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!

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacobs Ladder posterIn a perfect world, I’d never listen to, or read, film reviews. One of the best cinema-going experiences I ever had came as a result of an impulse decision to go and see a film I knew nothing about. It was, I think, 1991, I had a Wednesday afternoon off, and I just happened to overhear one person saying to another “…this film called Jacob’s Ladder…” Right, I thought, I’ll go and see this film called Jacob’s Ladder. Somehow, I even managed to walk into the cinema without seeing the poster, so I really had no idea what sort of film it was going to be.

Jacobs Ladder 01

I sat down (in a mostly empty theatre — a circumstance which added a certain efficacy to some of the film’s early scenes) and at first thought, “Oh dear, it’s about Vietnam.” I’m not a great one for war films, generally. But then it changed from being about Vietnam to Tim Robbins waking up on a subway train thinking he’s missed his stop, getting up and going into the next carriage to ask a starey-eyed woman if he’s missed it (and she just stares at him), and then noticing a drunk lying on a seat by the door. As he gets off the train at the next stop, Tim Robbins notices that the drunk seems to have a tail. I thought, “What the hell’s going on?” But, in a good way. And, partly because Tim Robbins’ character was also obviously thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” (though, for him, in more of a bad way), it soon became obvious that this film, Jacob’s Ladder, was the perfect film for me to go and see without knowing anything about it, because it was a film all about finding out what the film itself was about. And, as it was full of weird, unsettling, spooky, or even horrific moments (faceless men leering from a car that’s almost run you over, a heaving party at which Tim Robbins’ girlfriend seems to be dancing — or more than dancing — with a demon, a nightmare gurney-journey into the nether bowels of a rather unhealthy hospital, Macauley Culkin), it was, as luck would have it, just the sort of thing I liked anyway. Jacob’s Ladder has since become a favourite film, one that works just as well now I know what it’s about, but I always remember, whenever I watch it, how much I enjoyed that initial viewing for never having seen a trailer, or heard a review.

Jacobs Ladder 02

Ever since, although I do listen to and read film reviews (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s podcast is a Saturday afternoon after-work fixture), I initially only pay attention as far as finding out the bare basics of what a new film is about, then, if I decide it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see, I add it to my LoveFilm list and don’t concentrate much on the details, unless it sounds like a real stinker. (And Mark Kermode tends to let you know if it’s a real stinker. Vociferously.)

Pan's Labyrinth posterA case in point is Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing the mere mention of the title of this film in Empire magazine about a year before it came out, and instantly knew I was going to have to see it. After that, I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of what it was going to be about, and was deeply rewarded. Pan’s Labyrinth was, amazingly, so much more than I could have ever hoped it would be.

But with Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth I was lucky. Because I also thought, from a brief summary, that Sucker Punch might be a film I’d like. After all, it seemed to mix the escape-into-fantasy-worlds and psychodrama strands of Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth, so how could it fail? Well, by being a loose anthology of sub-adolescent pop video fight-outs with no plot, sensibility, emotion or meaning, is how. I should have listened to Dr Kermode. He hated it from the start. I didn’t watch this film, I endured it.

In a perfect world, some benevolent, perhaps web-based, vendor of books, films and music would somehow, perhaps through analysing my copious purchase history, get to know exactly what books, films and music I like, and issue increasingly spot-on recommendations, so I could repeat that Jacob’s Ladder/Pan’s Labyrinth experience on a daily basis. But though I’ve been dutifully rating my purchases from Amazon, and plugging my reading habits into Goodreads for some time now, still, whenever I look at the sort of thing they recommend I find myself thinking, “On what planet is this what I might like..?” I mean, they haven’t even worked out the basics, yet. (For instance, that though I buy Doctor Who DVDs, I don’t buy the new series. Guh! And my buying a Woody Allen box-set may mean I’m interested in the man’s films, but that doesn’t mean I like them so much I’d want to buy them again individually. And why, oh why, can’t LoveFilm let me forget last year’s foray into Carry On films? It’s practically all they’ve been recommending since!)

Perhaps it’s that, if even I can’t define the thing I’m looking for in films, books, and music, in each of my many moods & wants — the best way I can think of describing it is “humanity, and magic” — how can I expect a computer (devoid of humanity and magic as it is) to understand?

Or perhaps it’s that adjective, benevolent, I got wrong?

Arthur Machen’s The White People, Jo Walton’s Among Others

Arthur Machen’s “The White People” is one of the true masterpieces of short fantasy fiction, one that never fails to surprise me with its downright weirdness whenever I read it. Its main portion purports to be the journal of a young girl initiated by her one-time nanny into a strange world of rural magic and skewed faerie folklore. Its narrative veers from fragmentary dark fairy tales to the narrator’s exploration of the weirder, wilder regions of the surrounding countryside, all written in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that predates the experiments of the Modernists by almost a decade.

Machen wrote the core part of “The White People” in the 1890s, but (quite understandably) didn’t know what to do with it, and it remained unpublished till 1904, when he packaged it up with an explanatory prologue and epilogue and submitted it to Horlick’s Magazine. Or was it Ovaltine Monthly? Either way, some magazine with far too cosy a title for such a twisted little tale. Perhaps because it was the only way it could be published, Machen’s prologue and epilogue try to turn the tale into a decadent horror story, with two gentlemen aesthetes discussing the young girl’s journal as an example of “sin”, and concluding with the information that the young girl was found dead, probably poisoned by an overdose of whatever had been giving her all these weird visions. This, perhaps a necessary defensive manoeuvre on Machen’s part to fend off the criticisms of literary conservatives, has always struck me as a false note. The narrator of “The White People” is just too full of vitality, and of magic, to be the mere victim of a horror story. “The White People” touches the genuine twilight world of early adolescent imagination gone weird, blurring the dividing line between childhood games and magic ritual, fairy tales and ecstatic religious vision.

This is a whole favourite sub-genre of mine: stories of the superheated twilight world of adolescent imagination, particularly where fantasy is used to make the distinctions all the more explicit. Examples include Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Steve Cockayne’s The Good People, (is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory one? I can’t remember, now) and films such as Spirit of the Beehive and of course the superb Pan’s Labyrinth. The most obvious thing to do with this sort of story is to equate the fantasy/magical aspects with childhood imagination, and to have the adolescent narrator come to terms with the loss of their childhood by having them lose the magic. This is the Peter Pan approach, where the only way to retain the magic of childhood is to remain stuck as a “Lost Boy”, an eternal child, regressed and cut off from adulthood. But the best of these stories see through this rather obvious use of fantasy-as-metaphor for childhood, and do something different. The best of them take the magic through to the adult world. Doing this convincingly, and meaningfully, is difficult, which is why a good example can be hard to find.

Jo Walton’s Among Others does it marvellously. Like Machen, Walton is Welsh, as is her narrator, Morwenna. (I did my best to sound the story in a Welsh accent as I read it. It probably wouldn’t have convinced a native speaker, but what would a native Welsh speaker be doing in my head, anyway?) Written in the form of Mor’s diary when she is fifteen (and set quite specifically in 1979 and 1980), Among Others starts soon after a terrible event in its young heroine’s life. She was born with a twin, with whom she shared the intensely imaginative world of her childhood life. Like Machen’s heroine, the pair rambled the Welsh countryside, naming its ruins and hidden pockets with fantasy-tinged names (many of them lifted gleefully from The Lord of the Rings), and quite naturally interacting with the wonderfully imagined faerie folk they find there. But Morwenna and Morganna’s mother is a witch; she is also insane (the two may go together), and has dark plans. The girls go against their mother. The story of exactly what happens is spread out through the novel, so I won’t say any more on it, but by the time Among Others begins, Mor is living in the aftermath. Her twin is dead, she herself has a badly injured leg, she has run away from her mad mother, and her childhood is over forever.

The fantasy elements in Among Others are spot-on subtle. Mor spends a lot of time wondering about the fairies she sees and the magic she does, and how it is different from the way the world operates anyway. The book provides one of the best, most succinct, explanations of faerie nature when it says fairies are as they are because they’re “part of everything”. But for much of it, Among Others could be a non-fantastic novel, merely about an imaginative teenager. One of the best parts of the book is Mor’s passion for science fiction, which she consumes by the bookload. It’s amazing how fun it can be to read about a fictional character’s reaction to a book you yourself have read. It’s not essential to know a bit about late 70s SF, but it would certainly add to your appreciation of the book. (If not, anyway, the internet can provide all the footnotery you need. Not having read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I had to look up “karass“, for instance, which is a key word in Among Others, referring as it does to a group of true friends who share your interests; one of the main threads of Mor’s story is her wish to find such a group, and what happens when she uses a little magic to do so.)

A wonderful book. I’m amazed it hasn’t yet found a UK publisher, as I think it could well be a mainstream, as well as an SF/fantasy, success over here. Still, perhaps in the current Amazonian age of bookselling, such things matter less. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I got mine through the Book Depository.) (And I should point out that I first heard about the book via the wonderful Notes from Coode Street podcast.)

But to return to “The White People”, Among Others reads more like how Machen’s tale should have ended, with its teen narrator not losing herself in the horrors of a dangerously un-Christian world of imagination, but finding the proper place for magic in a real, adult world. Among Others has a wonderfully affirmative ending. It’s one of those rare books that blends its fantastical and realistic elements seamlessly into a single vision, that manages to seem far more true, and far more insightful, of what it means to be a human being than a merely realistic novel ever could.