A Game of Dark (1971) opens with young Donald Jackson feeling dizzy and being led out of class to the empty school staffroom. There, he somehow slips between this world and another. In our world, he is Donald, the troubled teen son of a father left wheelchair-bound and in constant pain from an accident that occurred on the night Donald was born; in the other world, he is Jackson, a boy who wanders into a medieval town under siege from a gigantic worm, where he is picked by the new lord (Lord Breakbone — “The lord is supposed to protect us and to kill the worm, but it will not be killed, it kills them instead. So they send us another lord.”) to be his squire.
This slipping between worlds can occur at any moment, with no fanfare. At first it is only when Donald is alone — in the staffroom, or walking home at night — but later it can be while he’s in the presence of others, in mid-conversation, even. One moment he’s Donald in our world, the next he’s Jackson:
“He was being some other person, he found, in a crisp buzzing world of hard light and hard ground and hard people. Then, for a moment again he was Donald walking towards the bridge, and the boy who that morning, perhaps, had called himself Jackson to a girl on a hillside. For a moment he could choose again which he would be. One is real, he said to himself. Donald is real. The other is a game of darkness, and I can be either and step from one to the other as I like.”
At first, he teeters on the edge of full immersion. Hearing someone speak to him in that other world, he fights not to understand their language, because understanding will be a commitment to existing in that world; then he gives in. Returning to our world, he finds that time has passed, events have moved on:
“[His mother] was standing in the doorway of his room, and he was working at his homework, remembering what he had done since coming home without feeling he had experienced it.”
Neither world is an escape from the other. Donald cannot face his father, who has become strange, almost fearsome, and who can barely communicate through the often delirious pain, which he endures because of his beliefs. As Mrs Jackson tells her son:
“We were meant to bear pain in this world, and what’s sent to us we must submit to.”
Donald struggles to feel connected with either his father or his schoolteacher mother (who calls him by his surname at school, like any other pupil, and often slips into calling him the same at home). He wonders if he is truly their son. He finds a haven in a local church group — a Church of England one, disapproved of by his Methodist parents — and the (to my mind) rather touchy-feely friendship of the everyone’s-friend vicar, Mr Braxham, who encourages Donald to smoke and insists on being called “Berry”. In the other world, meanwhile, as if the everyday harshness of a bleak, medieval existence isn’t enough, there’s the worm, a great, unthinking, stinking thing that preys on the people of the town with nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Donald/Jackson, then, has a whole series of father figures — Mr Jackson and Berry in this world, Lord Breakbone and the worm in the other. As his father in this world is taken into hospital, Donald can hardly find any feeling for him but a sort of panic fear; meanwhile, in the other world, the fight with the worm becomes unavoidable. At first it is pacified by animals left outside the town walls, but when the townspeople struggle to keep feeding it, it breaks through the wall and begins, once more, to eat human beings. (The worm in the book is particularly well-created. Its stink lingers for days; animals refuse to cross its slimy trail. In one fight, it suddenly produces a winged claw, seemingly as much to its own surprise as anyone else’s. The feeling is of a thing made stupid and complacent by being so powerful it has no serious opposition.)
Without its two worlds directly paralleling each other, A Game of Dark reaches its moving conclusion only when Donald brings his experience as Jackson in that other world — where he has faced and killed the worm, though not in the honourable, knightly way the town demands — to bear on the internal, emotional conflicts in this one. And not just on his own life. While, to him, the worm can be seen as standing for the darker and more difficult aspects of his relationship to his father, killing it throws light on just what his father must be facing — for his illness is a worm, too, something that humiliates and dehumanises.
Mayne’s style reminds me of Alan Garner’s in its spareness and occasional poetic density, its feeling of slight alienation from the world it describes, and its deft moments of character insight. But the matter-of-factness of slipping between one world and another, the way it is never explained, examined or excused, is something quite new to me in a fantasy novel, as is the very moving way the fantasy strand illuminates the equally-weighted real-world strand at the end.