformed to some earlier stage of its existence. Hugh’s wallet, for instance, was made of pigskin. Brass buttons put into the cupboard sometimes emerge as a puddle of molten metal, sometimes as the individual rocks from which their copper and zinc was extracted. There’s no controlling, or predicting, what previous stage in their existence the objects will revert to. And then, of course, the cat gets in. It emerges as a kitten.

There’s an obvious next step, one that everyone is curious about but nobody wants to try. What if a person went into the cupboard? It’s a possible way of achieving a sort of immortality. When you get old you simply get into the cupboard, turn yourself young again, and live a whole new stretch of life. But Hugh, Penn, Anna and Jean are all young already, so why should that concern them? Why does Hugh find himself irresistibly drawn to the idea of getting into the cupboard?

Farmer has two excellent qualities as a writer of fantasy. On the one hand, she inserts fantasy elements into her story that are highly charged with a host of possible meanings, and though this sometimes left me wondering exactly what it all meant, I was never in doubt that it did all mean something. (There are plenty of references to myth and folklore thrown in, too, from King Arthur to Odysseus to Thomas the Rhymer, only adding to the meaningfulness and confusion.) As she says in an essay, “Discovering the Pattern”, published in a 1975 anthology of essays by children’s writers, The Thorny Paradise:

“I am asked why, as a writer for children, I do not produce nice, solid, useful novels on the problems of the adopted child or aimed at the reluctant reader, and so forth, instead of highly symbolic (according to some reviewers) obscure (according to others) — anyway, difficult fantasies.”

When A Castle of Bone ends with — at last — a proper visit by all four teens to the land of the titular castle, it proves to be a very strange realm indeed. This is no trip to Narnia. The land of the castle is a land of possibilities and potentialities, where everything is, moment by moment, the possibilities of what it could be, rather than (as in our world) the one thing it has ended up being. It feels like a unique land among the many lands of fantasy literature, though not one you’d care to linger in.

The other quality Farmer has is a great ability to evoke the peculiarities of real life in a way that really makes her characters seem like genuine individuals. Hugh’s spacey moments, for instance, when he drifts off and gives in to dreamy abstractions, are a perfect representation of a certain type of adolescent mood, as when he gazes out of a window and:

“…it left him with an extraordinary, strange, creative ache; a beautiful yet unbearable sense of growing out of himself, exploding skin and bone. He tried to catch this feeling sometimes, record it, pin it down…”

The relationships between the characters are wonderfully realistic, too, with the four teens being bound together by, at times, nothing more than a mutual feeling of vague annoyance with one another. And they all find their parents as incomprehensible and mildly annoying as their parents seem to find them. It’s not the sort of crisis level of dysfunctionality you find in an Alan Garner novel, rather it seems like the healthily human sort of dysfunctionality you get in families that are happy to let each member be themselves, even if it means for a little friction.

So what is the book about? I always like the way a good novel can be open to multiple meanings, but, at the same time, I feel unsatisfied till I’ve found at least one for myself, so here’s my take on what A Castle of Bone may be about.

I think it’s about learning to accept one’s identity, one’s being-in-the-world, and the choices that are available to you in this life. It’s about seeing that identity is, in a way, tied up with mortality — with the fact that the life you live is one of constant (though slow) change, from baby to child to teen to adult to old age, but is still rooted in something changeless: the fact that, throughout these changes, you are always you. The “castle of bone” is the person you are, the body you were born into, with all its peculiarities, a castle that is protective of your identity (as a castle is) while also imposing limits on that identity (a castle can be a prison, too).

When Hugh first sees the cupboard, he instantly knows he has to have it:

“Immediately he had never in his life wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints.”

1992 Puffin edition

I think this is because, at some unconscious level, Hugh knows that the cupboard represents the next stage in his growing up, his becoming who he is. A cupboard can be seen as a sort of metaphor for identity — it’s the thing Hugh is going to put his clothes into, so it’s going to contain his public persona, but it’s also one of those magical interior spaces, both limited and limitless, that represent the human imagination. At first, he didn’t want to go out and buy a cupboard, he just wanted his parents to pick one for him — “A cupboard was a cupboard, was a cupboard” — but being forced to make a decision is the first step to making the more important decisions in his life, such as who he is.

And the old man who sells him the cupboard later says that this is what Hugh must do to end the complications that the cupboard’s magic have thrown into the four teens’ lives: he must enter the cupboard deliberately, “And go into your castle.” — choose who he is, then start to become that person.

This old man is a somewhat puzzling character. (In the “Discovering the Pattern” essay, Farmer identifies him to some degree with Tiresias, the blind seer of Ancient Greek myth.) He seems to change in character from moment to moment. His junk shop is filled with things that prove to be images of himself — a bust, a figure in a painting, a portrait. It’s obvious he has been using the cupboard to achieve immortality, but that it is in no way a satisfactory immortality. He has become fragmented as a person, a series of remnants of his many former lives — not valuable antiques but, as Hugh’s father said, “junk”. This, then, is not the way to be in this world; one must accept one’s mortality, commit to one’s identity, and see it through.

A Castle of Bone is an intriguing book. It’s perhaps as puzzling as, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, and while it’s certainly not as traumatic, it could well be in the same league in terms of richness of meaning, only in a very different direction. It doesn’t have Garner’s intensity of focus (though I think Garner’s intensity, which makes his books what they are, is also the reason for the feeling of trauma in them — it’s the intense focus of the over-powerful intellect, dissecting emotions in a way intellect was never supposed to). Farmer’s is a book that manages to feel as though it’s about ordinary life at the same time as it’s about the unordinariness of life, the state of being a particular human individual, with all the unique peculiarities a human individual has, including the richness of the inner life, particularly at those self-defining moments in which you must decide, at some level, how to be you. (Which links it nicely to another Garner work, The Stone Book Quartet, which is based around similar moments.) Reading it did, occasionally, feel a bit frustrating — particularly when the main characters were spending so much time looking after a baby, and I wanted them to be investigating another world — but the ending, I think, made up for that, and perhaps on a second read, when I know the sort of book it is, I might enjoy it even more.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Harvill HB, cover by Keenan

In 1997, Haruki Murakami published his first full-length work of non-fiction (later translated into English in abridged form as Underground) in which he interviewed both the victims and the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack that took place in the Tokyo subway in March 1995. After the Quake, a slim collection of six stories first published in Japan in 1999 (and in English in 2002) is in part an outgrowth of that project, being an artistic response to another devastating event that occurred in Japan only two months before the gas attack, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like Underground, it focuses on ordinary lives and how they are affected by a large-scale disaster.

A key difference, though — apart from this being fiction — is that, unlike the interviewees in Underground, none of the characters in After the Quake directly experiences the Kobe earthquake. Instead, in each of the six stories, the main character has some sort of powerful, barely-dormant subterranean force of their own that they have learned to live with on a day-to-day basis, but which the Kobe earthquake, through a sort of sympathetic magic, threatens to bring into the open. It might be unacknowledged love, it might be long-held-onto hatred, but most often it’s loss or emptiness.

It’s perhaps at its purest, and most Murakami-ish, in the first story in the book, “UFO in Kushiro” (which can be read at the The New Yorker). The main character, Komura, is a hi-fi salesman whose wife, after spending days doing nothing but watching reports of the Kobe earthquake on TV, suddenly leaves him. The only concrete reason she gives is that Komura has nothing to give her: “living with you,” she writes in her farewell note, “is like living with a chunk of air”. Komura takes a week’s leave, but, unsure what to do with himself, accepts the suggestion of a work colleague that he visit Hokkaido, because the colleague has a delicate package he needs to get there, and he’s willing to cover Komura’s expenses if he delivers it. Komura does so, handing over the package to the colleague’s sister, then spending the rest of the day with the sister’s friend, Shimao. They end up in a love hotel together, but Komura finds himself impotent. He tells Shimao about the emptiness his wife accused him of having inside. Out of nowhere, Shimao says that the thing Komura is supposed to have inside himself was in the package he just delivered, and now he’s handed it over, he’ll always be empty inside. If it’s a joke, it’s too close to the mark, because, hearing it, Komura feels his own inner-earthquake pre-tremors:

“For one split second, Komura realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.”

It doesn’t matter, in “UFO in Kushiro”, what the emptiness is, only that Komura finally manages to feel it. In “Landscape with Flatiron”, the second story in the collection, the main character, Junko, feels inside herself “a certain ‘something’… deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling… too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea”. Having run away from home and now working in a convenience store, she gets to know a middle-aged painter, Miyake, who has an irrational feeling that he will die trapped in a fridge. He’s clearly aware this is just a symbol of his own fear of being trapped in other ways — as, for instance, by the family he abandoned in Kobe. He likes to comb the beach for driftwood, building bonfires, which symbolise, for him, true freedom. Looking into the flames of his latest creation, Junko sees not freedom but acceptance, in response to her own particular emptiness:

“The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”

In most of the stories, Murakami’s characters find some way of working with the emptiness they find within themselves, but these are almost always abstract, irrational actions, symbolic rather than practical, as though it doesn’t matter so much what you do to counter the emptiness, just that you do something. In “All God’s Children Can Dance”, for instance, Yoshiya is told by his highly religious mother that he has no human father, but is the son of “Our Lord”. He has ceased to believe in God, but finally finds a sort of self-acceptance by dancing his own peculiar form of dance, alone in the dark. In “Thailand”, meanwhile, an ageing thyroid specialist who has retained a lifelong hatred of a certain man in Kobe (and who can’t help believing, at some level, that her hatred caused the earthquake there), is told how to finally let go, because otherwise, she’s told, when she dies, only the hatred will remain.

The strangest tale in the book, and surely the most memorable, is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”. The main character here is Katagiri, who sees himself as something of a nobody. He collects debts for the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, and is largely successful because, having given up on life, he has no fear when confronted by the various gangsters, heavies, and criminals his work brings him into contact with. One day he comes home to find a giant frog waiting in his apartment. This frog — who insists on being called “Frog”, not “Mr. Frog” — is going to try to save Tokyo from an earthquake many times worse than the one that hit Kobe, and needs Katagiri’s help. The Frog, who is both immensely strong and impressively well-read for an amphibian (he quotes Tolstoy, Conrad, Nietzsche, Hemingway, and Dostoevsky) is perhaps Katagiri’s own repressed potential — his unacknowledged strength (his “courage and passion for justice”, which Katagiri is surprised to find Frog praising him for), and the urge to live a fuller life (Frog’s endless quotations finally encourage Katagiri to read).

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin (translator of a lot of Murakami’s fiction, including these stories), says that After the Quake is “perhaps Murakami’s most conventional story collection”, and it’s certainly his most consistent, with none of the more experimental pieces you find in his other collections. (The stories are also almost all of the same length.) Some, such as “UFO in Kushiro”, with its abandoned, suddenly empty mid-life protagonist, or the final story “Honey Pie” (whose tale of a love triangle between college friends evokes Murakami’s most famous book, Norwegian Wood, as well as one of his most recent, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) feel like essence-of-Murakami: characters, as Rubin says, “whose outwardly satisfactory lives leave them feeling unfulfilled and who live on the edge of some devastating discovery.”

I was very happy to get the chance to see Murakami himself shortly after the book’s publication in the UK, where he read from one of the stories (I’m sure it was “Super-Frog”), in both English and Japanese, and where I got my copy signed. This may, of course, be why it remains one of my favourites of his — After Dark, which came out shortly after, being another — and perhaps it helps that it’s short, but it’s certainly a more consistent and satisfying collection than his first book of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which only, for me, had a couple of really good hits).

The Light Maze by Joan North

UK hardback of The Light Maze. Illustration by David Higham.

Twenty-year-old Kit Elton comes to the countryside to stay with her godmother, Sally Nancarrow, on the back of a broken engagement. Sally’s husband, Tom, disappeared two years ago — one moment he was in his study, writing a book “about the odd ways people’s minds could work”, the next he was simply gone. Kit is given Tom’s study as a bedroom, and on her first evening there, after examining a strange paperweight “carved in the shape of two fishes — or were they tadpoles? — curved, head to tail”, falls into a dream:

“She seemed to be walking through an avenue of tall, tapering bushes which twisted and turned in the wind. It had been raining and the sun shone on them so that they glistened and danced with a dazzle of light and swayed in the air like blown candleflames… and now indeed they seemed more like flames than bushes…”

Later, among Tom Nancarrow’s papers, she finds a mysterious reference to this very “Light Maze” she’d dreamt about, and learns of a local legend, the Lightstone, of which it’s said:

“If you hold in your hand the Lightstone and hear in the silence the true note which is yourself then you will be able to the enter the Maze.”

With Sally’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Harriet, and a local boy, Barney Medlicott, Kit learns more about both the Lightstone and the Light Maze, and comes to realise it’s into this otherworldly realm that Tom has disappeared. But her investigations pique the interest of Esmerelda Melling, a local member of the Club of True Seekers (“some of our members have very wide knowledge of occult matters”), whose hunger for “wonder, joy, bliss” leads her to try to use the Lightstone for her own purposes — not evil, merely selfish, but nevertheless with the effect of disturbing the balance between the Light Maze and our world, leading to more people disappearing.

UK hardback, back cover

The Light Maze was published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972. On the book’s back jacket flap it says that North’s books — of which this was her last published — “bring into an ordinary and often comical picture of everyday life an awareness of other worlds, other modes of being”. The comedy, here, is very light. North is gently satiric of some of her characters, such as the social busybody Mrs Medlicott, or the self-consciously exotic Esmerelda Melling, or the boisterously adolescent Harriet, but there’s nothing that feels overtly comic. The darker side is handled lightly too: all of the main characters, for instance, have experienced loss — Kit has broken up with her fiancé, Sally’s husband and Harriet’s father has disappeared with no explanation, Barney Medlicott is an orphan, and Francis Leland, a playwright who lives in a flat above the Nancarrow’s household’s stable, has lost both his wife and his ability to write — but once established, none of these instances of loss weighs too heavily on the story. They can almost be forgotten, as though North were allowing the reader to take it or leave it.

To me, though, it felt as though, after this intriguing set up, the characters’ depths weren’t really explored, which is an issue in a book which is, essentially, about entering one’s inner depths. The Lightstone and Light Maze, it becomes clear, are part of an allegory of self-realisation or self-exploration. Achieving the centre of the Maze leads to some sort of inner fulfilment, but to do so, one must face “the Guardian of the Threshold”:

“There is a theory that if we try to turn our attention inwards, to explore our own depths, to find out who and what we are, we are liable to be confronted by a sort of shadow-self — all the parts of ourselves we have pushed out of our consciousness and refused to know.”

Or, as the oracular Barney has it:

“The brightest light brings the deepest shadow.”

Several of the book’s characters venture into the Light Maze and encounter a “sort of dark mass of corruption” within it, but if this is their own darkness, called into relief by the brighter light of the maze, it’s undifferentiated from character to character. Every character’s darkness is the same, and I didn’t get the sense that each character was confronting something personal, except that they would feel a certain familiarity alongside the fear and repugnance. Like the rest of the book’s fantasy elements, this darkness is just a little bit too abstract, and it needs North’s characters to (as they do on a couple of occasions) sit down and lay out what it all means, rather than allowing the fantasy to speak for itself.

It’s perhaps unfair to make this criticism of a YA book, but I can’t help comparing it to other, similar books of the same era. Le Guin’s Threshold, Garner’s Red Shift, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, for instance, deal with far more powerful and personal forces of darkness. It’s that sense of a very real-seeming, often gritty and class-conscious reality coming up against meaningful fantasy that I like in the era’s YA, and The Light Maze doesn’t quite have it, though it does feel as though it’s on the edge of the same territory. The Light Maze, I’d say, could stand alongside Susan Cooper’s Blytonesque Over Sea, Under Stone, but not its sequel, the much more realistic (in terms of characters and setting) The Dark is Rising. One of the main things The Light Maze is about, though, is the avoidance of extremes — how the search for higher states, as with Esmeralda’s “wonder, joy, bliss”, inevitably calls up a corresponding darkness — so, North’s lightness of touch may well have been an intentional part of what she was trying to say.

I first heard about Joan North from Matthew David Surridge’s post at Black Gate, which is well worth a read.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.