The Waterfall Box by John Gordon

Kestrel Books HB, art by Chris Molan

The Waterfall Box was John Gordon’s fourth YA novel, published in 1978. The box of the title is a small (“no higher than a teacup”) box of heavy, dark wood, ornately carved and bearing the words “IN TIME OF NEED” on the outside. It belonged, a few centuries back, to Silas Waterfall, known as Potter Waterfall for his founding of the Waterfall Pottery and his invention of his own unique green glaze. The box has been passed down — not to Waterfall’s descendants, as he had none, but to those of his housekeeper — until, in the present generation, it and the item it held (a small, sealed flask containing an unknown liquid) have been inherited by sisters Alice and Martha, one of whom has the box, the other the flask. There’s a family injunction never to sell these items, but whereas Martha married into money (her husband Richard now runs the Waterfall Pottery), Alice isn’t so well-off, and when she’s approached by antiques dealer Harman (“buying up the past to sell to the present”) offering her a substantial sum for the box — enough for her, her husband, and teenage son Bran to escape “this narrow house, squeezed by its neighbours in a crawling ant-run of a street” — she at first refuses, but, when Harman’s gone, changes her mind. She and her husband go out to celebrate the decision, and are killed in an accident.

Bran inherits the box, and is moved in with his aunt Martha, uncle Richard and his teenage cousin Sandy, who falls into an instant flirtation with him. (Even though Sandy’s parents are well-off, she’s impressed by the fact that, because he has the money from the sale of his parents’ small house, Bran is “rich”.) But it’s not long before Harman is back, claiming the sale of the box was agreed (even though he couldn’t know Alice changed her mind and decided to sell it after he’d gone). And by this time Bran has learned there’s more to the box than its being a mere antique. As well as a potter, Silas Waterfall was an alchemist, and it’s possible the liquid in the flask is the Alkahest (the “universal solvent” required as part of the process of turning lead into gold), while the pottery base of the box might be the Philosopher’s Stone.

By this point, the novel is following two strands. In the one, we have the development of Bran’s relationship with Sandy, in the other we have Harman’s desire to own the Waterfall Box. We never learn much about Harman, why he wants the box or how much he knows, only that he seems to know more than he rightly should. He approaches other people in the village, including Sandy’s best friend Stella, recruiting them to gain information about where the box and its now-reunited flask are kept. Harman has the patient-impatient air of a man who knows he’s close to getting what he wants, something he’s wanted for a long time, and believes he’s entirely capable of getting, by whatever means necessary. And there’s more than a spooky air about this shadowy figure, as we learn he’s able to call on a supernatural strength at times.

The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, Kestrel Books HB, cover by Allan Curless

But it’s clear the relationship strand is Gordon’s focus. Bran is attracted to Sandy, and Sandy is flirtatious with Bran, but the situation is more complex than boy-meets-girl. Prior to reading The Waterfall Box, I read Gordon’s first book of short stories, The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, and noted there how a four-person teen relationship dynamic showed up in several stories, most notably “Better the Devil You Know” (about a girl deciding how much gruff masculinity she wants in a boyfriend, and gets a close encounter with something perhaps-supernaturally both beast-ish and man-ish to help her decide). There, you have an intelligent, sensitive, slightly loner-ish main boy; a tough, at first belligerent, but ultimately principled rival boy; an attractive, though superficial, better-off girl who flirts with both boys, even playing them off each other; and a quieter girl, the other girl’s “best friend” in an uneven relationship, giving way to her but clearly more sensitive and worthy of the main boy’s love. That quartet is here, too, with Bran as main boy and Sandy as flirtatious girl, then Sandy’s “best friend” (as in “She’s my best friend and I hate her”) Stella as the quieter girl, and her amateur boxer of a boyfriend Griff (who Stella knows is really attracted to Sandy) as the belligerent rival. It’s obviously a tangle Gordon himself felt the need to revisit and rework, a mess of male identity (being tough versus being quiet and sensitive) and sexual attraction (the more flirtatious and outgoing girl who too-quickly changes loyalties, or the more serious girl who puts herself in the background), all superheated by teenage hormones, and with an added dose of class tensions (the more flirtatious girl is more well-off, the quieter girl is poor) just to keep things difficult. (Or, now I think about it, is it to keep things simple?)

The TLS review of The Waterfall Box (1st December 1978, by Gillian Cross) criticised the incompatibility of these two narrative strands:

“In practice, however, the two elements of the book act against each other. The fate of the alchemist’s enigmatic legacy is almost totally subordinate to the interaction of the characters. The violent implications of the mystery undercut the more prosaic teenage romance. It is hard, for example, to be patient with the long accounts of Bran’s reactions to Sandy’s sexual teasing when his grief for his parents—who are killed a quarter of the way through the book—merits only half a page of description. The final effect is one of insubstantiality, of a sketch for a powerful book with neither the incidents nor the characters to flesh it out.”

But I think the point is that Bran can’t resolve the situation with Harman and the box till he resolves the inner tangle of his relationships, and so sorts out his own values and priorities. Just as Harman’s offer to buy the box means easy money, in a crude way Sandy is easier in terms of sexual relationships, but ultimately both are shallow and perhaps (though we’re never given an explicit reason to feel Harman is evil, only that he has the air of it) immoral. It’s only by coming together in the right combination that Bran and the others can see Harman off, once his more supernatural aspects come to the fore.

Still, I do agree it’s not an entirely successful novel — but more because the supernatural aspects are worked out a little too quickly, with a lot of rushing about and characters intuiting things about Harman at the last minute, as a means of defeating him. I think that aspect of the novel needed more laying out of a few clues as to how Harman could be defeated, and perhaps about his motives, too, just to make the victory feel a bit more morally satisfying.

The Waterfall Box, as far as I can tell, seems only to have been published in hardback in the UK, with no subsequent paperback edition. This makes it quite difficult to find (and a little more expensive than I’d normally pay for a book of this vintage). Still, I think it’s an interesting part of Gordon’s work, clearly developing some of his concerns (and a better novel, on a first read at least, than The Ghost on the Hill, which I read last year but didn’t write about because it was too confusing on a first read — but which did get a paperback edition). Valancourt Books have recently reissued Gordon’s most well-known (among readers of weird fiction, anyway) novel, The House on the Brink, and I wonder if they’re going to work through his others, in which case The Waterfall Box might get a paperback edition at last. Who knows?


The Face That Must Die by Ramsey Campbell

Futura 1990 PB, cover by Oliver Hunter

Ramsey Campbell’s second novel was published in 1979, though in a version that was edited without his knowledge; subsequent editions from 1983 onwards have the full text.

Most of the novel follows John Horridge, an unemployed middle-aged man living on disability benefit (for a limp he gained as a boy while working for his window cleaner father, whose self-absorption and alcoholism following his wife’s death led to the accident). Having had to leave the house where he grew up, Horridge now lives in Liverpool’s Cantril Farm Estate — an actual place, built in 1965 and renamed in the mid-1980s as Stockbridge Village, in an attempt to give it a new start. Cantril Farm, the scene of riots in the early 80s, was named “one of the worst estates in Europe” by actor & DJ Craig Charles, who grew up there. Certainly, Horridge detests it — but Horridge detests virtually everything: women with jobs, fellow bus passengers, “the shirking classes”, children, modern music, modern everything. He has a particular fascination-hate for homosexuals, and at the start of the novel is obsessing over some local murders of young male prostitutes. Passing some flats on Aigburth Drive (Horridge spends his days wandering the city, to get away from Cantril Farm), he thinks he sees the murderer — an evidently gay man who looks like the photo-fit in the papers. Horridge phones the police, and sits on a nearby bench to watch the arrest — then is horrified to see the police leaving without the man. Later, in his flat, he happens upon his father’s cut-throat razor:

“He pushed the razor hastily away, but kept gazing. The timing of his find—now, when he felt so vulnerable, so desperately in need of self-defence—could not be ignored.”

Star PB, 1979

In Horridge’s world, there are no coincidences. If a man looks like the photo-fit of a murderer, he is the murderer; if a razor turns up, it’s there to be used. As we follow him about — rather too closely, as we can’t help being dragged into his grubby mental world — we come to learn that he often strays into paranoid delusions, increasingly so as the book goes on: everyone’s secretly trying to trick him, and the police, the radio, and the newspapers are in on it too. He gets access to the flats where his intended victim, Roy Craig, lives, even being let in and offered a cup of tea by one of the other residents, who thinks he’s a detective hired by Craig to find out who’s making the anonymous, threatening phone calls he’s been receiving (and of course it’s Horridge who’s been making them). But when he kills Craig, it’s only the start of a downward spiral even deeper into paranoid madness, leading to the need for further killings.

The novel doesn’t only follow Horridge, but also Cathy Gardner, a young librarian who lives in one of the top flats. She’s married to Peter, who has just quit the library service to, he says, finish his studies, but it seems more likely he doesn’t want to work and would rather spend his days smoking pot. Peter is, perhaps, edging into Horridge territory, resentful of having to work, despising the complacency and petty power-plays of his fellow workers, clinging to a belief in the radical politics of the late 60s — along with its fading hippie subculture — but without taking any political action other than to argue unpleasantly with Cathy’s more obviously bourgeois friends. Cathy, meanwhile, wants to start a family, hoping having a child will wake Peter up to life, their marriage, their future. But to do so, she knows, they need to move out of their flat and get a house, though everything seems out of their price range. And then Craig’s murder occurs in the building lobby, and the place feels even less like a home.

There’s a lot, in this novel, centring on anxiety about home. None of the characters really feels at home where they’re living, and Horridge in particular is exiled from any sense of it. Cantril Farm comes across more as a mental state than a place to live, and a bad one at that:

“Hardly a path in Cantril Farm ran visibly straight for more than a few yards; the walks sank into concrete valleys, or plunged straight through the hearts of tenements. The whole place reminded him of the mazes with which scientists tormented rats.”

And though we might be tempted to think this is just because we’re seeing it through Horridge’s warped vision, Cathy later gets a glimpse of where he lives:

“She couldn’t have borne living in such a place. It must be like a cage. She would have gone mad.”

“Cage” is right. Inside Horridge’s flat is no better. Nothing separates his window from the public walkway “except an unfenced patch of grass”, meaning kids are always running up to his window, banging on it, then running off. The rooms

“seemed scarcely larger than interview cubicles, and as featureless. He’d left the walls plain white, thinking they would look clean. Often they made him feel trapped in nothingness.”

Tor 1985 PB, art by Jill Bauman

He revisits the house he grew up in, only to find it, mid-demolition, an empty shell. Some animal or person has even used one of the upstairs rooms as a toilet — which might well be a metaphor for how Horridge views his life. Later, he returns to it again, thinking he might hide out in it, shell though it is, but by this point it’s been completely knocked down. He feels “as though his innards had been ripped out.” Home — a place to feel safe, a place to be oneself in a hostile, confusing, or at least challenging world — is, in this novel, absent, yet the removal of even this remnant of a home-that-once-was is infinitely painful.

Horridge’s relation to home, then, is to be alienated in his current dwelling, while nostalgically longing for a past he can never return to. Cathy’s need for a new home is more future-oriented — she wants to save her marriage, move on and have a child — but feels just as trapped, and just as unsafe, where she is. For both, their current dwellings — no longer feeling like homes — have become traps, and in Horridge’s case at least it’s a trap that’s squeezing his already unstable mental state well past the crisis point.

Scream/Press HB, from 1983, with J K Potter cover

Starting with the first complete edition of The Face That Must Die — the 1983 hardback from Scream/Press — this novel has come with a substantial autobiographical introduction from Campbell, “At the Back of My Mind: A Guided Tour”, which outlines what had been happening in his life before the writing of this novel, focusing on his mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia. The novel itself was hard to place with a publisher, and Campbell writes of how “of all my stories [this] seems the one most prone to provoke unease or worse… There’s no doubt the book is very dark.” Which feels like an understatement, coming as it does from a horror writer. But perhaps its the underlying hopelessness, rather than the bursts of psycho-killer horror, that have this effect.

Perhaps now, when we’ve had the likes of American Psycho with its unrelenting exposure to the mind of a deluded psychopath, and when Campbell himself has developed his paranoiac prose style to wrap his readers in a whole gamut of states of unease, The Face seems less strikingly dark, but it retains, even as a horror novel, a feeling of underlying pessimism, a sort of relentless grubbiness to its world, and not just as seen through Horridge’s eyes. Something about its alienated style, its dowdy realism and feeling of the bleak gaps that divide people’s hopes, relationships, and entire realities, fits in with the sort of British horror/crime films that were produced earlier in the 1970s — often tawdry-feeling serial-killer thrillers, the likes of The Fiend, Assault, Revenge, The Black Panther, The Offence (particularly the first half hour, before the stage adaptation kicks in) and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. There was just something in the film stock, the newsprint, the concrete estates — a high-contrast bleakness that took the 1960s colour out of life. In all ways.