Necromancer by Robert Holdstock

1990 Futura paperback

First published in 1978, Necromancer was the third novel Holdstock had out under his own name — the previous two being science fiction, Eye Among the Blind (1976) and Earthwind (1977) — but he was already a prolific author under a number of pseudonyms, including of horror (Legend of the Werewolf and The Satanists as Robert Black), historical fantasy (the Beserker series as Chris Carlsen), and sword & sorcery (the Raven series as Richard Kirk, in collaboration as Angus Wells). Necromancer would take Holdstock a step further towards the sort of modern-age/stone-age culture-clash feel of Mythago Wood and his other Ryhope Wood novels (there has to be a name for it — Woadpunk?) without quite hitting that series’s startling originality. There are, though, still hints of Holdstock’s strengths, here.

The novel kicks off with Dr Lee Kline, a Californian archaeologist and historian working at an unspecified London “Institute”, travelling to the Berkshire town of Higham to find out more about what he calls “the Higham Fragment”, a chunk of stone with an ancient mark on it, that he believes came from a much larger sacred stone. His suspicions centre on the font in the now fire-ruined church of St Mary’s, and when he visits it, he meets June Hunter, mother of young Adrian, who was seemingly brain-damaged as a result of being dropped onto the font during his christening. June, though, believes her son’s mind became trapped in the stone as a result of the accident, and comes to the ruined church to speak to him. (She regards the silent, mostly inactive boy at home as nothing but a “zombie”, a “human shell”.) Kline begins to suspect there’s something stranger going on — that some dark force resides in the font, and that this force is behind a spate of local suicides as well as the Hunter family’s troubles, which aren’t limited to Adrian. (Their daughter, sixteen-year-old Karen, sleepwalks and maybe-dreams about night visits from a humanoid creature that urges her to follow it out of the house.)

Norman Adams art for the 1979 Avon paperback

Kline travels to France to enlist the help of Francoise Jeury, a woman who has been writing to him for some time with (in his opinion) crazy theories about the ancient stones near her home, and her ability to read the truth about the past by touching them. Kline sort of believes and sort of doesn’t. He believes Jeury might have the powers she says she has — and she convincingly demonstrates them by reading a little too much about his romantic past from a ring he wears — but he doesn’t believe all of her explanations for them. Psychic powers and poltergeist phenomena he can accept, but not the idea that there are entities best referred to as “demons” active among us. Jeury agrees to come back to England and help June and Adrian. As soon as she touches the font at St Mary’s though, she knows there’s a real nasty demon inside it.

This is, in a way, Holdstock’s version of The Exorcist. Not only does a malevolent entity speak through the young Adrian and give him bouts of destructive supernatural strength, but there’s a hypnotism scene where another boy — a local teen called Don Belsaint, whose family have long been associated with the font — is regressed to a past life, and starts speaking a guttural stone age tongue and thrashing about on the bed. The Belsaints, it seems, are linked to the font-stone as its guardians, their DNA somehow encoded with knowledge of the spell required to keep the creature known as Cruachos trapped within it. In this, the book feels like Holdstock’s version of Quatermass and the Pit, too, with its idea of behaviour programmed into human genes, waiting to be activated.

A different Futura paperback cover

Adrian, as a slightly demonic young boy, is something of a Holdstock type, as the feral, would-be-shaman character of a young and slightly manic boy appears in other Holdstock stories, from the unnamed artist-apprentice in his short 1976 story “Magic Man”, to Tig in Lavondyss. But the really Holdstockian element here is the glimpse we get of the stone age that Francoise Jeury accesses with her special powers:

“I see the past, and in a sense it lives for me, speaks to me. What I see there, apart from the way of life, and of death, is frightening. They play with magic, and with the soul of man. We always think of them as primitive, dressed in furs and chipping stone, but Lee… There was such awesome power in those days, such terrifying abilities to summon the dark spirits of a world which, when you think coldly about it, is this world, this earth on which we stand. The earth has not changed, man has! What was in the earth then is in the earth now…”

It’s an interesting novel, with a folk-horror-meets-Exorcist kind of appeal, if you can imagine such a thing. For me, the main characters were too abrasive — everyone argues constantly with everyone, and is all too keen to analyse one another’s motives in the most negative way, and at great length — for anyone in the novel to really get my sympathies, but the way the dark-magic-tinged world of our ancestors breaks into the modern world — the thing Holdstock does so well — I could certainly have done with more of.

The character of Francoise Jeury (who is the “necromancer” of the title) returns in a later Holdstock novel, The Fetch/Unknown Regions, from 1991, though I haven’t read it. I must get on with my Mythago series read.

Comments (6)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    The premise reminds me a bit of that short story by Robert Westall – ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’. Also for some reason ‘It’ by William Mayne.*

    Spirits – good and bad – trapped in stone seems to have been something of a 70’s trope! (e.g. ‘Children of the Stones’)

    * I’m guessing the cover (which was excellent) as my memories of the book itself are pretty dim.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I hadn’t heard of Robert Westall before, but now I’ve looked him up, I’m having to stop myself from buying all his books.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Think the first book I read by Westall was ‘The Scarecrows’ which I haven’t read since, but which I remember being pretty good. He’s best known for ‘The Machine Gunners’ which I read around ten years ago and is also worth checking out. ‘FutureTrack5’ was another favourite – I re-read that again last year. He also wrote a ton of short stories, many of them excellent.

    That said, I had no idea he wrote quite as much as he did (he seems to have been nearly as prolific as Holdstock) so there are other works – many of which I’d never even heard of until recently – which might not be up to the same standard.

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    “The Scarecrows” was the one I thought I definitely wanted to read (as well as the ghost stories). Glad you remember it as being good.

  5. Matt says:

    Great review thanks. Francoise Jeury also re-appears in one of Holdstock’s Night Hunter books (written under the pseudonym Robert Faulcon).

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    I didn’t realise that. I read some of the Night Hunter books a while ago in an omnibus volume — I may have read them all, but it was such a long time ago I can remember nothing about them!

Leave a Reply to Murray Ewing Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.