Devoured by Anna Mackmin

The narrator of Anna Mackmin’s debut novel is a 12-year-old girl growing up at Swallow’s Farmhouse, a hippie commune in early-70s Norfolk, where she lives with her mother (Beth, an agoraphobic potter), Anthony (her father, a poet), Star (her younger sister, who at the start of the novel has been electively mute for some time, and has the habit of pulling out her hair), along with a small handful of fellow seekers after an alternative lifestyle, plus a dog, a goat, a cat called Great Uncle Elizabeth (a detail surely crying out for an explanation), and several chickens.

I call her the narrator, though at first glance the book appears to be written in the second person. But its use of “you” isn’t a literary device to involve you, the reader, a little bit more in the action, it’s the narrator’s way of telling her story to herself, addressing herself directly (as you do), which soon comes to feel more natural than the “I” of most first person narratives. It’s that little bit more intimate, as though this is a genuinely private interior monologue. (The narrator does have a name, but as this is only revealed about 300 pages into a 328 page book, it feels wrong to give it away in a review. It gains a certain comic punch by being delayed. In this Guardian interview with Mackmin, the narrator is referred to as “Nearly Thirteen”, which is a name used for her in the book, but only by one of her fellow commune-dwellers, and as he uses it with a distinctly lecherous slant, it really seems wrong to call her by it.)

The book has a couple of other stylistic quirks. Speech gets no “he said, she said”, but has the speaker’s name after what they’ve said. As in:

“These are my kids.” Mummy…
“They come through you, they are not of you.” Laura.

Which again quickly feels natural, though it did leave me hunting ahead, with the longer passages of speech, to find who was speaking before I read what they said. Also, double quotes are used for speech in the present, single quotes for remembered speech, which was quite a good device once I’d spotted it, as it allowed things people had said in the past to be interpolated as a commentary on what was happening in the present.

But back to the farm. Swallow’s is, despite being an idealistic experiment in alternative living, somewhat less than a utopia. House meetings quickly descend into petty squabbles, and usually end with someone bursting into tears (something the narrator occasionally makes herself do, just to get a meeting over with). It soon becomes apparent there’s not such an obvious dividing line between the quest for a more natural way of living (they don’t eat processed foods at Swallow’s Farmhouse, they “don’t believe in telly”, and they don’t believe in shoes, either) in which people can find themselves and live free of the shackles of conventionality, and the use of vague and un-thought-through ideals as an excuse for simply being self-centred. The perfect illustration of this is the way the adults deal with food — food being important in the novel, whose narrative is peppered with little recipes. Presented with a multi-course meal — with all the dishes laid out at once, as bringing them out in ordered stages would infringe people’s right to choose for themselves how they eat — the adults scoff the sweet stuff, grabbing as much for themselves as they can. And it’s the kids — the narrator and her sister — who do the cooking.

If Swallow’s Farmhouse is a topsy-turvy place for adults, its even more so for the children, who are pretty much expected to be adults, “old souls” in young bodies, though they’re excluded from some things, such as poetry readings, and are often fobbed off with excuses like “adults are complex and have complex needs and you will understand fully when you’re an adult”. These are the sort of people who believe you aren’t supposed to trust anyone over thirty, but it’s also clear they haven’t much patience for those who are younger than themselves, either. This is an environment with a childish idealisation of the innocent state of youth that doesn’t want to bother with the sometimes difficult innocence of children:

“What it boils down to is this: kids need to get a move on and grow up lickety spit and adults need to screech to a halt… Young is the thing.”

“My daughters are more like sisters,” Beth, the mother, says at one point, but the actual pair of sisters are the only ones really taking care of each other. It’s their relationship that’s at the core of the novel, though its power comes through largely in how little is said about it. The girls are always communicating with little looks and glances; they have their shared, private rituals; when Star remains mute, the narrator knows what she wants to say and says it for her; and some of the most poignant moments are when one has something the other hasn’t — a friendship, for instance — and there’s an obvious conflict between wanting them to have it and feeling separated from them by not being able to share in it.

On the one hand, Devoured is a comic novel, satirical of these supposedly idealistic adults’ utter failure to see their own hypocrisy, but it’s powered by genuine, deep emotion, and a real sense of danger. The lightest moments come when the narrator and Star are joined, briefly, by two boys from a nearby commune. A letter has arrived saying that an inspector will be coming to check on the children’s education, so the two communes team up to put on a show as “the Rainbow School”. It’s as disastrous as everything else the adults do, but the interaction between the children is wonderful, particularly as the narrator and thirteen-year old Orion fence their way towards a spiky friendship, neither wanting to admit how little they know about the real world, while trying to gain what insight they can from the gaps their communes’ slightly different ideals have left. (Orion’s parents, for instance, do believe in telly, leading to some light comedy when the narrator has no idea what Blue Peter, or who Valerie Singleton, is. They also, much to the narrator’s delight, believe in shoes.)

And that sense of danger. It centres on Bryan, the commune-dweller who calls the narrator “Nearly Thirteen”. The narrator, thinking she knows all about the adult world because nobody’s told her otherwise, doesn’t realise the danger she’s in when she flirts, experimentally, with him, or even what the danger properly is. And he, unsure of the rules in this more open, do-it-as-you-feel-it world, is obviously not sure, at first, of the damage he’s willing to do. But you know from the book’s title, and how the adults — particularly Bryan — gobble up anything sweet, what’s going to happen there.

The narrator’s determination to be herself in often difficult circumstances reminds me somewhat of Morwenna in Jo Walton’s Among Others — though that book is entirely about the immediate aftermath of escaping a damaging upbringing — which I reviewed a while back. Ultimately, Devoured is the tale of a survivor, and an excellent read.

The Palace of Morgana by John Sterling

cover art by Richard Dadd

I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:

“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”

“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.

Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)

cover by Murray Ewing

Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.

Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.

The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.

Portrait of John Sterling, by J Brown

Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.

If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.

The Palace of Morgana and Other Fantasy Tales is now available on Kindle, ePub and in paperback (and, of course, you can read most of the tales in Essays and Tales at archive.org).