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).

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

first edition, from Methuen

What is the haunted woman in David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman haunted by? The novel starts with Isbel Loment (whose name is a wonderfully Lindsayan mix of music and tragedy), engaged to a Lloyd’s underwriter, Marshall Stokes, but in the meantime living an itinerant existence in a series of hotels with her aunt, Mrs Moor. Before her marriage, Isbel knows she must find a place for her aunt to settle, and Marshall, coming back from a trip to the United States, hears of a possibility, Runhill Court, near Steyning, in Sussex. As Isbel and her aunt are at present staying in Brighton, it’s only a short car-ride away, so an afternoon excursion is planned.

As well as showing the two women round this mostly Elizabethan mansion, Marshall has an additional assignment given to him by the house’s current owner, the 58-year-old widower Henry Judge. Judge, not presently living at the house, had some unusual experiences in the East Room, and wants Marshall’s opinion of the place. (Presumably he asked Marshall because, as Marshall himself admits, “I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination”, and so might be expected to be down-to-earth in such matters.) But it’s Isbel who senses something strange about the place, hearing a sound in the passage leading to the East Room which the others can’t hear, and which she compares to both an orchestra tuning up, and “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection”.

It’s already been revealed that Isbel has unfulfilled depths to her character. Sherrup, an artist and musician they meet briefly at Runhill Court, later tells her she’s “an artist without a profession… a lightning-rod without an outlet”, and she herself has already intimated that the rather shallow Marshall might not be the best match for her:

“I don’t know. . . . Love must be stronger than that. . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”

Isbel, then, is all potential; the house, with its supernatural orchestra tuning up, is also all potential. Isbel says Runhill Court’s “atmosphere seems tragical”, so it’s obvious in which general direction all this potential is going. And when she meets the house’s owner, Henry Judge, and he says to her:

“There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate…”

— she perhaps ought to know Marshall is not the man to fulfil her deeper nature, and Henry Judge is. But, already engaged as she is, society will not allow her to even think of the possibility. So constricting are the social rules by which Isbel and Judge live, it affects even their ability to feel when their deeper selves begin to suggest a route towards fulfilment.

Japanese edition

(The social world, in The Haunted Woman, is staid and placid on the surface, but vicious immediately beneath, as exemplified by Isbel’s exchanges with the widow Mrs Richborough, who also has her sights set on Judge. Judge, like all the men in the novel, except perhaps for the artist Sherrup, is oblivious to the barely-veiled subtext of what Isbel and Mrs Richborough are saying, but beneath their civilities, the two women are spitting venom and all but tearing at each other with their teeth.)

So, it’s her tragical, passionate nature that makes Isbel a haunted woman, and it requires a haunted house to bring the haunting out. Runhill Court doesn’t offer the traditional kind of haunting; its ghost is architectural. As Sherrup says of the structure that first stood where Runhill Court stands now:

“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons… When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls—which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And—well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms. . . . ”

These rooms, accessible by a staircase that appears only to certain people at certain times, are where the story of Isbel and Judge’s true selves play out. The idea that it’s only in a place supernaturally removed from the day-to-day world that we can even start to make contact with our deeper feelings, our truer instincts, is typically uncompromising of David Lindsay. What’s worse, as soon as Isbel and Judge leave the rooms, they return to their everyday mindsets and forget everything that has just happened, even their most heartfelt vows and life-changing decisions.

Unlike A Voyage to Arcturus, The Haunted Woman offers no explicit, final explanation. Isbel has no Krag to tell her what it all means. This is one of the characteristics of Lindsay’s novels between Arcturus and Devil’s Tor — the human characters get mind-blasting visions, but no clue or guidance as to what they mean or how to fit this new strata of experience into the everyday world of twenties England.

Tartarus Press edition, artwork by R B Russell

For most of The Haunted Woman, though, the meaning of the supernatural elements seems clear. Up the phantom staircase, Isbel is confronted by three doorways, and in her first three trips, she explores a different room each time. In the first room, furnished only with a mirror, she receives a vision of herself as she truly is, with all her tragical and passionate potentialities written clearly on her face. In the second room, furnished only with a couch, she meets Judge and the two can “drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully” than in the outside world. But what of the third room? Here, there’s a window, looking out on a Spring-like, fresh world, unspoilt by man. No roads, no hedgerows. A musician plays his archaic instrument and his music awakens the pair’s passionate nature, until they’re overwhelmed, and can’t sustain the “worldly prudence on his side, angry pride on hers” that keeps them apart in the normal world. But what Lindsay does next takes it all one step further than a mere allegory of love in the face of straitening social bounds. Looking into the musician’s face kills two of the novel’s characters. The musician is not, then, the embodiment of human love or passion, but of the essentially tragic nature of the passion that’s so much a part (though submerged throughout her normal, waking life) of Isbel’s character.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

So, passion, or love, is lifted to the level of Muspel (our true spiritual home) from A Voyage to Arcturus, as though Lindsay is saying that what Pain was in that first novel, Tragical Passion is in this one — the way out of a deceptive, ensnaring world, and the way home. (Lindsay several times in the novel links passion with pain — and music — as when he describes the sound of the musician’s bowed instrument as “low, fierce, passionate, exactly resembling a deep, forced human cry of love-pain.”)

This feeling that the coming together of a man and woman in a deeply meaningful, but deeply tragical and troubled manner, is the closest the living can come to a sort of reconnection with their deeper, truer selves, is reiterated in The Violet Apple, and intensified in Devil’s Tor. (I’d say it also has a hint of fairy-tale fulfilment at the end of The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly.) It obviously had great meaning for David Lindsay, and is certainly an argument for regarding his post-Arcturus novels not as commercial compromises (as they’re often seen), but as genuine attempts to further his understanding of his own ideas.