Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

After a couple of recent reminders — her sketch map for the novel appeared at the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition, and she was interviewed alongside Alan Moore at a related online event in January — I’ve finally got round to reading Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which I’d been meaning to do since it came out in 2020. (A publishing event that caused minor tremors in this blog, as an old entry from 2009, “Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth” — in which, ahem, I link to my own short story called “Piranesi” — started getting hits.)

The novel is narrated by a man who gives himself no name, but is called “Piranesi” by the only other living person he knows (whom he refers to as “the Other”). Piranesi lives in a strange world, which he refers to as “the House”, a world of vast, light and airy halls peopled by statues and birds, with sea-tides sometimes surging up from the lower levels, and rain-forming clouds in the higher. He busies himself with staying alive (eating fish and seaweed, and drinking water he collects from the clouds) while making a catalogue of the statues in the potentially infinite array of halls, as well as caring for the remains of the few dead he has found in his explorations. He regularly meets the Other, a man seeking an ancient knowledge that will give him extraordinary powers. Piranesi, though keen to help his one and only friend — though the Other, it’s obvious to the reader from the start, is not much of a friend — realises he doesn’t actually want such powers himself, and even wonders if the search may be leading them down the wrong path. As he explains to the Other:

“I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted…”

Which couldn’t help come across, to me, as a reader’s warning. The mysterious nature of the world of “the House”, of Piranesi’s identity, and of the Other’s clearly our-worldly nature, were all encouraging me to read Piranesi as a puzzle to be solved. I expected it all to be a profound metaphor of some sort, a fable about the nature of human existence perhaps, and hunted for clues among the inconsistencies. (The fact, for instance, that Piranesi, who as far as he can remember has always lived in the House, knows of such things as trees, chess, lobster traps, angels, husbands and wives, even Prince of Wales check-pattern suits.)

Piranesi himself has no feeling there’s a puzzle to be solved. For him, the House is an entirely benevolent environment, to be accepted — and celebrated — as it is:

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite…”

“The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life…”

“It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an inhabitant for itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies…”

“The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly…”

My own initial approach to the novel as primarily an intellectual puzzle started to turn to a slight disappointment when it was obvious the whole thing wasn’t going to unlock into some tightly-argued philosophical metaphor — but in fact that approach had blinded me to the purely emotional side of Piranesi’s story, which gained all the more of an impact when it hit home. And all the more so, considering Piranesi is a thoroughly innocent and childlike man, industrious, friendly, kind, trusting, considerate, and full of wonder at all around him in the manner of a kind of Holy Fool.

The novel has resonances to some classic works of fantasy. That sentence quoted above — “the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical)” — echoes the opening of Borges’s “Library of Babel” (“The universe (which others call the Library)…”). There’s Peake’s Gormenghast books (and perhaps a Peake’s law should be coined, stating that any sufficiently Gormenghastian structure will inevitably attract a flood). Clarke opens her novel with a quote from The Magician’s Nephew, and one of the many statues Piranesi encounters is of a faun, which inspires him to dream of it “…standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child” — a clear reference to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perhaps the dreams of the House are the imaginative stories of our world?

I at first wondered if there wasn’t a reference, also, to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in the albatross that appears near the start of the novel. There’s certainly something of the shipwrecked loon about poor Piranesi, but maybe there’s a deeper link, too. The Ancient Mariner escapes the horrors of the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” when he spontaneously blesses the slimy creatures (which he’s at first repulsed by) crowding the oceans. Piranesi seems to have slipped into a similar state of wanting to bless everything in the world. “It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created,” he says early on, and by this belief he blesses himself and everything in the House.

It’s perhaps a hint at how he has survived in a situation whose clearest non-fantastic parallels are to mental breakdown and imprisonment: an almost holy acceptance of the world around him, a commitment to seeing its beauty, and his own humble place in it, a radical affirmation in the face of what must also, surely, include the pains of loneliness. Set against this, the Other is all too clearly selfish, cynical, uncaring, even abusive, right from the start — and that’s before we get to know what he’s up to.

It’s a short book, but it packs an emotional punch in its last sections that made it an absolutely worthwhile read, for me.

There could, certainly, be more to the story. Two characters at least — the dark occultist Laurence Arne-Sayles, and the (surely series-ready) Sarah Raphael — feel untapped of their full potential. I’d love to see them face off. But, on its own, Piranesi is a really fine read, and one I’m glad I finally got round to.

(As one more plug, here’s that link to my own story, “Piranesi”.)


The Bodach/The Walking Stones by Mollie Hunter

1976 Target Books PB

Some more Scottish YA folk-fantasy… First published in the UK in 1970 as The Bodach, and in the US in the same year as The Walking Stones, this was then re-released in paperback in the UK under the more Earth-mysteries-friendly US title in 1976.

“Bodach” is Gaelic for “old man”, and the Bodach of the title lives in a Scottish glen, a storyteller and possessor of the Second Sight. Living close by are the Campbell family — shepherd Ian, his wife Kitty, and their ten-year-old son Donald — and one evening when the Bodach is visiting, the old man foretells that, the next day, three men will come to the valley, one with a forest on his back, one with lightning in his hand, and the third bringing death. Sure enough, the next day, three men — all called Rory — turn up. One has a sack of seeds for planting a forest, the other has the plans for a new hydro-electric dam to be built in the glen, and the third has the responsibility of turning on the dam and flooding the glen (thus bringing death to it). They offer the Campbells and the Bodach modern, new houses in the nearby town (with “electric light, hot and cold running water, an electric stove, a refrigerator and washing-machine — everything, in fact, that a modern house should have”), and while the Campbells accept (Ian is to get a new job, too, working as a forester under the first Rory), the Bodach says, politely but firmly: “you will never flood this glen until I give you leave to do so.”

1970 Blackie HB

Work progresses for two years. The day the dam is due to be turned on (by Royalty, no less), the Bodach stands as one of the crowd — but suddenly, he’s there in the glen. Knowing they can’t turn on the dam till he’s safe, men are sent to get him, but every time he’s about to be caught, he reappears somewhere else. Things continue like this till the end of the day, and the dam hasn’t been turned on. That evening, the Bodach tells the now twelve-year-old Donald why he’s using this skill of creating a “Co-Walker”, a double, in this way. There’s a circle of thirteen standing stones in the glen, and:

“Once every hundred years, they say, these stones move from their places. They walk to the river and dip their heads in it, then they go back to their places and stand fast there for another hundred years.”

The Bodach wants to see this wonderful event. But before he can, the two of them encounter a creature from the Otherworld, the Bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford, whose appearance foretells death. The old man saves the boy from becoming its victim, but only at his own expense. Now knowing he’s going to die, and so maybe not to get to see the stones walk, he asks Donald to see them, and passes on his gift of the Second Sight to the boy (which he’d always meant to do anyway). The Bodach falls ill and is taken to hospital, so Donald must use his new abilities (creating his own “Co-Walker”) to keep the dam from opening, then gets to see (I hope this isn’t a plot spoiler, as it’s in the title of the book) the stones move.

1986 Magnet Books PB

There are already connections between this book and two other Scottish YA novels I’ve covered on this blog. The Washer at the Ford appeared in Winifred Finlay’s Beadbonny Ash — though there she didn’t portend death — and The Grey Dancer was also about a glen being flooded due to the creation of a hydro-electric dam (and there was also a cyclical supernatural occurrence, too). The Walking Stones is a lighter book than either, aimed at a slightly younger audience. The threat level is low, and none of the characters is really villainous (one of the Rories is clearly tempted to flood the valley even with the Bodach in it, but is persuaded otherwise). Usually I find books aimed at pre-teens to be too light for my tastes, but The Walking Stones has a bit of an edge (with the death of the old man), plus a genuine scene of wonder and weirdness when Donald gets to see the walking of the stones. It’s an evocative and mystical moment, very nicely written, with strands of wreathing mists gathering about the stones, then becoming the long white hair and flowing beards of old men.

1998 PB from Magic Carpet Books

For Donald, the protagonist, it’s basically a tale of initiation, as he’s granted the power of Second Sight. Any modern book of this type (or even The Dark is Rising, from a few years later) would use the idea to be the first in a long series, with Donald going on to fight all sorts of Otherworld perils, but here, there’s no sense that’s going to happen. Donald, we can be sure, is going to live just as quiet a life as the Bodach did, telling tales of wonder and mystery, and providing a little Second Sight and Otherworldly wisdom to his local community. (Will it be a strange and lonely life? We’re not told, though Donald does rather sensibly express some doubts as to whether he wants the gift of the Second Sight.)

1973 PB from Harper Trophy

Like so many similar books of the era, there’s a sense of old ways — along with both their faerie dangers, and their supernatural sense of wonder — being erased by the encroachment of modern technology — with its greater ease of life, but paucity of wonders. Compared to the Bodach, we’re told, “there was no one on the television who knew stories as strange as the ones he told, or who could tell them half so well”. But Donald is handed the baton, and becomes just such a storyteller for the next generation, ensuring the old ways, wisdom, and stories aren’t quite going to die out just yet.


The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

Night Shade Books edition of Hodgson’s works, art by Jason Van Hollander

Hodgson’s The Night Land is perhaps the most abridged/reworked of 20th century fantasies. First published in 1912, it was immediately and severely cut by Hodgson himself into The Dream of X, so as to secure US copyright; in 2011, James Stoddard produced The Night Land: A Story Retold; and in 2023 an abridged edition was issued as part of the MIT Press’s “Radium Age” series of proto-SF classics. All this is perhaps an expression of what many critics and readers seem to feel, that Hodgson’s novel is a mix of great elements and the not-so-great, and might be fixed with a little tinkering. It was hearing about the Radium Age abridgement that prompted me to re-read The Night Land — but I went back to the original, knowing otherwise I’d spend my reading time wondering what they’d left out.

Although it was the last of Hodgson’s novels to be published, I like the idea put forward in Sam Gafford’s “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson” that it was the first to be actually written. It certainly has the feel of a first novel, compared to, say, The House on the Borderland. The Night Land has more rough edges, along with that rawness of sentiment that can come through in a first novel (particularly, perhaps, a fantasy one), before publication makes a writer self-conscious of what he’s doing.

1979 Sphere edition, art by Peter Andrew Jones

The plot, for such a long book, has a fairy-tale-like simplicity. After a framing story where we learn this is a manuscript produced in the 17th century by a man recording his dreams/visions of a far-future self, we’re projected into the Earth’s end days. The sun has died and humanity has retreated to the Great Redoubt, a massive, multi-city pyramid surrounded by a barrier of protective Earth Current. Beyond the barrier is the bleak and terrifying Night Land, a region of darkness populated by monsters and even more perilous Forces of Evil. The narrator’s strong telepathic abilities allow him to pick up a distant voice from a previously forgotten Lesser Redoubt — and what’s more, the woman he’s in contact with uses a name that makes him believe she may be the reincarnation of the lady his 17th century self loved and lost. When he then receives a communication that the Lesser Redoubt has fallen, he sets out on a lone quest to find her, and bring her to the safety of the Great Redoubt.

Ballantine Books edition (first volume), art by Robert Logrippo

Critics of the novel, while almost always praising its originality and vision, tend to raise two key complaints about The Night Land. The first is about its style. C S Lewis, for instance, says it has “a foolish, and flat archaism of style”; Lovecraft calls its “attempt at archaic language… grotesque and absurd”; and among contemporary reviews, the Dublin Daily Express (9th May 1912), said “people who look to find pleasure in a book do not care to be engaged in a constant struggle with a repellent style.” But the book also has its defenders on this count. Michael Moorcock, in his often vituperative Wizardry and Wild Romance, says “This is archaism used to much livelier effect than [William] Morris’s.” And, back among the contemporary reviews, the Morning Leader (19th April 1912) brought in literary precedent, saying the book’s manner is “a mixture of Pepys, Meredith, [historical novelist] Mr. [Maurice] Hewlett, Defoe, Mr. Kipling, and the Bible”, before adding: “The book is so unusual, so great a tour de force, that we really are uncertain whether it is magnificent or silly—or neither: it is certainly impressive, but not at all convincing.”

For me, I have no problem with the style, which seems natural to both the strange world and the archetypal story Hodgson is telling. He does occasionally come up with a clunker:

“And mayhaps your sympathy shall tell you just how I to feel in the heart.”

But more often he uses the artificiality of the style to evocative, even occasionally playful, effect, as in this description of one of the Night Land’s small fire pits:

“And the noise that it sent out was strange and slow, and it did seem to gruntle gently unto itself in that lonesome hollow, as that it had made a long and quiet grumbling there, through Eternity. And oft was it still, and made no sound; and again would give an odd bubbling in the quietness, and send off, as it did seem, a little smoke of sulphur, and afterward fall once more upon a quiet.”

If I have any complaint about the style — and this is the first thing I’d cut if I were doing an abridgement of the book — it’s the narrator’s frequent appeals to his reader for sympathy or understanding:

“And surely all this to be plain to you, and to be over-plain; for, in verity, I tell to you, and over-tell, until that I should be weary; and mayhap you to be the more so. And, indeed, I not to blame you; but only to hope that your understanding, which doth mean also in general your hearts, doth be with me all along my way. And, indeed, this my tale to be not easy told.”

But equally, Hodgson may be simply reminding his readers that, although this story is set in the far future and in a very strange environment, it’s still a tale about human beings, with the same basic human concerns we have today. If nothing else, it lends the narrator a hint of vulnerability, which ultimately has the sympathising effect he’s asking for.

1921 HB, from Holden and Ardingham

The other major sticking point with critics is the love story. Lovecraft, of course, objects, saying the book is marred by “nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality” (a phrase which can’t help making me think of the number of sugars Lovecraft used to pile into his coffee). Fritz Leiber says the love story “mars rather than embellishes” the book, and C S Lewis, while praising The Night Land’s “unforgettable sombre splendour” of imagery, felt it was “disfigured by a sentimental and irrelevant erotic interest”. Interestingly, none of the contemporary reviews I’ve found make any objection on this point.

For myself, while it’s true that reading The Night Land can occasionally feel like you’re the awkward third with a couple who are goo-goo in love (“and I kist her, and I told her that I did be surely her Master, in verity, and she mine own Baby-Slave”), the book’s subtitle is “A Love Story”. The love story can’t be cut. And it’s not merely the spine of the tale, it’s the core of book’s meaning. Hodgson may, in The Night Land, be sentimental, but it is an honest sentimentality. The love story is not some sop to what a reading public wants, but the expression of something he deeply believes in.

Ballantine Books (2nd volume), art by Robert Logrippo

After all, in the imaginative strangeness of the Night Land, Hodgson’s work is shot through with cosmic horror: with massive, unintelligible, anti-human forces just waiting to not only stamp out our hero, but inflict some deep spiritual harm to him (which has led it to become standard practice for people venturing into the Night Land to have a suicide capsule embedded in their wrist, so they can end their life rather than fall into the clutches of the Powers of Evil lurking out there). But Hodgson’s horrors aren’t entirely of the Lovecraftian sort — they’re not beings of such cosmic immensity that humankind are insects they crush without noticing. These things are drawn to humanity. They cluster around the Great Redoubt, wanting to get at the people inside. Human beings, then, have value in Hodgson’s cosmos. And that value, at least in the mind of Hodgson’s narrator, is typified by love, “for our love did make all the world holy”. The Night Land, meanwhile, is characterised by its loneliness (“and everywhere there was abundance of rock and lonesomeness”) and inhumanity. Its most fearsome element is the mysterious House of Silence — which could well be The House on the Borderland at some latter stage in its journey through the eons — but this, crucially, is balanced by the final words of the novel, used to describe the state of the narrator’s union with his beloved: “the House of Joy”.

French edition (volume 2) from 1982, art by Jean-Michel Nicollet

There is, though, an element within the love story that raises stronger objections. This is the sadomasochistic strain that creeps in from soon after the narrator finds his Maid in the desolation of the Night Land. It starts with him giving her a smack on the hand for refusing to eat all the food he gives her (she’s trying to save it in case he needs it later). This leads to him later shaking her, then twice actually whipping her — the second time after violently baring her shoulders. There are hints she perhaps takes some enjoyment in this (the narrator catches her kissing the strap he used as a whip), but after the second time, she stops speaking to him, and makes exaggerated play of serving him as a slave (which only annoys him more). Hodgson has already established that his far future culture makes use of public punishment, where miscreants become “human signposts of pain for the benefit of others”. This may partially explain — along with the narrator’s youthfulness — why he lashes out when reasoned argument is all that’s required. (And the narrator certainly takes no account of how traumatised the Maid must be.)

But there is another element to the sadomasochism. We learn, early on, that the narrator prepared for his venture into the Night Land with unspecified privations, after which “yet was I sweeter in spirit because that I stood lean and pure, and much poor dross and littleness had been burned from me”. As part of this, he has “withholden from that which doth weaken and taint the spirit”, which can’t help sounding like a Victorian euphemism. Hodgson’s narrator is clearly invested in sexual abstinence — the Maid remains a maid throughout the journey — as in:

“And so I to think, and did presently ponder with a great and strange pity upon they that did not yet have met the Beloved, and they mayhap not to have kept all for the Beloved; but to have been light with that which doth be the Treasure…”

French edition (volume 1) from 1982, art by Jean-Michel Nicollet

The sadomasochistic element in their relationship bubbles over in that portion of the journey where the couple are least in danger, and so when their youthful energies aren’t entirely taken up with simply surviving. It doesn’t exactly take a Freudian to argue it might just be sexual tension between the two of them, finding the only outlet it can, in their prurient world. It ends, though, when they’re faced with a genuine threat once more, in a spectacular eruption of sword & sorcery levels of violence, with an attack by twenty of the bestial “Humpt Men” who haunt those parts. It’s a sequence that seems straight out of a Frazetta painting, and proves the Maid to be no wilting and helpless child. After that genuinely threatening violence, the pair thankfully seem to have got all that whipping and slave-play out of their system.

Those two elements — the archaic style and the love story — aside, all but the most fantasy-averse critics agree The Night Land is wildly impressive for the sheer weird inventiveness of its landscape, and the strange beings that inhabit it. If its primal horror derives from anything, it’s Bosch’s fire-pit-studded hells and Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”.

1990 Grafton PB, art by Kevin Tweddell

One of the most effective things about the Night Land itself is that, dark as it is, it’s alive with sounds: screams, cries, shouts, a constant hint of movement. A giant man or a pig-tusked thing might suddenly appear, rushing by while the narrator hides, then is gone. And there are the stranger beings and Evil Powers, too: the hooded Silent Ones, who only kill those who walk on their road, or the mysterious and enormous Watchers (“mountains of living watchfulness and hideous and steadfast intelligence”), or the terrifying Night Hounds. One Force of Evil the narrator encounters is accompanied by a whirring sound and seems to resemble “the trunk of a great tree, that did show in the glowing”: utterly abstract, and all the more frightening for it. Moorcock & Cawthorn in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books best sum up this menagerie of cosmic horrors:

“They are creatures of the unconscious, vast dim forms from the nightmare-spawning shadows beyond the lamps of Reason, their powers and purposes never clearly delineated. Only the lesser and purely physical menaces can be met with muscle and the biting fires of [the narrator’s weapon] the Diskos.”

Photo of Hodgson from The Graphic, 31st July 1920

Starting out on this re-read of The Night Land brought back to me the feeling from my first read, of how vulnerable and imperilled the narrator was in his journey into that vast and monster-haunted darkness. This time I also felt there were moments of distinct resonance with Tolkien: Frodo and Sam’s venturing onto the road before Minas Morgul (there’s a road and a city in the Night Land, too, though we never see the city up close), and even more, the Two Watchers that Sam has to face outside the Tower of Cirith Ungol. (Douglas A. Anderson says, in Tales Before Tolkien, that Tolkien likely read The Night Land in the 1930s, so this may have been a genuine point of influence.)

For Lovecraft “The last quarter of the book drags woefully”, but for me the last two chapters have a sustained tension and almost symphonic grandeur. The ending works so well precisely because Hodgson has earned the right to lean so heavily on what is, by this point in his epic narrative, no longer sentiment but archetypal human emotion, raised to the nth power. Perhaps all that silly love-talk and the endless descriptions of the Maid kissing the food tablets before she hands them to the narrator pay off, in some way, as long as you’re willing to let them.

The Night Land is one of those early masterpieces of fantasy which is so powerful simply because it has so little precedent, because it was written before any conventions existed. Hodgson pulled this thing out of his imagination wholesale, like some lone Ahab beaching the White Whale with a fishing rod.

The 2023 MIT abridged edition

As to abridgement… I can certainly see parts I’d have cut. The narrator never fails to tell us how many hours he walked each day, at which points he sat down to eat and drink (and to justify himself every time he eats more than the amount he rationed himself), as well as how he searched for a place to sleep, and whether he washed, and how long he slept, and how he ate when he woke, and so on. It all seems rather mechanical, not to mention a little boring, in the face of the visionary weirdness of the Night Land itself. But perhaps that’s the point: Hodgson is making his narrative real, by placing such humdrum details in contrast to his cosmic horrors. And perhaps the very length of the text itself adds to the feeling that, having read it, you’ve witnessed — even been a part of — this immense fairy-tale journey.