The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

Providence by Alan Moore

Providence issue 1, art by Jacen Burrows

Halfway through the run of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s 12-issue comic, Providence, I re-read all of Lovecraft’s stories (as well as S T Joshi’s monumental Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence), and suddenly the comic made a lot more sense. It’s not that Moore makes a lot of references to Lovecraft’s work — being pretty familiar with Lovecraft, I’m confident I’ll get most broad-brush references to his stories — it’s that the interplay between Providence and Lovecraft’s work (and life) can be quite subtle, and the deeper you can go into those subtleties, the more connections you can spot, and the more you’ll get out of the series. (The annotations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence helped a lot, too.)

Now I’m going to completely eat my own words about something I went into only a few Mewsings ago. Talking about Alien: Covenant, I said how prequels, particularly those that delve into a series’ background mythology, are pretty much doomed to failure, unless, like Star Wars: Rogue One, they do their best to keep their entanglements with the further reaches of the mythology as minimal as possible. Well, Providence is a prequel to Moore’s two other Lovecraftian comics — The Courtyard and Neonomicon — and it wallows in mythology (mostly Lovecraft’s, but at the end you need to know Moore’s, too). Not only that, but it attempts to make all of Lovecraft’s ramshackle mythology tie up, and — ye Eldritch Gods! — it even tries to explain it all.

art by Jacen Burrows

But, it works.

Perhaps it works because this twelve-issue series isn’t also trying to be a cinema-audience-pleasing ninety minute thrill-ride at the same time, but can take its time to tell the story as it needs to be told. Considering this is a horror comic, very little happens in the first few issues — unless, that is, you’re busy making Lovecraftian connections, in which case the implications will be building. But also, of course, this is Alan Moore, and Moore is particularly good at not only sorting out other people’s narrative tangles, but at adding his own — often awe-inspiring — sense for them to make.

In fact, I’d say Moore is energised by a creative challenge, and the bigger and more impossible-seeming, the better. He stated his aim for Providence in a 2015 article on Previews World:

“…Providence is an attempt to marry Lovecraft’s history with a mosaic of his fictions, setting the man and his monsters in a persuasively real America during the pivotal year of 1919: before Prohibition and Weird Tales, before Votes for Women or the marriage to Sonia, before the Boston Police Strike and Cthulhu. This is a story of the birth of modern America, and the birth of modern American terror.”

The comic follows Robert Black, a reporter from New York who, upon the suicide of his lover (in a suicide booth — this is a slightly different world to ours, in this case owing a little to Cambers’ King in Yellow), leaves his job to pursue his dream (“some day, if Providence allows”) of writing a novel. Scholarly, nervous, and by no means an action hero, Black is the typical Lovecraft protagonist — in all but being both Jewish and gay. Intrigued by the mention of a translated Arab alchemical text that made its way to the US, Black begins tracking down the various individuals and occult groups who have made use of it in their beliefs.

Providence 7, art by Jacen Burrows

These individuals and groups are Moore’s renamed versions of Lovecraft characters, and the main fun of the first half of Providence is in tying up Moore’s characters with Lovecraft’s, and seeing what twist Moore has put on them. Usually, the effect is to emphasise the historical and social context in which their stories are being told, and to — at first at least — make us feel that perhaps Lovecraft’s presentation of them as figures of horror is a misunderstanding because of their status as social, racial, religious, or sexual outsiders. Because of this, Black doesn’t even start to glimpse the implications of what they’re saying (Moore’s dialogue has a wonderful way of playing with double meanings), and I, as a reader, started to feel that perhaps the whole point of Providence was to redeem Lovecraft’s secretive, evil-intentioned cultists from any horrific interpretation at all.

The first character Black meets, for instance, is a Doctor Alvarez, Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Dr. Muñoz, from “Cool Air”. Like Lovecraft’s Muñoz, Alvarez is seeking to preserve his life beyond the natural point of death, which requires him to live in a controlled, artificially cold environment. He doesn’t hide that he’s doing this, but neither does he state it outright:

“For myself, I must not complain. Here, for a time, I can be comfortable… Life does not trouble me.”

It’s as though Alvarez might be quite willing to admit the truth about what he’s doing, if only Black were to ask the right question. But Black never does, because — who would? Who would suspect that the quiet-voiced, well-mannered Alvarez is actually a walking corpse, preserved by ammonia and low temperatures? Also unlike Lovecraft’s character, Alvarez is fully human, even compassionate, as revealed in a very un-Lovecraftian line:

“…to not love is to waste the existence. Even life is a small matter beside it.”

But there is a real horror, and Black’s journey takes him right to the heart of it. The Arab alchemical text, the Kitab Al Hikmah Al Najmiyya, includes a prophecy of two figures, a Herald and a Redeemer, who are to bring about the end of our world — or its transformation. Moore’s refusal to provide a Lovecraftian moral judgement of his characters extends to a refusal to judge the coming transformation.

So, you start by thinking this Dr Alvarez is, in fact, a pretty nice chap; then that those Innsmouth folk are maybe odd-looking but they’re just folk from a different culture; then that Garland Wheatley (Moore’s version of Wizard Whateley from “The Dunwich Horror”) is, well, dangerously backward, perhaps best left alone, but not a world-shattering evil… Then you find yourself at issue 6, the halfway point, where it is, finally, made clear to Black that he is in the midst of something really bad, and in deep, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.

art by Jacen Burrows

Randall Carver, art by Jacen Burrows

The ideas Moore presents undergo a similar shift. At first, it seems as though he’s presenting Lovecraft’s horrors and his dream-world stories as evidence of a real but separate dream-reality, which brushes up against our world and which can even be accessed by dreamers such as Randall Carver (Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, which confusingly is also Lovecraft’s fictional version of Lovecraft himself, which makes it triply strange when Moore presents us with his versions of Carver and Lovecraft living in the same town). Black has a few such brushes, but initially dismisses them as hallucinations. His issue 6 experience, though, is too deeply traumatic to be dismissed even if it can be thought of as a hallucination, and it sets the tone for an increasing bleakness throughout the second half of the series, which on a first read left me with as much a feeling of nihilism as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did on a first viewing. There’s a real sense, in the closing issues of Providence, just how little human life and our illusions of free will matter in the face of the coming transformation:

“We are words on papyrus, a thousand years ago.”

In its final issues, Providence is at times quite moving — issue 11, for instance with its rapid skim through the history of Lovecraft, his circle, and his growing impact on culture — but, at the end, it’s also terribly bleak. Robert Black turns out to be yet another Moore version of a Lovecraft character, so you know he can’t come to a good end, but in its final issue, Providence brings in characters from The Courtyard and Neonomicon (which I also found horrendously bleak, after its protagonist underwent a similarly horrific and traumatic experience as Robert Black does) and resolves the whole three-title series.

Robert Black, art by Jacen Burrows

Most of the issues of Providence included a lengthy text extract from Black’s diary, and I have to admit that, on my re-read of the series, I skipped these. In part because, although they provided Black’s innocent interpretation of the events in the comic part of the story, they didn’t really add much, as it was pretty easy to guess what Black thought was going on anyway. But also I skipped them because they were pages and pages of single-column, long-paragraph, small-size handwritten text and were just plain difficult to read. Aside from the wonderfully punnish extracts from an Innsmouth parish newsletter in issue 3, I really don’t think I missed much by skipping them.

It’s an excellent series, if bleak, though one I think you really need to know your Lovecraft to get the most out of. As such, it might not have wide appeal, but I’d certainly rank it with the best of Moore’s work, and Jacen Burrows is to be applauded for the amount of work he’s put into realising so many historically accurate locations and Lovecraftian characters, as well as providing some neat visualisations of sometimes transdimensional concepts.

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!