The Bone Forest by Robert Holdstock

UK cover, art by Geoff Taylor

First published in Interzone in March 1991, then in a collection of the same name in the same year, The Bone Forest is a prequel to Mythago Wood. (And, as it came before 1993’s The Hollowing, it means I’ve got out of sequence in my read-through of the mythago books. But time gets jumbled in these mythogenetic thickets…) Holdstock wrote this novella at the request of a screenwriter working on an adaptation of Mythago Wood (and how I’d love to see that), who asked for more background. I can’t help wondering, though, whether what Holdstock presented them with would have helped.

The Bone Forest is set in 1935, when Steven Huxley, the protagonist of Mythago Wood, is eight years old. But he — and even more so his older brother Christian — is a secondary character here. The focus is on the boys’ father, George Huxley. In his forties but feeling “stooped, sagging, [and] a fatigue that he had expected to encounter in his sixties, not for many many years”, Huxley is becoming increasingly aware that age is a factor in the ability to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood. His boys (unwittingly) seem much more capable of seeing them without even trying. One frozen winter night, for instance, they see a “Snow Woman” in the garden, which Huxley knows instantly to be a mythago. On his next expedition into the wood with his colleague Wynne-Jones, he meets this shamanic figure again, and in an attempt to open communications shows her some amulets he removed from the Horse Shrine (an early landmark in his — and, later, Steven’s — exploration of the wood’s depths). Her expression as he shows her these purloined sacred objects passes from horror to pity. She gives Huxley an amulet of her own, made from carefully-selected fragments of wood and bark. Soon after, he encounters a primal mythago-scene: four men driving massive wild horses ahead of them into the woods. A moment later, the men reappear, now clinging to the backs of the horses, but it’s evident Huxley is witnessing a particularly brutal sacrifice, as one of the horses has spears hanging from its flesh and is clearly being ridden to its death, while another’s rider is encased so tightly in straw his arms are forced into a cross-shape, and the straw is on fire. It’s just the sort of shocking image that shows Holdstock’s imagination at its strongest — a possible glimpse of our nearly incomprehensible savage past, or perhaps something from the deepest and most primal of dreams.

Illustration from Interzone. Art by SMS.

One of the horse-and-rider pairs collides with Huxley. Dazed, he recovers and returns home, but comes to realise a split occurred in that collision, when he seemed for a moment to be both himself and the doomed rider. Now there seems to be another Huxley in the world, one his son Steven describes as “grey-green” and whose movements are oddly sped-up. Huxley finds it writing, in his handwriting, in his hidden private journal, as well as sleeping with his wife, Jennifer — who glows with the attention she thinks she’s suddenly receiving from a previously neglectful husband. It’s as if, Huxley thinks, “a more primordial aspect of my behaviour had been let out, dusted off, and set loose…” And his fellow explorer of the woods, Wynne-Jones, hasn’t returned from their last expedition. Things have gone wrong, but can Huxley set them right?

I have to admit to being a bit perturbed, as a reader of the mythago series, by The Bone Forest. Holdstock is fleshing out a situation that was already established in the first book, but, being a writer who wants to push his ideas forward, he can’t help bringing in new elements. It risks compromising the dramatic power of that foundational situation, where George Huxley was the frustrated, closemouthed obsessive who neglects his wife and is ogreish towards his sons, all in an ultimately futile quest to understand the mythagos of Ryhope. Here, in The Bone Forest, Huxley gets to witness plenty of high-grade mythago activity, undermining that later feeling of frustration. He at one point in The Bone Forest pointedly makes Steven promise never to enter Ryhope Wood, something I don’t remember being mentioned in Mythago Wood, but which Steven would surely have recalled in that book. But the worst thing, for me, is the characterisation of Huxley’s wife Jennifer — or, rather, the lack of it. In Mythago Wood we’re aware of how much she was neglected, even erased, by Huxley’s obsessive focus on his researches. Her being shut out from his life was an essential part of that. But here, he at one point explains everything to her. And her lack of any real reaction when she’s told she has been sleeping with some sort of ghost is almost brushed past. The effect is to turn this neglected woman into something of a nonentity. (I actually think the best way Holdstock could have answered the screenwriter’s request for more backstory would have been to tell the story from Jennifer’s point of view, even if it would mean — perhaps because it would mean — minimising the fantastic element. But I don’t think Holdstock was interested in telling that tale.)

That’s the negative view of The Bone Forest. But I think there’s another way to appreciate this novella. George Huxley’s desire to evoke mythagos from Ryhope Wood feels so like a writer’s desire to bring imaginative treasures from his or her creative depths that it’s easy to read The Bone Forest as a laying bare of Holdstock’s creative process. In the same issue of Interzone as the novella first appeared, there’s an interview with Holdstock by Stan Nichols, in which he says:

“One of the ways I write is very much to set up a task, get an idea, and leave the unconscious — or underconscious — processes to come up with the explanations. My self-consciousness is producing words on the paper, but there’s a whole process going on behind.”

And this feels true to the three mythago novels I’ve looked at so far. They set up Ryhope Wood as a matrix of primal mythic images, then bring realistic, modern characters into the wood and start things simmering. Mythagos flicker at the corners of their vision, then pop up right before them, in all their vivid, rugged, and often pungent reality. And then, suddenly, we’ll have an image that seems to have come straight from the primal depths. With The Hollowing, for instance, I felt things meandered a bit till the re-imagined version of the mythic Jason as a brutal, world-weary plunderer of fantastic treasures appeared. That was the moment Holdstock’s “underconscious” delivered. It was only then the novel really came alive as the previous two had done, but it was necessary for all the preceding action to have been there, the simmering before the imaginative boiling-point was hit.

Czech cover

With The Bone Forest, Holdstock hits his seam of imaginative gold comparatively early, with that image of the blazing, straw-encased man on the back of a giant, madly-galloping horse. As the rider collides with Huxley, so this savage and archaic image collides with Holdstock the writer, and leaves both reeling. What is this thing, this galloping horse with its blazing rider? Both Huxley and Holdstock want — no, need — to know, and spend the rest of the novella trying to understand. (At one point, Huxley spends a few paragraphs just asking all the questions that he, and the reader, and perhaps Holdstock too, have of this mythogenetic mess he’s caught up in.)

And I think that, just as Holdstock recognised the importance of making his conscious mind confine itself to the craft while the unconscious worked on unearthing that primal imaginative material — a sort of self-sacrifice of the ego before the demands of creative work — so that striking image of the riders and horses is one of self-sacrifice to a wilder power. As Huxley muses:

“I am still shocked by the nature of the sacrifices and the awareness that the murdered men seemed willing participants in this early form of acknowledgement of the power of the horse.”

The horse — whose shrine stands at the threshold of the deeper, more magical areas of Ryhope Wood, and so at the threshold of Holdstock’s imagination — is an image of the creative impulse: wild, powerful, driven by a primal energy, yet nevertheless bearing a human burden (its rider, its writer), and capable of being harnessed, ridden, taken on a journey, told into a tale. At the moment it’s first encountered, that rider/writer is clearly being carried along, out of control, part of the sacrifice. Then it collides with George Huxley — and with the conscious Robert Holdstock — leaving him fragmented, reeling, and having to unpack all the mythic and imaginative meaning from that powerful image.

The mythago books are a number of things going on at once. There’s Holdstock exploring how a scientific-feeling approach can be brought to things of the deeper imagination; there’s the fascination of seeing a writer grapple with a powerful fantastic idea, on the page right in front of the reader’s eyes; and there’s also a human story, of the Huxley family, and the others touched by Ryhope Wood’s strange power.

The Bone Forest, I think, works in the first two ways, but doesn’t quite in the third. Its George Huxley doesn’t feel like the George Huxley that was so essential to the first book. But, that aside, this feels like one of the more raw offerings of Holdstock’s Ryhopian imagination, something a little more ragged than Mythago Wood or Lavondyss, but still a valuable part of the creative whole.

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The Earth Witch by Louise Lawrence

UK HB, art by Ronald Himler

Having recently read Lawrence’s 1978 YA novel Star Lord, how could I resist following it up with 1981’s The Earth Witch, sounding as it does so much like a companion piece? And there are a few similarities between the two. Both, for instance, are set in rural Welsh valleys, and in both the teen characters find themselves dealing with the archetypal/mythic entity of their book’s title, both of which sound like one of the major arcana from an alternative Tarot deck laid down by the post-60s imagination.

In The Earth Witch, the main characters are a trio that recalls Alan Garner’s The Owl Service: we have an English brother and sister, John and Kate Henderson, whose parents have recently bought Tregarron Farm in Wales, and Owen Jones, Welsh working class to the English pair’s middle class, adopted son of Ifor and Gladys, who have worked on the farm and lived in its tenant cottage all their lives. Owen is Ifor and Gladys’s nephew, abandoned by his mother when she had him out of wedlock — “born on the wrong side of the sheets”, as Aunty Glad puts it — after which she left for America, where she’s now married and has all but forgotten her son. Though his aunt and uncle look after him like a mother and father, there’s nevertheless a mother-shaped hole in his life, just from the knowledge that she’s out there but not in his life.

Lions UK HB, art by Jeff Cummins

The book opens in February, as the first signs that winter may be on the way bring a new sense of life to the valley. The three teens learn that a new tenant has moved into the dilapidated cottage of Mynydd Blaena, formerly the home of the eccentric (perhaps outright mad) Megan Davis, who was somehow involved in the death of a local man a little while back, and was then found dead herself in her isolated home. The new woman, Bronwen, claims to be a relative of hers. In fact, to Owen, she claims to be something more:

“I am her… I am her blood. The white roots woke me and I rose from the grave of her bones and her dust. I know all that she knew.”

Owen is the only person to offer Bronwen help with the cottage, though she seems more to resent than welcome it, while at the same time feeling it’s exactly what she’s due. She has her distinctly witchy aspects: control of a crow and a sometimes-vicious black dog, as well as a thorough knowledge of the magical uses of plants. And as winter turns to spring, her personality thaws. She starts to act like the mother Owen never had. She becomes a teacher in the local school, and her relationship with Owen shifts from the motherly to that of a lover. In the fullness of spring, she’s the May Queen at the village celebrations, though some locals still mutter darkly about what happened with Megan Davis and the ill-fated Gareth Llewellyn, and how they expect it all to happen again.

Ace PB, art by Winslow Pinney Pels

To Owen, Bronwen speaks openly about what she believes herself to be: not just the valley’s May Queen but a Goddess, at once Rhiannon of the Underworld, Blodeuwedd of the Owls, Angharad of the Lake, Cerridwen the Shape Changer, and the embodiment of Nature itself, who “gives life and destroys it, like the earth, like the seasons”. (In many ways, she’s a human version of the unforgiving Mawrrhyn mountain in Star Lord, a force that encapsulates all that nature gives in bounteous spring and summer, and the harsh price it demands in winter.)

She has moments of bitterness directed against the male-dominated modern world:

“Goddess I was once but they are despising me. They are setting up the male God in their own image and casting me down… You [men] are all one to me. All answerable for the crimes you have committed.”

She seems to come round when Owen reminds her she has “no right… to blame a single person for the sins of all”, but the cycle is started and just as she — and nature in the valley — gives of her great bounty in the year’s harvest, so she’ll demand her price. One life for all that she has given. And whose life but the boy she lavishes her greatest attention on?

Kate is the other character to feel something of Bronwen’s archetypal nature:

“Kate could feel her. She was cold in the river voices, hard in the heart of stones and black as hell. She was cruel as the peak of Pen-y-Craig and the look in the crow’s beady eyes. She was bats and moths and crane flies, everything Kate hated and feared…”

Yet:

“She seemed to embody the spring within herself; the song of the river over its stones, the wind through the sedge and the drift of willow leaves. She was the essence of flowers, the soul of the sunlit land, old as the maypole dance and eternally young…”

But in her case it’s what the sight of this powerful woman awakens in her own depths:

“Below the surface of herself Kate could feel something so hideous she could not bear to think of it… an instinct of blood sacrifices and fertility rites, ancient rituals of birth and death…”

“She doesn’t want love,” she tells Jonathan. “She wants worship.”

There’s so much in this novel that ties in with the strand of living-myth-meets-kitchen-sink-drama I love in 1970s YA (here lasting into the 80s). There’s rural Wales as a place on the border between myth and gritty reality, where folk beliefs sit unexamined alongside a fading Christianity, while both are being replaced by a scientific rationality that denies they exist — which simply means that those who encounter these mythic forces must do so without help. Modern and traditional ways rub together to produce a weird, magical, and often tragic friction. Like so many of these books, it’s about that 1970s balance point where the modern, technological, and rational meet the ancient, imaginative, and sacred: something’s that fading away, or perhaps only temporarily sleeping, and prone to rise up in all its dangerous, harsh, timeless and often inhuman power. As Kate says — talking simultaneously about Bronwen, the Goddess, and Nature all at once:

“The earth… That land out there… We’ve forgotten what she means. We’re not connected anymore. We just live on the surface and nothing touches us. We don’t think deeply of the soil and the stones and the hearts of the hills. We’re not part of the land… [We] just use her.”

The theme is just as relevant today, but I can’t imagine it being put in similar terms, framed as a sacred thing. Now, the landscape is a thing to manage, to care for, like a sick patient, not the wounded Goddess she may in fact be. The difference being that a sick patient may die, but a wounded Goddess is likely to hit back…

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Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.

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