Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn

A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer

Puffin edition, 1974, cover by Peter Andrew Jones

I managed to end up with two editions of A Castle of Bone before I got round to reading it. Two editions with different covers, each suggesting a quite different kind of book. The Puffin cover from 1974 was the first commercial work from fantasy & science fiction artist Peter Andrew Jones. It suggests an exciting, danger-filled adventure in which young teens are menaced by a somewhat science fictional-looking castle, spiky, dark, and (seemingly) revolving. The other cover, by Angela Maddigan, is from a 1973 hardback edition issued by the Children’s Book Club. It suggests a much more laid-back, poetic kind of fantasy, a journey of wonders and discovery rather than dangers. Halfway through reading Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, I began to wonder if either of these covers actually suited the book. There had been brief, dreamy trips to another land that centred on a castle, but after a while these seemed to have been dropped for a completely different plot in which three of the four teen protagonists are having to look after a baby, while keeping the fact secret from their parents. There was, in the end, one more trip to the land of the castle, but it was far stranger than either cover suggested. (And there was no rending of blouses as in the Puffin cover, though nor was it as placid as the Children’s Book Club cover.) But I’d be hard pressed to say what might make a good cover to this very strange book, which took me some time after I’d read it to figure out what it might even be about.

Children’s Book Club edition, cover by Angela Maddigan

The book starts with arty, somewhat spacey-headed teen Hugh (or borderline-teen — he’s about twelve, I think) being told by his mother that he needs to acquire a cupboard so he can tidy his room. His room is somewhat of a problem, as it has an awkwardly sloping wall, meaning it’s hard to find something that will fit, and Hugh is precisely the sort of youngster not to mind living in a room strewn with clothes worn and unworn. He’d far rather be either painting or staring into space.

But a cupboard has to be bought, so he and his father set out, and find an antiques shop (“junk shop,” his father says), where Hugh sees, and instantly realises he needs, the perfect cupboard. (His father calls it “monstrous, abominable.”) They take it home — it seems, oddly, almost “supernaturally” heavy — and install it, whereafter Hugh forgets about putting any of his clothes into it, and that night finds himself in a strange land, working his way towards a castle that always seems to be changing — sometimes it’s shiny, sometimes dark, sometimes it’s see-through. When he wakes up the next day, his feet are dirty.

Hugh’s best friend Penn lives next door, and he and his sister Anna come round to visit Hugh and Hugh’s sister Jean. At some point Anna (who is even more given to dreamy absences than Hugh) puts Hugh’s wallet in the still-empty cupboard and closes the door. A moment later, odd sounds are heard from inside. They open the door, only for a live pig — “quite unmistakably a real pig, with hanging dugs and crude, prehistoric-looking skin” — to flop out and make a dash for the exit. The pig escapes, but the cupboard remains. Soon, the four teens realise it has a magical quality: if you put something inside and close the doors, when you open them again, that thing will have been transformed to some earlier stage of its existence. Hugh’s wallet, for instance, was made of pigskin. Brass buttons put into the cupboard sometimes emerge as a puddle of molten metal, sometimes as the individual rocks from which their copper and zinc was extracted. There’s no controlling, or predicting, what previous stage in their existence the objects will revert to. And then, of course, the cat gets in. It emerges as a kitten.

There’s an obvious next step, one that everyone is curious about but nobody wants to try. What if a person went into the cupboard? It’s a possible way of achieving a sort of immortality. When you get old you simply get into the cupboard, turn yourself young again, and live a whole new stretch of life. But Hugh, Penn, Anna and Jean are all young already, so why should that concern them? Why does Hugh find himself irresistibly drawn to the idea of getting into the cupboard?

Farmer has two excellent qualities as a writer of fantasy. On the one hand, she inserts fantasy elements into her story that are highly charged with a host of possible meanings, and though this sometimes left me wondering exactly what it all meant, I was never in doubt that it did all mean something. (There are plenty of references to myth and folklore thrown in, too, from King Arthur to Odysseus to Thomas the Rhymer, only adding to the meaningfulness and confusion.) As she says in an essay, “Discovering the Pattern”, published in a 1975 anthology of essays by children’s writers, The Thorny Paradise:

“I am asked why, as a writer for children, I do not produce nice, solid, useful novels on the problems of the adopted child or aimed at the reluctant reader, and so forth, instead of highly symbolic (according to some reviewers) obscure (according to others) — anyway, difficult fantasies.”

When A Castle of Bone ends with — at last — a proper visit by all four teens to the land of the titular castle, it proves to be a very strange realm indeed. This is no trip to Narnia. The land of the castle is a land of possibilities and potentialities, where everything is, moment by moment, the possibilities of what it could be, rather than (as in our world) the one thing it has ended up being. It feels like a unique land among the many lands of fantasy literature, though not one you’d care to linger in.

The other quality Farmer has is a great ability to evoke the peculiarities of real life in a way that really makes her characters seem like genuine individuals. Hugh’s spacey moments, for instance, when he drifts off and gives in to dreamy abstractions, are a perfect representation of a certain type of adolescent mood, as when he gazes out of a window and:

“…it left him with an extraordinary, strange, creative ache; a beautiful yet unbearable sense of growing out of himself, exploding skin and bone. He tried to catch this feeling sometimes, record it, pin it down…”

The relationships between the characters are wonderfully realistic, too, with the four teens being bound together by, at times, nothing more than a mutual feeling of vague annoyance with one another. And they all find their parents as incomprehensible and mildly annoying as their parents seem to find them. It’s not the sort of crisis level of dysfunctionality you find in an Alan Garner novel, rather it seems like the healthily human sort of dysfunctionality you get in families that are happy to let each member be themselves, even if it means for a little friction.

So what is the book about? I always like the way a good novel can be open to multiple meanings, but, at the same time, I feel unsatisfied till I’ve found at least one for myself, so here’s my take on what A Castle of Bone may be about.

I think it’s about learning to accept one’s identity, one’s being-in-the-world, and the choices that are available to you in this life. It’s about seeing that identity is, in a way, tied up with mortality — with the fact that the life you live is one of constant (though slow) change, from baby to child to teen to adult to old age, but is still rooted in something changeless: the fact that, throughout these changes, you are always you. The “castle of bone” is the person you are, the body you were born into, with all its peculiarities, a castle that is protective of your identity (as a castle is) while also imposing limits on that identity (a castle can be a prison, too).

When Hugh first sees the cupboard, he instantly knows he has to have it:

“Immediately he had never in his life wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints.”

1992 Puffin edition

I think this is because, at some unconscious level, Hugh knows that the cupboard represents the next stage in his growing up, his becoming who he is. A cupboard can be seen as a sort of metaphor for identity — it’s the thing Hugh is going to put his clothes into, so it’s going to contain his public persona, but it’s also one of those magical interior spaces, both limited and limitless, that represent the human imagination. At first, he didn’t want to go out and buy a cupboard, he just wanted his parents to pick one for him — “A cupboard was a cupboard, was a cupboard” — but being forced to make a decision is the first step to making the more important decisions in his life, such as who he is.

And the old man who sells him the cupboard later says that this is what Hugh must do to end the complications that the cupboard’s magic have thrown into the four teens’ lives: he must enter the cupboard deliberately, “And go into your castle.” — choose who he is, then start to become that person.

This old man is a somewhat puzzling character. (In the “Discovering the Pattern” essay, Farmer identifies him to some degree with Tiresias, the blind seer of Ancient Greek myth.) He seems to change in character from moment to moment. His junk shop is filled with things that prove to be images of himself — a bust, a figure in a painting, a portrait. It’s obvious he has been using the cupboard to achieve immortality, but that it is in no way a satisfactory immortality. He has become fragmented as a person, a series of remnants of his many former lives — not valuable antiques but, as Hugh’s father said, “junk”. This, then, is not the way to be in this world; one must accept one’s mortality, commit to one’s identity, and see it through.

A Castle of Bone is an intriguing book. It’s perhaps as puzzling as, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, and while it’s certainly not as traumatic, it could well be in the same league in terms of richness of meaning, only in a very different direction. It doesn’t have Garner’s intensity of focus (though I think Garner’s intensity, which makes his books what they are, is also the reason for the feeling of trauma in them — it’s the intense focus of the over-powerful intellect, dissecting emotions in a way intellect was never supposed to). Farmer’s is a book that manages to feel as though it’s about ordinary life at the same time as it’s about the unordinariness of life, the state of being a particular human individual, with all the unique peculiarities a human individual has, including the richness of the inner life, particularly at those self-defining moments in which you must decide, at some level, how to be you. (Which links it nicely to another Garner work, The Stone Book Quartet, which is based around similar moments.) Reading it did, occasionally, feel a bit frustrating — particularly when the main characters were spending so much time looking after a baby, and I wanted them to be investigating another world — but the ending, I think, made up for that, and perhaps on a second read, when I know the sort of book it is, I might enjoy it even more.

Vertigo

We begin with a plunge into a human eye, and the hypnotic, whirling spirals in its depths. Vertigo (1958) is all about that plunge, that being caught in the combination tangle-and-embrace of an ever-revolving spiral, be that spiral love or deception, the frailties of one’s own mind, or the darkness and mysteries of another’s.

Vertigo is a lush film, and lushness is the invitation to plunge in, to immerse. The cinematography is lush, with its bold, smouldering colours, such as the almost supernatural green Hitchcock keeps bathing his leading lady in. Bernard Herrmann’s music is lush, with its teetering-on-the-edge arpeggios at the start, and the deep, romantic surrender-sigh of its love theme. And it may sound odd, but I think the plot is lush, too. How can a plot be lush? Because it tangles you in its ever-whirling spiral, pulling you deeper and deeper, and the deeper you go the richer it gets, increasing in questions, complications and implications the more you give in to its embrace.

Usually when a film has one of those mid-point reveals which throw a new light on everything that went before, it makes the plot clearer. If you watch the film again, it’s with a series of mental tumbler-clicks. “Ah, so that’s why-so-and-so did such-and-such…” But when Vertigo passes through its central reveal, it only seems to make things clearer. Once you start to think about it, it actually makes everything that’s been going on even stranger.

I’m not going to lay out the whole plot (though what follows contains spoilers), but it begins with Scottie (Jimmie Stewart), retiring from the police force after a roof-top chase proves him to have a debilitating fear of heights, and results in the death of a fellow officer. Jobless and aimless, he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who needs someone to follow his wife — not because he thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes she’s come under the influence of a past she never knew about. Somehow, she’s being possessed by the spirit of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who took her life at the age Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is now. Though initially reluctant, Scottie takes the job, and does so because Madeleine is beautiful. As he follows this dreamy young woman in her wanderings about San Francisco, he falls in love with her.

Why does he fall in love with her? Not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s in need of being saved, and Scottie is very much in need of saving someone, because that’s the only way he can redeem himself. His masculinity took a blow when he was forced to leave the police, and what he needs to restore it, to feel like a hero again, is to save some beautiful, haunted young woman from… whatever it is she needs saving from, be it her own psychology, a darkness from the past, or the ghost of dead Carlotta.

The thing is, this story about Madeleine being possessed and death-obsessed isn’t true. The Madeleine Scottie follows isn’t haunted by the past, she’s not Gavin Elster’s wife, she’s not even called Madeleine. It’s an act, part of a murder plot to do away with someone Scottie never meets, but for whose death he is going to be made to feel responsible.

Can the love for someone who’s not real be real? If you judge by its effects — losing the unreal Madeleine plunges Scottie into a near-catatonic combination of melancholia and guilt — it is real. And anyway, even though “Madeleine” is an act, there’s something about the act that is true. Because this woman does need saving. Not from the spirit of dead Carlotta, but from the tangles of Gavin Elster’s murder plot. So perhaps Scottie does love the real woman behind the Madeleine-facade, the woman who needs saving, and whose redemption can, in turn, save him.

And perhaps another proof his love for her is real is that Madeleine — or the woman who’s only pretending to be Madeleine, but who nevertheless is on the receiving end of Scottie’s love — falls in love with him. Which is even stranger, because that means she’s fallen in love with a man who loves her because he thinks she’s someone else.

After things go wrong and Gavin gets away with murder, and the real Madeleine is dead and Scottie thinks he’s to blame, he meets Judy (Kim Novak, again). Distraught over the death he thinks he caused, he sees enough of his Madeleine in Judy to make him think he can remake this young woman in her image. Which, of course, he can, because she’s the same woman. And when he turns up at her door, Judy, who has made an obvious effort to look and act as unlike Madeleine as she can — brunette as opposed to blonde, gaudy makeup and chunky jewellery as opposed to elegant understatement, homespun, high-voiced innocence as opposed to deeper-voiced, smouldering refinement — Judy at first thinks she has to run away, because she is, after all, accomplice to a murder. But she doesn’t run away, and that’s because she’s genuinely in love with Scottie.

Judy and her ghostly alter-ego

Or is she? This Judy that we meet in the second half of the film is also an act. She’s doing her best to be as unlike Madeleine as she can, so as not to be discovered. She has been cast off by her former lover/accomplice Gavin, so she might well be looking for a protector, and she knows enough about Scottie — now a vulnerable, broken man clearly capable of being manipulated — to play him. She may have seemed to be falling in love with him even when she was still playing Madeleine, right before the murder, but was she, really? She later claims she ran to the bell-tower of the church to prevent the murder of Elster’s wife, but how can that be true? She must have known that, the moment she appeared in the tower’s top chamber, Elster would throw his already-dead wife’s body off the top of the tower. And the key thing is already-dead. The murder, by that point, would have already taken place. If she’d really fallen for Scottie, and wanted to prevent the murder, she should have taken him away from the tower and explained everything. He was an ex-policeman, he’d have known what to do. But she didn’t. What she did gives every appearance of going ahead with the plan.

At no point in the film can we be sure we meet the real Judy. But it could be, in a mirror-image of Scottie’s story from the first half of the film, that she might be trying to redeem herself for her role in the murder by trying to save this broken man from his lovelorn melancholia. She may also truly love him. Or it could be that, though she might not (like most of us, with regards to both Vertigo and life) understand this complex, ever-deepening spiral she’s found herself caught in, but she’s doing what, in this film at least, is the one thing human beings can do in the face of so much confusion and deception: she’s finding someone she can cling to.

This is what Vertigo is about. It’s about clinging to whoever’s there to cling to. There are several long sequences in Vertigo where Jimmie Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy are caught in an extended clinch — it’s the only word for it — a constantly moving, restless mix of kiss, embrace, controlling hold, and don’t-leave-me grip. At times, they’re struggling against one another, at others they’re just sort of pressing helplessly into one another as though no hold could ever be close enough. (In the final sequence, they spend over five minutes in near-constant physical contact, even as they cross a quadrangle and climb the steep, spiralling steps of a church tower.) The first time I saw the film, I was left for some time afterwards with a lingering, almost physical feeling of touch, and it was these intense clinging/clinching scenes that did it.

Despite the labyrinthine tangles of its plot and its characters’ deception-based identities and constantly-questionable motives, what’s real in Vertigo, both for the characters and the viewer, is that moment of finding something to cling to amidst all the whirling spirals and vertiginous plunges. That’s why they cling — because they’ve finally found something solid, something real, a living presence in a world of shadows and ghosts and lies.

Vertigo’s is a world in which there’s no solid ground, and only the feeling of falling is real. You find someone to cling to who’s falling with you, or you do it alone. Obsession isn’t, in this world, an aberration, it’s the only workable response. Scottie’s pal Midge’s lukewarm attempts to get him to love her aren’t anywhere near enough. What’s needed is superheated, Gothic Romantic Noir levels of obsession. Love, in Vertigo, is utterly irrational and absurd — the idea of trusting anyone in a world so full of deception and lies is impossible — so, even if it springs to life on the back of a lie, as long as it does spring to life, you cling to it for all your life and sanity are worth.

This, I think, is the way to watch Vertigo — and re-watch it, and re-watch it, ever deepening the obsession. As you watch it, you know you’re being presented with lies and deceptions, magic tricks and hypnotic passes — not just in the film, by its characters, but by its director, the arch-manipulator of audiences, Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is, I’d say, his most potent spell. So the best thing to do is give in to the plunge, cling to the cling of Vertigo, obsess with the obsession, otherwise you’ll be lost, alone, in an ever-whirling fall…

The Shape of… What? Er…

I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.

The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)

Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)

Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.

The Drowning Pool (1975) — they had a bigger bathroom

It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.

Chungking Express — this is not her apartment

To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:

“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”

It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.

I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.

To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.

Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.

Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Harvill HB, cover by Keenan

In 1997, Haruki Murakami published his first full-length work of non-fiction (later translated into English in abridged form as Underground) in which he interviewed both the victims and the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack that took place in the Tokyo subway in March 1995. After the Quake, a slim collection of six stories first published in Japan in 1999 (and in English in 2002) is in part an outgrowth of that project, being an artistic response to another devastating event that occurred in Japan only two months before the gas attack, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like Underground, it focuses on ordinary lives and how they are affected by a large-scale disaster.

A key difference, though — apart from this being fiction — is that, unlike the interviewees in Underground, none of the characters in After the Quake directly experiences the Kobe earthquake. Instead, in each of the six stories, the main character has some sort of powerful, barely-dormant subterranean force of their own that they have learned to live with on a day-to-day basis, but which the Kobe earthquake, through a sort of sympathetic magic, threatens to bring into the open. It might be unacknowledged love, it might be long-held-onto hatred, but most often it’s loss or emptiness.

It’s perhaps at its purest, and most Murakami-ish, in the first story in the book, “UFO in Kushiro” (which can be read at the The New Yorker). The main character, Komura, is a hi-fi salesman whose wife, after spending days doing nothing but watching reports of the Kobe earthquake on TV, suddenly leaves him. The only concrete reason she gives is that Komura has nothing to give her: “living with you,” she writes in her farewell note, “is like living with a chunk of air”. Komura takes a week’s leave, but, unsure what to do with himself, accepts the suggestion of a work colleague that he visit Hokkaido, because the colleague has a delicate package he needs to get there, and he’s willing to cover Komura’s expenses if he delivers it. Komura does so, handing over the package to the colleague’s sister, then spending the rest of the day with the sister’s friend, Shimao. They end up in a love hotel together, but Komura finds himself impotent. He tells Shimao about the emptiness his wife accused him of having inside. Out of nowhere, Shimao says that the thing Komura is supposed to have inside himself was in the package he just delivered, and now he’s handed it over, he’ll always be empty inside. If it’s a joke, it’s too close to the mark, because, hearing it, Komura feels his own inner-earthquake pre-tremors:

“For one split second, Komura realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.”

It doesn’t matter, in “UFO in Kushiro”, what the emptiness is, only that Komura finally manages to feel it. In “Landscape with Flatiron”, the second story in the collection, the main character, Junko, feels inside herself “a certain ‘something’… deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling… too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea”. Having run away from home and now working in a convenience store, she gets to know a middle-aged painter, Miyake, who has an irrational feeling that he will die trapped in a fridge. He’s clearly aware this is just a symbol of his own fear of being trapped in other ways — as, for instance, by the family he abandoned in Kobe. He likes to comb the beach for driftwood, building bonfires, which symbolise, for him, true freedom. Looking into the flames of his latest creation, Junko sees not freedom but acceptance, in response to her own particular emptiness:

“The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”

In most of the stories, Murakami’s characters find some way of working with the emptiness they find within themselves, but these are almost always abstract, irrational actions, symbolic rather than practical, as though it doesn’t matter so much what you do to counter the emptiness, just that you do something. In “All God’s Children Can Dance”, for instance, Yoshiya is told by his highly religious mother that he has no human father, but is the son of “Our Lord”. He has ceased to believe in God, but finally finds a sort of self-acceptance by dancing his own peculiar form of dance, alone in the dark. In “Thailand”, meanwhile, an ageing thyroid specialist who has retained a lifelong hatred of a certain man in Kobe (and who can’t help believing, at some level, that her hatred caused the earthquake there), is told how to finally let go, because otherwise, she’s told, when she dies, only the hatred will remain.

The strangest tale in the book, and surely the most memorable, is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”. The main character here is Katagiri, who sees himself as something of a nobody. He collects debts for the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, and is largely successful because, having given up on life, he has no fear when confronted by the various gangsters, heavies, and criminals his work brings him into contact with. One day he comes home to find a giant frog waiting in his apartment. This frog — who insists on being called “Frog”, not “Mr. Frog” — is going to try to save Tokyo from an earthquake many times worse than the one that hit Kobe, and needs Katagiri’s help. The Frog, who is both immensely strong and impressively well-read for an amphibian (he quotes Tolstoy, Conrad, Nietzsche, Hemingway, and Dostoevsky) is perhaps Katagiri’s own repressed potential — his unacknowledged strength (his “courage and passion for justice”, which Katagiri is surprised to find Frog praising him for), and the urge to live a fuller life (Frog’s endless quotations finally encourage Katagiri to read).

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin (translator of a lot of Murakami’s fiction, including these stories), says that After the Quake is “perhaps Murakami’s most conventional story collection”, and it’s certainly his most consistent, with none of the more experimental pieces you find in his other collections. (The stories are also almost all of the same length.) Some, such as “UFO in Kushiro”, with its abandoned, suddenly empty mid-life protagonist, or the final story “Honey Pie” (whose tale of a love triangle between college friends evokes Murakami’s most famous book, Norwegian Wood, as well as one of his most recent, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) feel like essence-of-Murakami: characters, as Rubin says, “whose outwardly satisfactory lives leave them feeling unfulfilled and who live on the edge of some devastating discovery.”

I was very happy to get the chance to see Murakami himself shortly after the book’s publication in the UK, where he read from one of the stories (I’m sure it was “Super-Frog”), in both English and Japanese, and where I got my copy signed. This may, of course, be why it remains one of my favourites of his — After Dark, which came out shortly after, being another — and perhaps it helps that it’s short, but it’s certainly a more consistent and satisfying collection than his first book of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which only, for me, had a couple of really good hits).

The Light Maze by Joan North

UK hardback of The Light Maze. Illustration by David Higham.

Twenty-year-old Kit Elton comes to the countryside to stay with her godmother, Sally Nancarrow, on the back of a broken engagement. Sally’s husband, Tom, disappeared two years ago — one moment he was in his study, writing a book “about the odd ways people’s minds could work”, the next he was simply gone. Kit is given Tom’s study as a bedroom, and on her first evening there, after examining a strange paperweight “carved in the shape of two fishes — or were they tadpoles? — curved, head to tail”, falls into a dream:

“She seemed to be walking through an avenue of tall, tapering bushes which twisted and turned in the wind. It had been raining and the sun shone on them so that they glistened and danced with a dazzle of light and swayed in the air like blown candleflames… and now indeed they seemed more like flames than bushes…”

Later, among Tom Nancarrow’s papers, she finds a mysterious reference to this very “Light Maze” she’d dreamt about, and learns of a local legend, the Lightstone, of which it’s said:

“If you hold in your hand the Lightstone and hear in the silence the true note which is yourself then you will be able to the enter the Maze.”

With Sally’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Harriet, and a local boy, Barney Medlicott, Kit learns more about both the Lightstone and the Light Maze, and comes to realise it’s into this otherworldly realm that Tom has disappeared. But her investigations pique the interest of Esmerelda Melling, a local member of the Club of True Seekers (“some of our members have very wide knowledge of occult matters”), whose hunger for “wonder, joy, bliss” leads her to try to use the Lightstone for her own purposes — not evil, merely selfish, but nevertheless with the effect of disturbing the balance between the Light Maze and our world, leading to more people disappearing.

UK hardback, back cover

The Light Maze was published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972. On the book’s back jacket flap it says that North’s books — of which this was her last published — “bring into an ordinary and often comical picture of everyday life an awareness of other worlds, other modes of being”. The comedy, here, is very light. North is gently satiric of some of her characters, such as the social busybody Mrs Medlicott, or the self-consciously exotic Esmerelda Melling, or the boisterously adolescent Harriet, but there’s nothing that feels overtly comic. The darker side is handled lightly too: all of the main characters, for instance, have experienced loss — Kit has broken up with her fiancé, Sally’s husband and Harriet’s father has disappeared with no explanation, Barney Medlicott is an orphan, and Francis Leland, a playwright who lives in a flat above the Nancarrow’s household’s stable, has lost both his wife and his ability to write — but once established, none of these instances of loss weighs too heavily on the story. They can almost be forgotten, as though North were allowing the reader to take it or leave it.

To me, though, it felt as though, after this intriguing set up, the characters’ depths weren’t really explored, which is an issue in a book which is, essentially, about entering one’s inner depths. The Lightstone and Light Maze, it becomes clear, are part of an allegory of self-realisation or self-exploration. Achieving the centre of the Maze leads to some sort of inner fulfilment, but to do so, one must face “the Guardian of the Threshold”:

“There is a theory that if we try to turn our attention inwards, to explore our own depths, to find out who and what we are, we are liable to be confronted by a sort of shadow-self — all the parts of ourselves we have pushed out of our consciousness and refused to know.”

Or, as the oracular Barney has it:

“The brightest light brings the deepest shadow.”

Several of the book’s characters venture into the Light Maze and encounter a “sort of dark mass of corruption” within it, but if this is their own darkness, called into relief by the brighter light of the maze, it’s undifferentiated from character to character. Every character’s darkness is the same, and I didn’t get the sense that each character was confronting something personal, except that they would feel a certain familiarity alongside the fear and repugnance. Like the rest of the book’s fantasy elements, this darkness is just a little bit too abstract, and it needs North’s characters to (as they do on a couple of occasions) sit down and lay out what it all means, rather than allowing the fantasy to speak for itself.

It’s perhaps unfair to make this criticism of a YA book, but I can’t help comparing it to other, similar books of the same era. Le Guin’s Threshold, Garner’s Red Shift, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, for instance, deal with far more powerful and personal forces of darkness. It’s that sense of a very real-seeming, often gritty and class-conscious reality coming up against meaningful fantasy that I like in the era’s YA, and The Light Maze doesn’t quite have it, though it does feel as though it’s on the edge of the same territory. The Light Maze, I’d say, could stand alongside Susan Cooper’s Blytonesque Over Sea, Under Stone, but not its sequel, the much more realistic (in terms of characters and setting) The Dark is Rising. One of the main things The Light Maze is about, though, is the avoidance of extremes — how the search for higher states, as with Esmeralda’s “wonder, joy, bliss”, inevitably calls up a corresponding darkness — so, North’s lightness of touch may well have been an intentional part of what she was trying to say.

I first heard about Joan North from Matthew David Surridge’s post at Black Gate, which is well worth a read.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.