A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

cover illustration by Jim Kay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early on in A Monster Calls, the monster says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

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

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

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

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

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Suart. (Thanks to Séan Martin for pointing out my previous error in calling her Evelyn Stuart.)

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

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

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

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

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

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

Blow-Up and Performance

The two films I most associate with the swinging 60s are Blow-Up (1966) and Performance (made in 1968, but not released until 1970). I didn’t realise, till I watched them again recently, how much, while being very different in feel, they had in common. While one is set at the height of London’s cultural moment, and the other feels very much in its aftermath, both feature an artist (a photographer in Blow-Up, a musician in Performance) experiencing a revitalisation of their art through contact with violence and crime.

Blow-Up starts with its unnamed photographer (played by David Hemmings) emerging from a doss house, having just spent the night as one of the homeless while secretly taking snapshots. This might be taken as showing dedication to his art and a worthy social responsibility, but soon feels like just one more stunt in a day full of quick photoshoots, impulse buys and throwaway ideas. The dismissive way he orders the clothes he wore in the doss house burned, and the way he skims the proofs of the photos, interested only in the superficial impact of the images, seems to imply how little he’s been touched by the experience. His one contact with a deeper relationship to art seems to be his painter neighbour, who’s at the opposite end of the impulsiveness scale, being quite capable of leaving a painting incomplete for years till he’s sure he knows how to finish it.

One of his many impulses leads the photographer to follow a couple into a park, taking surreptitious snaps. He’s spotted, and the girl of the couple tries to get the photos off him. Something about the situation — its apparent peacefulness compared to the rush of his creative life, the desperation of the girl, an intuition that there’s more to it than meets the eye — catches his imagination and he starts studying the photos, blowing up sections till he realises he may have been present at a murder attempt. For a moment, he’s elated, thinking his art has had a genuine effect on the world — it’s saved someone’s life! Then comes the realisation: he didn’t save a life at all. Instead, he failed to notice a successful murder taking place right before his eyes.

Performance is more ambiguous. It brings together two characters, both in need of a new sort of energy in their lives. One is Chas (played by James Fox), an East End gangster’s ‘Front Man’ who oversteps his bounds and has to go on the run; the other is Turner (Mick Jagger), a burned-out rock star hiding away in dishevelled Bohemian digs in Powis Square. It’s the meeting of these representatives of two very different undergrounds (the criminal and the countercultural) that revitalises both. Turner absorbs Chas’s gangster persona, and uses it to make contact with his musical ‘daemon’ once more; meanwhile, Chas has his ultra-macho self-image broken down to free his more feminine side.

In both films, a musical performance captures the mix of art and violence they’re heading towards: the Yardbirds playing ‘Train Kept A-Rolling’ in Blow-Up (with Jeff Beck rather self-consciously destroying a guitar and throwing its neck into the audience, waking them from catatonia into a scramble of violence), Mick Jagger singing the rather Dylanesque “Memo From Turner”, surrounded by naked gangsters, in Performance.

Both films end ambiguously. In Blow-Up, after realising he didn’t save anyone’s life at all, Hemmings’s character wanders in the park till he falls in with a group of feral street-performers, who set about an impromptu game of mimed tennis. Joining in — throwing back their non-existent ball when it’s knocked out of court — seems, somehow, to provide some sort of resolution to his story. In Performance things are even stranger, with Chas (either more in touch with his feminine side and a fuller human being, or simply stoned out on mushrooms) shooting Turner, then being taken outside by his gangster friends to meet a similar fate, where he reveals himself, in a brief glimpse, to in fact be Turner, or perhaps the both of them, melded into a Chas-Turner hybrid.

Both endings seem not so much to be interested in explaining or resolving the change that’s taken place in their characters, as wilfully defying any sort of interpretation at all. But the feeling, in both cases, is of a sort of rising above the action into an entirely new plane of meaning, an alchemical synthesis of the two worlds (art and violence) that have been polarised in each film’s preceding action. These endings defy rational explanation because that change, that revitalisation, can perhaps only come about through giving way to a wholly new logic.

The Height of the Scream by Ramsey Campbell

The Height of the Scream UK 1978 HB cover

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

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

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

The Height of the Scream, Arkham House

Arkham House HB

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

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

The Height of the Scream, UK paperback

Star paperback

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

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

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

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