Devoured by Anna Mackmin

The narrator of Anna Mackmin’s debut novel is a 12-year-old girl growing up at Swallow’s Farmhouse, a hippie commune in early-70s Norfolk, where she lives with her mother (Beth, an agoraphobic potter), Anthony (her father, a poet), Star (her younger sister, who at the start of the novel has been electively mute for some time, and has the habit of pulling out her hair), along with a small handful of fellow seekers after an alternative lifestyle, plus a dog, a goat, a cat called Great Uncle Elizabeth (a detail surely crying out for an explanation), and several chickens.

I call her the narrator, though at first glance the book appears to be written in the second person. But its use of “you” isn’t a literary device to involve you, the reader, a little bit more in the action, it’s the narrator’s way of telling her story to herself, addressing herself directly (as you do), which soon comes to feel more natural than the “I” of most first person narratives. It’s that little bit more intimate, as though this is a genuinely private interior monologue. (The narrator does have a name, but as this is only revealed about 300 pages into a 328 page book, it feels wrong to give it away in a review. It gains a certain comic punch by being delayed. In this Guardian interview with Mackmin, the narrator is referred to as “Nearly Thirteen”, which is a name used for her in the book, but only by one of her fellow commune-dwellers, and as he uses it with a distinctly lecherous slant, it really seems wrong to call her by it.)

The book has a couple of other stylistic quirks. Speech gets no “he said, she said”, but has the speaker’s name after what they’ve said. As in:

“These are my kids.” Mummy…
“They come through you, they are not of you.” Laura.

Which again quickly feels natural, though it did leave me hunting ahead, with the longer passages of speech, to find who was speaking before I read what they said. Also, double quotes are used for speech in the present, single quotes for remembered speech, which was quite a good device once I’d spotted it, as it allowed things people had said in the past to be interpolated as a commentary on what was happening in the present.

But back to the farm. Swallow’s is, despite being an idealistic experiment in alternative living, somewhat less than a utopia. House meetings quickly descend into petty squabbles, and usually end with someone bursting into tears (something the narrator occasionally makes herself do, just to get a meeting over with). It soon becomes apparent there’s not such an obvious dividing line between the quest for a more natural way of living (they don’t eat processed foods at Swallow’s Farmhouse, they “don’t believe in telly”, and they don’t believe in shoes, either) in which people can find themselves and live free of the shackles of conventionality, and the use of vague and un-thought-through ideals as an excuse for simply being self-centred. The perfect illustration of this is the way the adults deal with food — food being important in the novel, whose narrative is peppered with little recipes. Presented with a multi-course meal — with all the dishes laid out at once, as bringing them out in ordered stages would infringe people’s right to choose for themselves how they eat — the adults scoff the sweet stuff, grabbing as much for themselves as they can. And it’s the kids — the narrator and her sister — who do the cooking.

If Swallow’s Farmhouse is a topsy-turvy place for adults, its even more so for the children, who are pretty much expected to be adults, “old souls” in young bodies, though they’re excluded from some things, such as poetry readings, and are often fobbed off with excuses like “adults are complex and have complex needs and you will understand fully when you’re an adult”. These are the sort of people who believe you aren’t supposed to trust anyone over thirty, but it’s also clear they haven’t much patience for those who are younger than themselves, either. This is an environment with a childish idealisation of the innocent state of youth that doesn’t want to bother with the sometimes difficult innocence of children:

“What it boils down to is this: kids need to get a move on and grow up lickety spit and adults need to screech to a halt… Young is the thing.”

“My daughters are more like sisters,” Beth, the mother, says at one point, but the actual pair of sisters are the only ones really taking care of each other. It’s their relationship that’s at the core of the novel, though its power comes through largely in how little is said about it. The girls are always communicating with little looks and glances; they have their shared, private rituals; when Star remains mute, the narrator knows what she wants to say and says it for her; and some of the most poignant moments are when one has something the other hasn’t — a friendship, for instance — and there’s an obvious conflict between wanting them to have it and feeling separated from them by not being able to share in it.

On the one hand, Devoured is a comic novel, satirical of these supposedly idealistic adults’ utter failure to see their own hypocrisy, but it’s powered by genuine, deep emotion, and a real sense of danger. The lightest moments come when the narrator and Star are joined, briefly, by two boys from a nearby commune. A letter has arrived saying that an inspector will be coming to check on the children’s education, so the two communes team up to put on a show as “the Rainbow School”. It’s as disastrous as everything else the adults do, but the interaction between the children is wonderful, particularly as the narrator and thirteen-year old Orion fence their way towards a spiky friendship, neither wanting to admit how little they know about the real world, while trying to gain what insight they can from the gaps their communes’ slightly different ideals have left. (Orion’s parents, for instance, do believe in telly, leading to some light comedy when the narrator has no idea what Blue Peter, or who Valerie Singleton, is. They also, much to the narrator’s delight, believe in shoes.)

And that sense of danger. It centres on Bryan, the commune-dweller who calls the narrator “Nearly Thirteen”. The narrator, thinking she knows all about the adult world because nobody’s told her otherwise, doesn’t realise the danger she’s in when she flirts, experimentally, with him, or even what the danger properly is. And he, unsure of the rules in this more open, do-it-as-you-feel-it world, is obviously not sure, at first, of the damage he’s willing to do. But you know from the book’s title, and how the adults — particularly Bryan — gobble up anything sweet, what’s going to happen there.

The narrator’s determination to be herself in often difficult circumstances reminds me somewhat of Morwenna in Jo Walton’s Among Others — though that book is entirely about the immediate aftermath of escaping a damaging upbringing — which I reviewed a while back. Ultimately, Devoured is the tale of a survivor, and an excellent read.

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.

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.

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.

The House on the Brink by John Gordon

Cover to 1982 Penguin Plus edition, art by Neil Reed

Walking home after his literature evening class’s end-of-term party, sixteen-year-old Dick Dodds gives in to an impulse to nab a boat and let it drift him down the river. But the dare turns dangerous when he loses the row-boat’s only oar and finds himself being drawn helplessly out to sea. Saving himself, he has to plod through the fens back to dry land, and as he does, he passes a track in the mud that sends a chill up his spine:

‘I stepped into that trail and it seemed to put the moon out. Everything darkened. I went cold and stiff and then I fell. I must have done. I was on my hands and knees just a short distance away from the trail and I could feel the moon on my back.’

He discovers, the next day, that he can still feel the trail as it crosses dry land. Following it, he meets Helen Johnson, who on the night of Dick’s escapade saw something passing her father’s farmlands:

‘It was like a man all tied up, no legs and no arms. But it kept moving. Sort of gliding…’

The two begin an off-and-on investigation of the trail, driven by bursts of impulsive determination from Dick, but hampered by the ups and downs of the pair’s incipient romance. Visiting a local water-diviner, Mrs Shepherd, they learn that they share her ability to detect water running underground, and think at first this explains the chilling effect of the trail, until they follow it a bit more and encounter the thing — ‘A black, smooth, round, bald-headed old post’ — Helen saw that night, which is not a post, but may in fact be the mummified body of one of King John’s men, said to have been charged with guarding the treasure the king lost in the fens hundreds of years ago. And, dead though it clearly is, it moves.

The mystery begins to centre on a young widow, Mrs Knowles, whom Dick knows from his literature class. She believes:

‘My house… has a good side and a bad. The river is on the dark side. Everything it contains is contaminated… And out the back of my house… somewhere in the distance, there is something that when it appears always gives me hope… I call it the Silver Fields.’

Mrs Knowles tells Dick of how she was out walking by the river one day with a friend, local solicitor Mr Miller, when she saw ‘a piece of wood’ that ‘the river had made… evil’, and Dick realises it’s probably the same thing whose trail he and Helen have been investigating. Mr Miller, it turns out, is interested in the legend of King John’s treasure — he tried to talk Mrs Shepherd into using her water-divining powers to locate it — and now Dick begins to suspect Miller of having some sort of unpleasant plan for Mrs Knowles.

What’s notable about The House on the Brink is that it’s not a straightforward kids-investigate-the-supernatural type of story. It’s as much about the moment-by-moment feeling of being a teen on the verge of adulthood, experiencing the world in new ways, entering into a first relationship, getting glimpses of the dark world of adult secrets. Dick is impulsive, at times touchy, at times shy, given to the need to prove himself in sometimes dangerous ways. The book’s terse, poetic style emphasises this feeling of teenage life being a series of intense but fragmented moments of pure experience:

He dropped the bicycle on the verge and turned in the road with his arms outstretched. ‘I am the key in the lock of the world,’ he said. He let himself believe it for a moment. Then he picked up his bike. ‘And I’m also mad.’

As so often happens in YA books, the teens are central to the story because, being caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, they’re free to move between, and look into, other worlds, too.

There’s the worlds of social position, for instance, that the children move between, or are caught by. Mrs Shepherd, the water-diviner, is working class, while Mrs Knowles is obviously very well-off, but both accept the teens into their lives without the class prejudices they might apply to adults. When it’s revealed that Mrs Knowles’s man-friend, whom Dick has already started to suspect of being up to no good, is a solicitor, he feels that ‘He might have known it would be somebody like that’, and I certainly read ‘somebody like that’ to be a judgement in terms of social standing. (Miller is later described as having ‘a long face with a golf-course tan.’) Dick feels that his smaller house puts him in a lower class than Helen (‘Dick’s shame began at the backyard gate. With two bicycles in it the yard was crowded. At her house there was space…’), while Helen feels that, when she goes round to Dick’s for dinner, the Dodds being ‘Town, not country’ puts her subtly in a lower class (as Dick’s father wears a suit, ‘not a farmer’s shirt-sleeves.’). Later, she says Dick can’t ‘know anything about fen people. Real fen people’, because he lives in the town.

Far more explicit are the two worlds of belief in the supernatural and dismissal of it. Helen tells her mother about the thing she saw passing their farm that night, ‘But that sort of thing doesn’t sink in.’ Dick alone of his literature class understands what Mrs Knowles means when she talks of the river being ‘bad’ and the Silver Fields being ‘good’, to the extent that he cycles out one morning to find those ‘Silver Fields’.

Belief in the supernatural is tied to an ability to understand the less intellectual aspects of poetry (Mrs Knowles asserts ‘You have to feel a poem. You can’t analyse it.’), but also being open to emotional instability and madness. Mrs Knowles, standing daily on the balcony of her ‘House on the Brink’, is herself on the brink of insanity, of being lost in the instability of her unbalanced feelings, and Dick at one point puts his and Helen’s involvement in the trail and the spooky old ‘log’ down to:

‘How people’s feelings seem to cross and get tangled. That’s what’s been happening, isn’t it?’

Mr Miller, being a solicitor — a shrewd thinker used to dealing with down-to-earth issues — is Mrs Knowles’s opposite in terms of rationality and intuition, and it’s perhaps because of this that he ultimately can’t save her from her own mental instability, but the kids — who can understand both worlds — can.

In an interview published on the Ghosts & Scholars site, John Gordon says that, in The House on the Brink, he was:

‘…writing about the time in everyone’s life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales.’

Ultimately, it’s a book that shrugs off easy divisions. Its world is not one of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, nor is it one where it’s easy to tell the supernatural from madness, and the implication is that part of growing up is learning to realise this.

The Visitor by Josephine Poole

Jacket by Gabriel Lisowski

The mysterious Mr Bogle arrives in Cormundy Village to perform some ‘light tutoring’ duties for fifteen-year-old Harry Longshaw, who (as with other protagonists of children’s fiction, like Marianne in Marianne Dreams and Henry in The Night-Watchmen) is out of school recovering from a fever that (like Mark in Marianne Dreams and Colin in The Secret Garden) has left him with difficulties walking. Harry and his older sister Margaret live alone (their parents being dead) at a large house called Fury Wood, which they’re about to sell, as Margaret is marrying Rupert Musgrave, a young man newly moved into the village, who has plans to revive its farms and mills with new machinery and modern methods. Harry takes an instant dislike to Mr Bogle, with his goat’s foot inkstand and coat of tabby-cat fur, and who claims to have a scholarly interest in witches. Bogle says Fury Wood is built on land where, long ago:

‘The trees were cut down and burnt, and the spring filled in; that was the usual procedure when they were mopping up witchcraft.’

When not tutoring Harry, Mr Bogle is not exactly to be found doing local research. Instead, he’s seen dancing the ancient Horn Dance in the local square, a ludicrous-looking performance (to Harry’s eyes, anyway) that for some reason fascinates the village adults, the men especially. Later, Bogle urges the village’s out-of-work men into flights of resentful nostalgia with a (surely magical) film show evoking their lost past:

‘And that old school… remember the horseshoes and hopscotch, and a week off from lessons at haymaking time? Are your own kiddies any better for their posh education? It’ll take them away from you in the end, away from the village… But that’s progress, I suppose.’

Inscribed above the fireplace in Harry’s room is a line from Virgil — ‘Arise, thou avenger to come, out of my ashes’ — which Mr Bogle says refers to the execution of the local witches. And it soon becomes obvious he not only believes the ‘avenger to come’ is himself, but that he is not merely the gentleman-scholar he seems:

‘Mr. Bogle frowned and drew the curtain behind him. He disliked the habit of swearing. People were too apt to take his own name in vain.’

I came across mention of this book while looking for reviews and information on William Rayner’s Stag Boy, and found a post at the Whistles in the Wind blog, which mentions The Visitor (released in the UK as Billy Buck, which is what some of the villagers call Mr Bogle), alongside Stag Boy and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (which I reviewed here), all of which were published at the start of the 1970s, and which share a lot of common characteristics. All three, for instance, feature teen protagonists caught in a struggle between the old ways and the new in otherwise quiet English villages. In The Visitor, Rupert says of Cormundy:

‘The village is dead all right, with people out of work, and buildings standing useless and empty. But one rich man could start the ball rolling again…’

Rupert is that rich man, and it’s significant that the final action of the novel takes place before a church where, the next day, Harry’s sister Margaret (representing old village stock) is to marry the forward-thinking Rupert. (Margaret is also linked, through her flower-spotted wedding dress, to the May Queen, thus representing new life and hope in contrast to the village’s wintry despondency.) Mr Bogle, on the other hand, is set to wear the costume of antler-headed Cernunnos in his own secret revival of the Horn Dance pageant, making him yet another character in early 1970s YA fiction to assume stag’s horns, and to revive an ancient festival. Bogle plans to use that pageant, though, as a means of exacting his long-overdue revenge for the burned witches. (Which makes you wonder why he waited so long.)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Stag Boy, where the battle between the old and new is tied up intimately with the teen protagonists’ inner struggles between childhood and adolescence, Harry of The Visitor doesn’t really have an inner struggle going on, and the story isn’t as focused on him as the Lively and Rayner books are on their central characters. In addition, the forces of paganism which, in Hagworthy and Stag Boy, are dangerous and alluring, but which also point towards valuable but little-acknowledged truths about the wider world, are here reduced to nothing more than wrongheaded forces of backwards-thinking superstition. There isn’t the same ambiguity, so The Visitor, for me, doesn’t pack the same inner tussle, the same sense of brushing against wider, weirder, darker truths. Paganism, in The Visitor (aside from the identification of Margaret with the Queen of the May), is simply deviltry by another name, and Mr Bogle, in the end, is a rather pallid Devil.

Stag Boy by William Rayner

Stag Boy by William Rayner, cover by Michael Heslop

Stag Boy by William Rayner, cover by Michael Heslop

Stag-men of various sorts have been popping up on this site from time to time, from the antler-wearing shaman of Robin of Sherwood, to Herne the Hunter in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, or the bothersome creature of imagination and sexuality that intrudes upon the narrator’s life in Patricia McKillip’s Stepping Out of the Shadows. In William Rayner’s Stag Boy (first published in 1972), fifteen-year-old Jim Hooper returns to the farm he grew up in to convalesce after life in nearby Wolverhampton begins to affect his health. There, he finds his childhood friend Mary Rawle being courted by Edward Blake, two years older, richer, and far more worldly than Jim, as well as being ‘tall and strongly made, a good rugger player and a first-rate horseman.’ Jim can’t help but feel trapped by the boy-ness of his own adolescent body:

‘Then he looked down at his whitening knuckles, the narrowness of his wrists, and felt a choking anger at being shut up in such a poor thing of a body. He was overtaken by a longing so enormous it shook him physically… His spirit, if it could only get free, he felt sure would be as strong and wild as a hawk.’

An idle wish made in a ruined witch’s cottage leads him to find an ancient, stag-horned helmet which, when worn, allows Jim to share in the life of the ‘black stag’ — a creature of local repute, and the prize target of the hunt (to which both Mary Rawle and Edward Blake belong). While he’s one with the stag, Jim can lend it his intelligence, meaning it can out-think the hunt instead of just trying to out-run them; and being with the stag plugs Jim into the natural power and dignity of this king-animal’s physicality, which rubs off on him as his own body starts to mature and he gains in confidence.

At first, Mary’s not interested in Jim. To her, he’s part of the past, a relic of her childhood and of the closed-in, dead-end world of ‘the moor and the woods’. Edward makes her feel grown-up, and seems like the gateway to the adult life she’s always dreamed of living, one of:

‘parties and dances… famous people, amusing people, rich people, and something new and exciting would happen every day.’

But Jim brings the black stag to stand outside her window at night, tempting her to touch it, even ride it. At first she resists:

‘I don’t want strange things in my life… I don’t want my life to be different… It’s like stepping out of a lighted room into the dark.’

‘How much more comfortable it was when you had the right dreams, the ones that people understood and sympathised with.’ But she can’t ignore the wonder of a stag of such power and dignity and gentleness that lets her ride it, or Jim’s uncanny connection with it. At this point, Jim and Mary’s relationship becomes a world of its own, a secret that binds the two of them, and goes beyond her dreams of ‘parties and dances’ to something that mixes physicality and vulnerability, intimacy and meaning:

‘They were timid, too much aware of other people’s opinions and of their own youth and ignorance. Only in their wordless journeys through the dark did all worries and embarrassment fall away, leaving them free and happy, and innocent.’

But the stag’s animal nature threatens to unbalance Jim. That strength and nobility can veer into arrogance and an animal sexuality Jim has to fight to control. And now it’s the stag that calls Jim when it needs him, not the other way round, and its need is desperate. The hunt, fed up of hearing about this ‘proud, mettlesome, outrageous beast’ parading itself openly through populated towns, bringing traffic to a standstill and running rings round them whenever they chase it, is intent on bagging this creature before the season’s over. And what will happen if Jim is joined to it when it’s killed?

Part of the strength of this short YA novel comes from how naked the central metaphor is. Contact with the stag connects Jim with his own burgeoning masculinity (it’s significant that his father is dead) and adolescent sexuality. It teaches him the natural confidence and strength he ought to feel, but can also at times be a wild ride with forces that will not be tamed, or contained, or made civilised. Jim has to learn how to set the limit, how to be fully human not merely an animal, before he’s overtaken.

Although William Rayner’s sympathies are obviously with the black stag in its conflict with the hunt, by the end of the book, when it’s obvious Jim has to separate himself from the influence of the stag, the hunt takes its place as part of the natural order of things, particularly when contrasted to what Rayner sees as even more degenerate ways of taming nature. The hunt is ‘the ritual that should attend [the stag’s] death’, as it means death with dignity, and this is contrasted with the artificial, constricted life of battery hens and, beyond that, human lives in cities with their:

‘…endless mazes of streets, the houses like cages, that world of hutches and batteries and stunted lives.’

‘To deny nature — that was the worst sin, the sin against life’ — but, in the end, to live as a human being, Jim must civilise the more powerful natural impulses. A balance has to be found against the force of male adolescence, and so of course it’s Mary, finally, who redeems him, despite being told ‘This is not a thing for women.’

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and The Owl Service, Stag Boy is another YA novel from the 60s and early 70s that explores the clash between modernity and tradition, nature and civility, by having normal, vulnerable teenagers trying to adjust to themselves and their burgeoning adolescence, while facing forces of folklore, myth, and the supernatural. And it’s a good mix.

I can’t find out much about William Rayner, other than that he was born in 1929. Stag Boy came out in hardback (in 1972) and paperback (1976), both with the same cover by Mike Heslop (who also did my favourite cover for The Dark is Rising). And, if you’re looking at that cover and thinking, ‘Isn’t that…?’, well, the answer is yes, it is. Heslop used a photo of David Bowie as a reference. (One more influence by Bowie on 1970s YA.)

Electric Eden by Rob Young

ElectricEdenFolk rock flourished in Britain between 1969 and 1972, a period I’ve become increasingly fascinated by, mostly because of the YA fiction of the time (Penelope Lively’s, most recently), and the telefantasy that followed soon after (The Changes, Children of the Stones, Sky, and so on). All of these shared an interest in British landscape and British folklore. Rob Young’s Electric Eden traces the history of the ‘electric folk movement’ throughout the twentieth century, from the moment Cecil Sharp began seeking out and transcribing folk songs in 1903, to their adoption by the political left as the authentic voice of the working classes in the 50s and early 60s, and then to their more individualistic use among the hippie generation that bridged the 60s and 70s.

In fact, there are a few parallels to be drawn between the development of folk music and children’s fantasy literature in the 20th century. In From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England, Colin Manlove characterises the kids’ fantasy of the 50s and early 60s as being ‘social in tendency, in that the story involved either fitting in with a given collective, or, in the more secure and conformist 1960s, making friends with often very different people or creatures’ — which could be compared to the contemporaneous socially-minded use of folk music by the left — while, in the 1970s, ‘the problem of identity in these fantasies becomes much more acute’, alongside, in some writers at least, ‘a desire to reconnect with the past and traditional values that are now more distant’. And it’s the individualism of folk music in its brief 60s/70s flourish that comes to the fore in Electric Eden, with so many different musicians using the same basic materials — the songs, ballads, dances and music of the pre-World War working classes — in so many different ways.

What nailed this parallel for me, though, was when Young says:

‘A significant portion of Britain’s cultural identity is built on a succession of golden ages… The ‘Visionary Music’ invoked in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future.’

Golden ages and secret gardens — this could be straight out of Humphrey Carpenter’s book about the ‘Arcadian’ writers of classic children’s fantasy, and their use of ‘travel between time zones’ and ‘retreat to a secret garden’ to reconnect with the ‘golden age’ of childhood.

Comus's First Utterance, one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Comus’s First Utterance (1971), one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Perhaps one key to why there was this sudden movement to rediscover (or remake) the traditions of the past at this time is down to the fact that the people doing the rediscovering/remaking were the children of the generation who’d lived through two World Wars. Perhaps there was a need to reach over the immediate, bloody past and mend the connection with whatever life had been like before those two horrific cataclysms, to find a way of dealing with a daily life in which you weren’t continually threatened by industrial levels of death. Folk music felt like a discovery to the rockers of the late 60s, something they could both participate in and make their own. (This could be a workable definition of what ‘folk’ music is — music that’s both participatory, and individually interpretable.) If nothing else, there was a lot more you could do if you were interested in folk music, as Electric Eden quotes folk musician Dave Arthur as saying:

‘So we were morris dancing, clog dancing, playing instrumental music, singing ballads and songs, researching, going off to manuscript collections and working on material, original stuff that nobody else was working on.’

Dave Arthur was married to Toni Arthur, later a presenter on Play School and Play Away, and the pair recorded several folk albums, including Hearken to the Witches Rune in 1970/1971, a collection of witchy-themed folk songs (including ‘Alison Gross’ — about the ‘ugliest witch in the north country’ — ‘The Standing Stones’, and ‘The Fairy Child’), which had an excerpt from the Wiccan ‘Witch’s Chant’ printed on the sleeve.

There seems to have been a strong connection between folk music and something darker, or at least weirder. When Cecil Sharp first saw morris dancing in 1899, Rob Young says, the:

‘…sheer otherness of the display entranced him — it seemed to appear from the darkest, least conspicuous corners of English provincial life, and to be innately understood by the people who practised it.’

As Young says:

‘Even to dip a toe into the world of folklore is to unearth an Other Britain, one composed of mysterious fragments and survivals…’

Meanwhile, back in the early 70s, folk horror had its own brief efflorescence, with Play For Today Robin Redbreast showing on 10th December 1970, Blood on Satan’s Claw out in cinemas in 1971, and of course the folk-horror-musical The Wicker Man in 1973.

DoctorWho_Daemons

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor captured by sinister morris dancers (are there any other sort?), in The Daemons (1971)

And then it all ended. 1972 was a ‘reckoning year… a time of structural adjustment in the rock economy’:

‘The inescapable truth was that if you were still making Albion-centric, historically resonant folk-rock after 1974, then the zeitgeist had deserted you.’

Why did it end? Was the search for a new identity successful, were all problems resolved? Or was this particular solution limited to the one post-War generation’s brief coming of age? Young puts forward the idea that Thatcher’s government deliberately set out to provide a new, more modern self-image for Britain, taking it away from dreams of the countryside to something more solidly urban and suburban, but he says a similar thing about Harold Wilson’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1963, too:

‘…the speech signalled a new British self-consciousness as a metropolitan society whose successful destiny lay in skewering the balance towards its urban population and industrial prowess.’

fotheringay

Sandy Denny’s post-Fairport Convention band’s first (1970) album

On the other hand, perhaps it was simply that the connection to a more peaceful, pre-war ‘golden age’ just couldn’t work in the late 1970s and 80s, or indeed in any globally-connected age, where it was impossible to ignore wars in other countries, terrorism, industrial unrest, rising unemployment, and the renewed threat of nuclear war. The world-warding barriers around one’s country retreat were too thin.

But the visionary ‘golden age’ aspect of folk music didn’t entirely disappear. Young traces its spirit in the work of a number of artists in the following years (culminating in the very un-folky electronica of the Ghost Box label in the 2010s). Perhaps, then, it’s similar to what happened to the ghost story, as presented in Julia Briggs’ study, Night Visitors, and the real oddity is not why folk rock’s popularity so suddenly waned, as why a minority interest, deeply meaningful to only a few, flared up into such brief but bright cultural relevance, and became, for even so short a period, as popular as it did.

Astercote, The Whispering Knights, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

In Astercote (1970), when a chalice known only as ‘the Thing’, which is supposed to have protected the village of Charlton Underwood from the Black Death in medieval times, goes missing, the modern-day villagers begin to cut themselves off from the outside, and chalk white crosses — indicators of infection — on houses where people are showing the slightest sign of being unwell. In The Whispering Knights (1971), three children, bored in their school holidays, boil up a witches’ brew (or the closest they can get to it — ordering frogs’ legs from a London shop, for instance, but having to use drawings for some of the more hard-to-obtain ingredients, like the wing of a bat) in a barn supposedly once inhabited by a real witch, and manage to bring themselves and their village to the attention of an increasingly baleful supernatural presence. In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (also 1971), a new vicar (‘Frightfully nice man — full of ideas’) decides to revive the quaint old Horn Dance of Hagworthy as part of a fête to raise money for the church roof. But the Dance is linked with the far more ancient and powerful Wild Hunt, which isn’t something any of the village oldsters want to see revived.

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Penelope Lively’s first three books for young teens are characteristic of a type of British YA fiction in the late 60s and early 70s (as well as the TV shows of the time, like Children of the Stones, or The Changes), mixing Famous Five-ish ‘what we did on our holidays’ adventure with touches of 1960s kitchen sink realism and incursions of the folkloristic supernatural. The Whispering Knights is the most Famous Five-ish, with the characters feeling a little light and cartoonish, and the adventures being mostly episodic. (It’s also the most explicitly supernatural of the three.) The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, on the other hand, has the most realistic development of its two lead characters, with the slightly withdrawn Lucy Clough and the rebellious Kester Lang both feeling like proper teenagers. And, in both The Wild Hunt and Astercote, the supernatural is more a psychological force than an external one, working through people’s superstitions and prejudices more than through actual manifestation. (Though manifestations do occur.)

At the heart of each book is an abuse of something traditional and sacred, something tied to the village as a continuing way of life, but also to the dark, dangerous forces of superstition and the supernatural. This means there’s an odd tension in each story, with the sacred thing — be it an object, such as the chalice in Astercote, or a practice, like the Horn Dance in The Wild Hunt — needing at once to be preserved, and to be hidden away or suppressed; protected for the village, and from the villagers.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In both Astercote and The Wild Hunt, the sacred thing is abused for financial reward (even if, in one case, it’s for the repair of a church roof). In The Whispering Knights, it’s the children’s playing at witchcraft that feels like an abuse, even though it isn’t done for gain; afterwards, with the witch Morgan on the loose, it’s village life itself that comes under threat, when the newly-embodied witch marries a local factory owner, and gets a proposed motorway’s route altered to take it straight through the centre of the village. At first, the children who summon Morgan are told that she thrives on superstition, and that their best weapon against her is reason; later, it’s their very belief in her — that she represents a supernatural threat, rather than just a physical one — that means they can combat her in the proper way, and so save their village.

If there is a right way to deal with the sacred in these three books, it seems to be to revere the idea of it, while keeping the reality hidden away. This is most obvious in the attitude of Kester Lang’s uncle, the blacksmith of Hagworthy, towards the Wild Hunt. On the one hand, he says:

‘It were a great thing, once, the Hunt. Nothing to be afraid of. It were a splendid thing…’

But, at the same time, it was ‘not for a man to look on with his eyes’:

‘Because once you seen them you’re a part of them, aren’t you, girl? You’re with them under the same sky and treading the same ground. And they’re a Hunt, aren’t they? They have to hunt something, or someone, don’t they?’

This ambivalence may explain what I found to be the main fault of the first two books (and present in the third, but not as a fault), in that, in each case, once it was obvious, quite early on, what the problem was — a missing chalice, a summoned witch — the teen protagonists don’t really do anything, but sit around watching events unfold, and only right near the end suddenly clock that some action needs to be taken. The Wild Hunt has a similar delay, but in this case the time when nothing happens is used to build tension and deepen the characters’ relationships. Perhaps it’s significant that in this book the building supernatural tension causes a split between the two main characters, Lucy and Kester, and they have to heal that rift before they can act, together, against the supernatural.

Red Shift by Alan GarnerThis idea of a threatened sacred ‘thing’ (chalice, village life, dance) reminds me of the similar ‘sacred thing’ in Alan Garner’s novels — usually a nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but in fact deeply important object which comes to stand for a precious relationship, or a person’s identity, or the sacredness of the landscape itself — but in these three of Lively’s YA books, this ambivalence, this need to treat the sacred as both easily endangered and supernaturally dangerous, adds an interesting layer of complexity, even if it isn’t explored as deeply as in Garner’s novels.

The teens in these late-60s/early-70s ‘folk-fantasy’ style YA books are liminal creatures, existing on the border between the past and the future, tradition and progress, rational knowledge and irrational imagination, just as they’re hovering on the verge of adulthood. They listen to the old folks’ superstitions and take them seriously; they believe in the strange things they themselves see and hear; but they also believe these things can be changed, challenged, and faced, which (usually) the overly superstitious old folks don’t.

There’s a real feeling in these books (both Lively’s and others of the time) of being at an important cultural crossroads, with the possibility of genuinely sacred things being put at risk from a galloping, money-minded modernity, severing life from the quiet meaningfulness symbolised by village life, while also needing to take a properly rationalistic attitude towards the prejudices and superstitions of the past. It’s not, in any of these books, a clear-cut choice, and all of them end with a feeling of real peril as the forces of the irrational are let loose in a series of wild hunts (be they motorbike gangs, ancient witches in modern limousines, or stag-antlered faerie men with green-flame-eyed dogs) across stormy but beautifully-described landscapes.

To me, there’s something haunting about that cultural crossroads. Is it just nostalgia on my part? Or was there something genuinely sacred — some idea or ideal — which was lost in a battle with modernity midway through the 1970s?

(I was prompted to read these three novels after listening to The Heartwood Institute’s two albums inspired by them, both available at Bandcamp, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Astercote.)

Night Visitors by Julia Briggs

Night Visitors, Julia Briggs’s 1977 study of ‘The rise and fall of the English ghost story’, employs a bit of (potentially fatal) boundary-blurring early on, first as regards the term ‘ghost story’:

‘It may be apparent that the term ‘ghost story’ is being employed with something of the latitude that characterises the general usage, since it can denote not only stories about ghosts, but about possession and demonic bargains, spirits other than those of the dead, including ghouls, vampires, werewolves, the ‘swarths’ of living men and the ‘ghost-soul’ or Doppelgänger.’

NightVisitorsThe second bit of boundary-blurring regards the term ‘English’, as she includes Irish (Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde), Welsh (Arthur Machen), Scottish (Robert Louis Stevenson), American (Henry James and Vernon Lee), and French (Guy de Maupassant) writers in her study. (And if Henry James is excused because he was living in England, what of Kipling, who was living in India?) What makes this so potentially fatal is that her thesis — that the ghost story, as a form, is dead, indeed ‘has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaption.’ — and her reasons for it, can perhaps only be taken to apply to the strictly defined ghost story, and perhaps only the English version of it, certainly not the breadth of weird fiction she covers in this study. After all, when the book was published, a horror boom was in full swing, with not only countless anthologies of old ghost and horror stories being published (driven, no doubt, by Hammer’s popularity in the 60s), but also horror novels hitting the bestseller charts for perhaps the first time since Dracula, thanks mostly to Stephen King, but helped by a Brit or two (James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell). So it seems Briggs’s argument should be that the purely English, purely literary, purely ghostly, purely short story may have become moribund, but that the rest of what was taken in by the boundary-blurred remit of her survey was booming.

There is another way to look at it, perhaps only possible now the book is over four decades old. This is that the ghost story achieved a brief and uncharacteristic literary relevance to the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian eras, then stepped back into the crypt of popular, generic fiction where it had always lurked, and where it remains to this day. And what, I’d say, Night Visitors is good for is its look at this brief foray into literary respectability, and why this phase came to an end. (Which perhaps also answers why it came about in the first place.)

So, why did it end?

In short, Freud and the Great War:

‘The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors by comparison, it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore. The rigid conventions of sexual behaviour which had influenced middle and upper class attitudes, began to be flouted more openly… Now the unconscious itself had become the subject of close scientific scrutiny rather than the more philosophic, often more amateur speculation of the previous century.’

NightVisitors_backSupernatural stories, at the end of the Victorian Age and into the Edwardian, achieved a new relevance and richness thanks to their exploration of the darker areas of human psychology that, after the World Wars, were more explicitly addressed using the newly-accepted scientific terminology of psychoanalysis. (Though some, between the two World Wars, like Blackwood, went to the opposite extreme and used the technical language of the occult.) The ‘psychic doctors’ of Le Fanu, Blackwood and Hodgson had been replaced by psychoanalysts, and the only recourse for the popular ghost story was a retreat into formal conventions, achieving a sort of final perfection in the hands of M R James, who:

‘…did not share the concern shown by other writers (Blackwood or Le Fanu, for instance) with the significance of spirits, the state of mind in which ghosts are seen, or the condition of a universe that permits the maleficent returning dead.’

But Briggs nevertheless finds certain writers who continued to make meaningful use of the ghost, each in their individual way. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, whose 1945 collection The Demon Lover ‘reveals her ghosts as somehow necessary to their victims, occupying spiritual voids left by the shock of war.’ Or Walter de la Mare, in whose work ‘death has taken over the role which love traditionally plays in fiction, as the most central and significant experience of life…’ She doesn’t mention Robert Aickman, but he’s an author, I’d say, whose ‘strange stories’ — the closest thing the ghost story came to a reinvention in the 20th century — were enabled, not negated, by Freud.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, when Night Visitors appeared, had a definite tendency to render its horrors in gaudy, gory, sensationalistic cinema, often rendered as fleshily physical as the censors (and the special effects) would allow. The psychological subtlety of the ghostly tale, as championed by Briggs, was perhaps not so much dead but drowned out.

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

The fundamental human experiences that ghosts, as literary devices, were used to explore, though — secrets, repressions, guilt, loss — remain, and always will. Those dark, cobwebby corners of the psyche can’t have been entirely exorcised. So how were they addressed when the ghost story was superseded?

Modern psychological thrillers, whose killers are too often endowed with near-supernatural abilities, provide similar grounds for exploring the darker regions of the psyche. People may not be haunted, but they are stalked. Detectives and criminal profilers try to get into the minds of the killers they’re tracking, as though working on the assumption that these psychos are their own, personal Doppelgängers. The wrenching twists and revelations of a story like Gone Girl — a ghostly title, surely — may not be spiritual, but they tick the other boxes in the formula Briggs provides for what the ghost in the ghost story represents:

‘…the eruption of the tip of the spiritual iceberg, the sudden sense of the existence of previously unknown modes of being that undermined and ultimately invalidated a comfortable confidence in the world of appearances.’

All of these are ghostly tropes, remade for a disbelieving age. (A pity they don’t work as well, for me. I need that hint of the weird, it seems.)

Briggs finishes her study by saying:

‘That bulging, cobwebby box which had so long been clamped down to prevent its terrors escaping has at last been opened, to reveal nothing at all…’

And it’s true, nothing’s there. But that’s probably because he’s standing behind you, with a knife.