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?

Comments (3)

  1. Darren says:

    I also found Ghost on the Hill confusing and contrived. I think that Gordon understood the teenage mind and certainly connected with me.
    The discourse in Flesh Eater between all the girls is fascinating and in my view his best. Knickers off best line ever!

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I haven’t read Flesh Eater, but I’m sure to give it a go now.

    1. Darren Jones says:

      Gordon cribbed the story and pretty much rewrote a classic tale.
      But it’s probably his best book for dialogue and Iv reread it a few times just to enjoy the interaction between the girls and the very sort after Harry Hogge.

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