A Voyage to Arcturus — the Séance

The first chapter of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus can seem a bit of an anomaly. It introduces eleven characters, all but three of whom (and they’re the last three to be introduced) are forgotten as soon as the chapter ends. What’s more, we get enticing hints about these soon-to-be-forgotten characters, making it seem Lindsay might have had some sort of a plan for them. Montague Faull, for instance, the South American merchant at whose Hampstead home, Prolands, the séance is to take place, obviously has the hots for another character, Mrs Trent. (Backhouse notices “the concealed barbarian in the complacent gleam of his eye” when Faull looks at her). There’s plot material there, but it never gets used.

As more people arrive for the séance, it almost seems as though Lindsay were bringing characters on stage for the purpose of auditioning them to be his novel’s protagonist. After Backhouse — who’d certainly make the subject of an interesting, if depressing, novel (Lindsay tells us something of his fate) — and the rascally Faull, we get Lang, “the stockjobber, well known in his own circle as an amateur prestidigitator” — surely set to be the hero of his own series of Raffles-like adventures, in which he beats cat burglars at their own game on the tiled roofs of interwar London. Then we get Professor Halbart:

“He was the eminent psychologist, the author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius, etc., considered in their mental aspects. His presence at such a gathering somewhat mystified the other guests, but all felt as if the object of their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity.”

Ballantine cover, art by Bob Pepper

Surely Halbart is to be our hero, the man who, perhaps by teaming up with Backhouse to gain a clue or two from the netherworld, will prove Montague Faull to be the murderer of Mrs Trent’s husband at the exact same moment Faull was hosting the séance! Or perhaps, working alone, he’ll discover Backhouse to be a criminal mastermind using his weirdly tangible apparitions to commit a series of daring robberies or anarchistic assassinations.

But no, it’s none of them. At what seems the last moment, Lindsay brings on the peculiar double act of Maskull and Nightspore, one the evident man of action, the other “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”. What sort of adventure would require such a pairing? This Voyage to Arcturus novel is growing stranger and stranger by the moment…

But still Lindsay isn’t done. As though daring himself to go one step further still, in leaps Krag, who’s another order of being altogether. His first act, after loudly greeting his astonished host, is to murder Backhouse’s apparition by twisting its neck in two precise movements.

Part of me loves the possibility that Lindsay sat down to write a novel set entirely in Hampstead, and got shanghaied by some wild strain of his own imagination. This quote from a letter to E H Visiak makes it almost seem possible:

“I do not know how it is with you, but my books up to the present have turned out quite other than I have originally intended, so that it is almost fascinating to watch them developing themselves on their own lines.” — Letter to Visiak, 21st October 1921, printed in Adam International Review Vol XXXV.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

But I can’t believe he simply busked the rest of the book, particularly as there’s the weird way that moments of Maskull’s journey tie in with incidents on Earth, as though the two were happening both subsequently and simultaneously — or perhaps, on some mythic plane, perpetually — most evident of which is Maskull’s at one point lying down on Tormance to die, only to find himself waking up, briefly, as the very apparition whose hand he shook, at the séance he attended several days previously!

So here are a few other ideas. I’m not presenting any of them as convincing arguments. I’ve come to enjoy re-reading A Voyage to Arcturus as a way of opening up its possibilities rather than trying to solve it as though it were a crossword puzzle, and I think the more I do that, the richer, as a novel, it becomes.

The most obvious interpretation sees the séance chapter as part of the general pattern of all of Maskull’s later adventures, in which a new region of Tormance is introduced, along with its inhabitants and their world-view or philosophy, only to have it all proved to be another of Crystalman’s ploys, by having the “vulgar, sordid, bestial” grin appear on yet another corpse, like the rubber stamp of Lindsay’s disapproval. In this context, the Hampstead séance is just one more rejection — the primal rejection, you could say, as it rejects the writer’s own world and culture wholesale. Exactly what the rejection is of is difficult to say, as it seems to be rejecting so much, though the ennui that leads these successful Hampstead residents to indulge in a little light séance-ing is perhaps best summed up by Joiwind’s later comment:

“That’s a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?”
“Something of the kind,” said Maskull.
“That must be a disease brought on by rich food.”

At this time, most works of imaginative fiction used a framing device — as in, for instance, The Turn of the Screw, where everyone stands around a fireplace, taking turns telling ghost stories — and it could be that Lindsay simply included the Hampstead chapter as a convention, as the accepted way to tell a fantastic tale. In this interpretation, the trip to Tormance doesn’t actually take place, but is played out before us as part of the séance. After all, the voyagers-to-be, Maskull and Nightspore, make their first appearance the moment after Backhouse has announced the séance has started — so is Maskull and Nightspore’s entrance its first manifestation? And is all that follows in fact a vision channelled through Backhouse for Montague Faull and his guests’ amusement and/or instruction? (But if so, we ought to get their reactions at the end. I can imagine Faull applauding politely while throwing a glance at Mrs Trent to see if he might get her alone later in the evening, while Professor Halbart jots a line or two in a pocket notebook.)

Turkish edition, from İthaki Yayınları, 2016

Another take on the séance chapter is that Lindsay is setting up a contrast. Maskull will set out on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, guided by the mysterious “Muspel Light”, whose name refers to the realm of fire, Muspelheim, in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Hampstead are, at the start of the book, “illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire”, a hearth-fire that in no way compares to the mystical and otherworldly blaze coming from Muspel. It could be that, in this way, this séance in a Hampstead drawing room sets up a very Lindsay-esque comparison, as though he were saying that Maskull’s trip to Tormance stands in the same relation to a drawing-room séance as a séance stands to an average evening social gathering in a Hampstead drawing room. Just as the séance is a breaking through of the wondrous and sublime into Hampstead normality, so the trip to Tormance outdoes the séance by multiplying its wonders and sublimity exponentially.

It could be, though, that Lindsay was doing something necessary to his own creative process in the séance chapter, because it has echoes with the set-ups in his later novels, as though he had certain alchemical preconditions necessary to begin working his literary magic. These preconditions involve the coming together of two opposing but complimentary elements, most often embodied, in Lindsay’s fiction, as a man and a woman. As he says, in another letter to E H Visiak:

“You remark — ‘Poetry is generated by the clash of the male and female elements in the personality.’ I go further and say that all the works of creative genius are the children of the union of the male and female elements, and that it is the female that produces them.” — Letter to E H Visiak, 9th Feb 1922; printed in Adam International Review 346-348

The first of these elements at the séance is Backhouse the medium. Backhouse is presented as an aloof, disciplined man, who, despite the fact he hires himself out as the entertainment at soirées such as this, takes his work very seriously. Of what he does, he says: “I dream with open eyes… and others see my dreams. That is all.” He makes no attempt to explain or understand what he does — which makes it so fitting when Krag calls him a “spirit-usher” — nor to embellish or mystify it in any way. In this, he’s a bit like Lindsay himself, whose prose style has wrong-footed some readers into thinking it no style at all, or a bad style, simply because it does none of the usual things that a fantasy prose style of the time (Dunsany’s, for instance) was expected to do. It works none of what Clark Ashton Smith calls “verbal black magic”, but instead seems intent on cutting all the magic out, so as to present its wonders in a plain, straightforward, take-it-or-leave-it style, with no rhetoric and no poetry. The facts are left to speak for themselves, thus making them seem all the more like facts. What Backhouse says of himself might count for Lindsay, too:

“I am a simple man, and always prefer to reduce things to elemental simplicity… Nature is one thing, and art is another.”

In this, he’s like another Lindsay protagonist, Nicholas Cabot in Sphinx. In that novel, Nicholas is working on a machine to record the deep-sleep dreams we can never remember upon waking. He, too, is seeking to “dream with open eyes” — conscious, rational, waking eyes — and his approach is as scientific and inartistic as Backhouse’s.

Which is why the medium is so discombobulated when he turns up at Prolands to find he’s to work on what is, effectively, a theatrical stage. It’s all down to our second alchemical element, Mrs. Trent — of whom Lindsay says, “It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present.” She represents the creative element Backhouse represses, denies or lacks. And though her contribution is, on the face of it, simply to have the séance room done up with theatrical scenery and a hidden orchestra, what she’s also doing is bringing the power of Mozart, and the Temple scene from The Magic Flute specifically, to magnify Backhouse’s powers as a medium. In a way, it could be this — mediumship plus Mozart — that takes Backhouse’s normally dry but impressive séances to the next level, turning this one into the start of a journey to another world. (Also, of course, Mrs Trent is the one who invites Maskull and Nightspore to the séance — her apparitions, ready to mix with Backhouse’s.)

Lindsay was obviously deeply affected by Mozart, particularly this one scene from The Magic Flute. And in his description of the séance room, it’s evident he’s thinking of one specific production of the opera:

“Having settled his guests in their seats, Faull stepped up to the curtain and flung it aside. A replica, or nearly so, of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the ‘Magic Flute’ was then exposed to view: the gloomy, massive architecture of the interior, the glowing sky above it in the background, and, silhouetted against the latter, the gigantic seated statue of the Pharaoh…”

In England, The Magic Flute received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in March 1838. Obviously, Lindsay didn’t see this one. It was revived, though, in 1914 by Sir Thomas Beecham, as part of the repertoire of his Beecham Opera Company, which was formed after the Covent Garden Opera Company shut down during the First World War. Beecham toured his company around England, but settled at Drury Lane in 1917, putting on performances between May and July, and September and November, of that year, which is when I guess Lindsay (still in his first year of married life, at the time) might have seen it. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage designs for an 1815 production are the images most associated with The Magic Flute:

But Beecham’s company employed Hugo Rumbold as designer, and in the 30th May 1914 issue of The Sphere, there are some drawings of Rumbold’s stage set-ups in an article about the opening of Beecham’s new opera season. They don’t seem as impressive as Schinkel’s designs, but perhaps this is what Lindsay was thinking of as the setting for his séance:

“A Fanfare of Trumpets in the Temple. Act II, Scene I”. Drawing by D. Macpherson, of Hugo Rumbold’s stage design for The Magic Flute. Source: the British Newspaper Archive; The British Library Board. © Illustrated London News Group

So, the séance chapter may have been all about setting up a sort of chemical reaction: Backhouse’s link to the netherworld combined with Mrs Trent’s link to “the beautiful and solemn strains of Mozart’s ‘temple’ music”. Result: Maskull on Tormance.

Perhaps, though, it’s easier simply to think about the effect the séance chapter has on the rest of A Voyage to Arcturus. If Lindsay had started with Maskull, Nightspore and Krag setting off for Tormance — or even if he’d started with the second chapter, where Krag, in the street outside, convinces Maskull to accompany him and Nightspore — it would be all too easy for the reader to see the rest of the book as a fable or a flight of fancy. By beginning it in a realistic setting, with realistic-seeming characters, Lindsay sets his reader up for something realistic. This makes the shift to the fantastic setting both more bizarre and shocking and, in a way, more meaningful. Also, that shift from the realistic to the fantastic is a deliberately destabilising move in a book that’s all about destabilising moves. (In an era when other modernistic works, such as The Waste Land, were taking the jarring displacement to a new level.)

I think the reaction the séance chapter often gets is down to that feeling of displacement. The effect is deliberate and meaningful, but it can leave readers who are used to having their science fiction and fantasy provide them with rigorously self-consistent worlds dismissing Lindsay’s effect as a mistake — or, considering the book was published in 1920, dismissing it as ingenuous, when it is, in my opinion, ingenious.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich book, one that repays many close re-reads and re-interpretations. I’ll hopefully write some more about other aspects of it, and Lindsay’s work in general, soon.

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Millington Books HB, 1977

Driving her brother Rob home one night, Clare Frayn is forced to swerve into a lamppost when a man suddenly appears in the road in front of her. The accident severs Rob’s arm, killing him, but when the emergency services arrive, they can’t find either the man who caused the accident or Rob’s arm… A few months later, Clare is contacted by Edmund Hall, author of such non-fiction crime books as Secrets of the Psychopaths, The Homicidal Heart, Love Has Many Weapons and Sinister Sirens. He believes the man who caused the accident and made off with Rob’s arm is a local boy he knew from school, Christopher Kelly, whom he once saw bite into a bully’s arm and refuse to let go, and whom he believes responsible for another local crime, in which a man entered an old woman’s house and ate her dog, causing her to die from a heart-attack. Hall recruits Clare and two other people who’ve suffered from Kelly’s crimes to hunt down this monster and bring him to justice.

I think the deliberately lurid title of Ramsey Campbell’s first novel (published in 1976 in the US, 1977 in the UK), is a sort of goad, a backhanded hint that you should look beyond the obviously sensationalistic aspects of the story. This being Campbell, the characters are drawn with too much subtlety to fit neatly into the usual horror categories of victims, heroes, and, even, monsters. And although Kelly does some undeniably monstrous things, this is not, ultimately, a book about how a human being can be a monster. It’s about the very human means by which monsters are not only made, but kept monstrous.

The ultimate source for the evil that’s in Christopher Kelly is the influence of John Strong, a man who believed that:

‘Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine.’

Bobbs-Merrill, US HB, 1976

Strong had the ability to exert his will over others, and used it to control and degrade anyone who came under his influence. When Kelly’s mother, Cissy, went to him thinking his ‘black magic’ could terminate her unwanted pregnancy, he instead forced her to keep the child and dedicate it to him. Strong, though, is not a character we get to know in Doll except through a pamphlet he wrote (called Glimpses of Absolute Power) and the devastating effect he’s left in his wake. We cannot know the how or the why of him. (‘Of my birth I shall say nothing,’ he writes in his pamphlet.) He represents a perhaps necessary blank wall as far as tracing the ultimate origins of Christopher Kelly’s evil are concerned. All we know about him is that he is the cause of life-ruining degradation and powerlessness in others.

What matters more is how that degradation and powerlessness are sustained by less supernaturally-endowed hands. Mrs Kelly — Cissy’s mother, and the one who raises the boy Christopher — doesn’t have any special powers, but she’s just as controlling, repressive and degrading as John Strong, only she does it in the name of God. Justifying the control she exerted over her daughter, she says:

‘All we asked was that she was home by nine every night, and told us everything she’d done during the day. And what she was going to do the next day.’

And this is when her daughter was a young woman, going out daily to work. Her rejection of the pregnant Cissy is what drives this young woman into John Strong’s hands, and even before Christopher is born, Mrs Kelly has decided what he is:

‘The Devil had made him clever — pretending to be a little boy, waiting for the chance to be a monster.’

John Strong made dolls by which he magically controlled human beings; the likes of Mrs Kelly, by prejudging and repressing at every stage, do their best to make people into less-than-human dolls.

1978 cover, image from Too Much Horror Fiction

The family of George Pugh (whose mother was the old lady who died when she found Kelly gnawing at her dog), though by no means perfect, is the opposite of Mrs Kelly’s approach. The Pugh household allows for both religion (mother Alice Pugh saying grace before dinner) and scepticism (‘George bowed his head, but Clare could see it was a token gesture’) without any conflict, and is obviously nurturing of both its two children, and their pets. George, it turns out, was raised on Shakespeare (‘Everything is in Shakespeare. He makes you feel things as if you’ve never felt them before’), and his parents’ sacrifices were not made in the name of an Old Testament deity, but for the running of a chain of local cinemas. It’s Alice Pugh who, at the end, offers Kelly his chance to rejoin the human race, by convincing him to accept responsibility for what he’s done and hand himself in to the police. But then Edmund Hall, who has consistently made crude, instant judgements about everyone he meets, and who has already made up his mind that Kelly is a monster and must meet a monster’s end, comes blundering along and ruins things.

Bracketing the central horror/tragedy is the subtler and more human tale of Clare, whose self-judgements (having once been told she has ‘stumpy legs’, she’s self-conscious about her every movement) show us a normal human being making herself a little bit monstrous, a little bit unacceptable, in the way so many normal human beings do, while herself being completely understanding of others. She wasn’t raised by anyone as toxic at Mrs Kelly, but we learn that her brother Rob thought their ‘Father and Mother put down everything I was…’, and that this may have made him a little monstrous, too, in the way he makes himself into something he’s not (he fronted an outspoken ‘Working Class Hero Show’ on Radio Merseyside, despite not really being working class, and Clare thinks this made him ‘aggressive, dogmatic, secretly unsure’). We never learn what effect her upbringing might have had on Clare, only that, at the end of all the horror, she finds herself weeping.

‘What is it, Clare?’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh, everything,’ she said indistinctly. ‘It goes back so far.’

And her ‘everything’ can be no way near as horrifying or lurid as Christopher Kelly’s ‘everything’, but it’s still her ‘everything’, which she has to deal with, something that requires, in a humanity-starved, sensation-hungry world, a little extra understanding, a breaking down of judgement and self-judgement, so she can, in her own small way, start to heal.

It’s only, I think, by allowing itself to look beyond its own sensational elements that horror can go full circle into catharsis or healing like this, and its rare to find books in the genre that really try. Particularly rare to find one with a title like The Doll Who Ate His Mother.

The House on the Brink by John Gordon

Cover to 1982 Penguin Plus edition, art by Neil Reed

Walking home after his literature evening class’s end-of-term party, sixteen-year-old Dick Dodds gives in to an impulse to nab a boat and let it drift him down the river. But the dare turns dangerous when he loses the row-boat’s only oar and finds himself being drawn helplessly out to sea. Saving himself, he has to plod through the fens back to dry land, and as he does, he passes a track in the mud that sends a chill up his spine:

‘I stepped into that trail and it seemed to put the moon out. Everything darkened. I went cold and stiff and then I fell. I must have done. I was on my hands and knees just a short distance away from the trail and I could feel the moon on my back.’

He discovers, the next day, that he can still feel the trail as it crosses dry land. Following it, he meets Helen Johnson, who on the night of Dick’s escapade saw something passing her father’s farmlands:

‘It was like a man all tied up, no legs and no arms. But it kept moving. Sort of gliding…’

The two begin an off-and-on investigation of the trail, driven by bursts of impulsive determination from Dick, but hampered by the ups and downs of the pair’s incipient romance. Visiting a local water-diviner, Mrs Shepherd, they learn that they share her ability to detect water running underground, and think at first this explains the chilling effect of the trail, until they follow it a bit more and encounter the thing — ‘A black, smooth, round, bald-headed old post’ — Helen saw that night, which is not a post, but may in fact be the mummified body of one of King John’s men, said to have been charged with guarding the treasure the king lost in the fens hundreds of years ago. And, dead though it clearly is, it moves.

The mystery begins to centre on a young widow, Mrs Knowles, whom Dick knows from his literature class. She believes:

‘My house… has a good side and a bad. The river is on the dark side. Everything it contains is contaminated… And out the back of my house… somewhere in the distance, there is something that when it appears always gives me hope… I call it the Silver Fields.’

Mrs Knowles tells Dick of how she was out walking by the river one day with a friend, local solicitor Mr Miller, when she saw ‘a piece of wood’ that ‘the river had made… evil’, and Dick realises it’s probably the same thing whose trail he and Helen have been investigating. Mr Miller, it turns out, is interested in the legend of King John’s treasure — he tried to talk Mrs Shepherd into using her water-divining powers to locate it — and now Dick begins to suspect Miller of having some sort of unpleasant plan for Mrs Knowles.

What’s notable about The House on the Brink is that it’s not a straightforward kids-investigate-the-supernatural type of story. It’s as much about the moment-by-moment feeling of being a teen on the verge of adulthood, experiencing the world in new ways, entering into a first relationship, getting glimpses of the dark world of adult secrets. Dick is impulsive, at times touchy, at times shy, given to the need to prove himself in sometimes dangerous ways. The book’s terse, poetic style emphasises this feeling of teenage life being a series of intense but fragmented moments of pure experience:

He dropped the bicycle on the verge and turned in the road with his arms outstretched. ‘I am the key in the lock of the world,’ he said. He let himself believe it for a moment. Then he picked up his bike. ‘And I’m also mad.’

As so often happens in YA books, the teens are central to the story because, being caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, they’re free to move between, and look into, other worlds, too.

There’s the worlds of social position, for instance, that the children move between, or are caught by. Mrs Shepherd, the water-diviner, is working class, while Mrs Knowles is obviously very well-off, but both accept the teens into their lives without the class prejudices they might apply to adults. When it’s revealed that Mrs Knowles’s man-friend, whom Dick has already started to suspect of being up to no good, is a solicitor, he feels that ‘He might have known it would be somebody like that’, and I certainly read ‘somebody like that’ to be a judgement in terms of social standing. (Miller is later described as having ‘a long face with a golf-course tan.’) Dick feels that his smaller house puts him in a lower class than Helen (‘Dick’s shame began at the backyard gate. With two bicycles in it the yard was crowded. At her house there was space…’), while Helen feels that, when she goes round to Dick’s for dinner, the Dodds being ‘Town, not country’ puts her subtly in a lower class (as Dick’s father wears a suit, ‘not a farmer’s shirt-sleeves.’). Later, she says Dick can’t ‘know anything about fen people. Real fen people’, because he lives in the town.

Far more explicit are the two worlds of belief in the supernatural and dismissal of it. Helen tells her mother about the thing she saw passing their farm that night, ‘But that sort of thing doesn’t sink in.’ Dick alone of his literature class understands what Mrs Knowles means when she talks of the river being ‘bad’ and the Silver Fields being ‘good’, to the extent that he cycles out one morning to find those ‘Silver Fields’.

Belief in the supernatural is tied to an ability to understand the less intellectual aspects of poetry (Mrs Knowles asserts ‘You have to feel a poem. You can’t analyse it.’), but also being open to emotional instability and madness. Mrs Knowles, standing daily on the balcony of her ‘House on the Brink’, is herself on the brink of insanity, of being lost in the instability of her unbalanced feelings, and Dick at one point puts his and Helen’s involvement in the trail and the spooky old ‘log’ down to:

‘How people’s feelings seem to cross and get tangled. That’s what’s been happening, isn’t it?’

Mr Miller, being a solicitor — a shrewd thinker used to dealing with down-to-earth issues — is Mrs Knowles’s opposite in terms of rationality and intuition, and it’s perhaps because of this that he ultimately can’t save her from her own mental instability, but the kids — who can understand both worlds — can.

In an interview published on the Ghosts & Scholars site, John Gordon says that, in The House on the Brink, he was:

‘…writing about the time in everyone’s life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales.’

Ultimately, it’s a book that shrugs off easy divisions. Its world is not one of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, nor is it one where it’s easy to tell the supernatural from madness, and the implication is that part of growing up is learning to realise this.