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.

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.)

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.

The Language of the Night by Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightFollowing my mewsings on Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, I thought I’d take a look at another book on imaginative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, in this case) which I came across early on — in one of those wonderful bookshop sales where a single table would be crammed with all sorts, from academic obscurities to battered, failed bestsellers, and where you really could make discoveries, back before the internet neatly ordered everything — Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, introductions and talks, The Language of the Night (or the revised edition, anyway, issued by The Women’s Press in 1989). This book contains some touchstones of writing about fantasy that have stayed with me ever since.

In ‘The Child and the Shadow’, Le Guin retells a Hans Anderson fable and relates it to Jung’s ideas on archetypes (particularly the one he calls the Shadow) and the process of individuation. Fantasy, she says, ‘is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul… Fantasy is the language of the inner self.’ This led to me making several attempts on Jung’s own tangled thickets of prose — books about his ideas are usually better than those he wrote himself, with Man and His Symbols being perhaps the best (it has pictures!). And, whether Jung’s ideas are ‘true’ or not — whether they’re the roots of a very peculiar science or (far more likely) an extended, imaginative metaphor for the inner life — I’ve always found them useful.

TheLanguageoftheNightIn ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Le Guin talks about what a myth is, in terms of what a writer is trying to do when they write fantasy or science fiction, and how it comes not purely from the unconscious, or the conscious, but from an equal meeting of the two, a forging of something somehow universal from the deeply personal — something another favourite writer of mine, Alan Garner, has said, too (‘A writer has to live an insoluble paradox. He requires a public, and can achieve it only by becoming most private.’ To which Le Guin would no doubt have said, ‘Less of the “he”, please.’).

The essential essay, from a fantasy reader’s point of view, is ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. Here, Le Guin provides an almost cruelly neat test to tell the would-be fantasy that just mimics the proper use of faraway never-never lands, dragons, wizards and magic, from a genuine emanation of Elfland. For Le Guin, it’s style that makes something fantasy. She praises Dunsany, E R Eddison, Kenneth Morris and James Branch Cabell, and says Leiber and Zelazny could do better (‘When humour is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages.’). The test is simple: take any passage, change the names from mock-fantasy ones to mundane ones, and see if it still reads as fantasy. She uses as an example a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, which neatly summed up my own feelings the one time I tried to read it — it’s not fantasy, it’s fancy dress.

Elsewhere, there are good short essays on Philip K Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and Tolkien. Moorcock, of course, hated Tolkien with a profound hatred, but for Le Guin, he’s the high point of the genre, a writer she’s glad she didn’t read too early, because that might have skewed her own writing:

‘Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano?’

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But here, Le Guin is doing a very different job from Moorcock. She is, mostly, defending fantasy and science fiction for their own sakes — often, defending imagination for its own sake — rather than sifting out the good from the bad. (She does have the occasional go at a specific author — not as frothingly vitriolic as Moorcock, but just as damning: ‘The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialise in in this country.’)

Like Wizardry and Wild Romance, The Language of the Night is very much of its time, as a lot of the essays chart the early stages of SF’s emergence from the ghettoes of the past:

‘SF is pretty well grown up now. We’ve been through our illiterate stage, our latent nonsexual stage, and the stage when you can’t think of anything but sex, and the other stages, and we really do seem to be on the verge of maturity now.’

But some of Le Guin’s exhortations are just as relevant. In ‘Stalin in the Soul’ — a wonderfully-argued piece about the art of art — Le Guin holds up Zamyatin’s We as an example of what she thinks is the best of all SF novels, yet one that was written under a repressive regime, and only ever published outside its author’s home country. She compares this to the sort of art most often produced in her own, free country, which is all too often self-enslaved to the market.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Perhaps the problem nowadays is that fantasy and SF — in certain forms — are too easily accepted, so much so that we fail to remember what they can do, what they can be. ‘Fantasy,’ Le Guin says, ‘is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is.’ It’s a jolt to read this, in a culture swamped with fantastic imagery, in novels, films, and games. It reminds you there are really profound, great, even dangerous things to be found in works of the imagination, and that they are, perhaps, just as rare today, even when fantasy and SF are so much more culturally acceptable.

‘The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.’

A Game of Dark by William Mayne

William Mayne, A Game of DarkA Game of Dark (1971) opens with young Donald Jackson feeling dizzy and being led out of class to the empty school staffroom. There, he somehow slips between this world and another. In our world, he is Donald, the troubled teen son of a father left wheelchair-bound and in constant pain from an accident that occurred on the night Donald was born; in the other world, he is Jackson, a boy who wanders into a medieval town under siege from a gigantic worm, where he is picked by the new lord (Lord Breakbone — “The lord is supposed to protect us and to kill the worm, but it will not be killed, it kills them instead. So they send us another lord.”) to be his squire.

This slipping between worlds can occur at any moment, with no fanfare. At first it is only when Donald is alone — in the staffroom, or walking home at night — but later it can be while he’s in the presence of others, in mid-conversation, even. One moment he’s Donald in our world, the next he’s Jackson:

“He was being some other person, he found, in a crisp buzzing world of hard light and hard ground and hard people. Then, for a moment again he was Donald walking towards the bridge, and the boy who that morning, perhaps, had called himself Jackson to a girl on a hillside. For a moment he could choose again which he would be. One is real, he said to himself. Donald is real. The other is a game of darkness, and I can be either and step from one to the other as I like.”

At first, he teeters on the edge of full immersion. Hearing someone speak to him in that other world, he fights not to understand their language, because understanding will be a commitment to existing in that world; then he gives in. Returning to our world, he finds that time has passed, events have moved on:

“[His mother] was standing in the doorway of his room, and he was working at his homework, remembering what he had done since coming home without feeling he had experienced it.”

Neither world is an escape from the other. Donald cannot face his father, who has become strange, almost fearsome, and who can barely communicate through the often delirious pain, which he endures because of his beliefs. As Mrs Jackson tells her son:

“We were meant to bear pain in this world, and what’s sent to us we must submit to.”

Donald struggles to feel connected with either his father or his schoolteacher mother (who calls him by his surname at school, like any other pupil, and often slips into calling him the same at home). He wonders if he is truly their son. He finds a haven in a local church group — a Church of England one, disapproved of by his Methodist parents — and the (to my mind) rather touchy-feely friendship of the everyone’s-friend vicar, Mr Braxham, who encourages Donald to smoke and insists on being called “Berry”. In the other world, meanwhile, as if the everyday harshness of a bleak, medieval existence isn’t enough, there’s the worm, a great, unthinking, stinking thing that preys on the people of the town with nothing anyone can do to stop it.

A Game of DarkDonald/Jackson, then, has a whole series of father figures — Mr Jackson and Berry in this world, Lord Breakbone and the worm in the other. As his father in this world is taken into hospital, Donald can hardly find any feeling for him but a sort of panic fear; meanwhile, in the other world, the fight with the worm becomes unavoidable. At first it is pacified by animals left outside the town walls, but when the townspeople struggle to keep feeding it, it breaks through the wall and begins, once more, to eat human beings. (The worm in the book is particularly well-created. Its stink lingers for days; animals refuse to cross its slimy trail. In one fight, it suddenly produces a winged claw, seemingly as much to its own surprise as anyone else’s. The feeling is of a thing made stupid and complacent by being so powerful it has no serious opposition.)

Without its two worlds directly paralleling each other, A Game of Dark reaches its moving conclusion only when Donald brings his experience as Jackson in that other world — where he has faced and killed the worm, though not in the honourable, knightly way the town demands — to bear on the internal, emotional conflicts in this one. And not just on his own life. While, to him, the worm can be seen as standing for the darker and more difficult aspects of his relationship to his father, killing it throws light on just what his father must be facing — for his illness is a worm, too, something that humiliates and dehumanises.

Mayne’s style reminds me of Alan Garner’s in its spareness and occasional poetic density, its feeling of slight alienation from the world it describes, and its deft moments of character insight. But the matter-of-factness of slipping between one world and another, the way it is never explained, examined or excused, is something quite new to me in a fantasy novel, as is the very moving way the fantasy strand illuminates the equally-weighted real-world strand at the end.

Two Faerie Novels

coverIn Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (published earlier this year), a teenage girl disappears into the woods only to return, two decades later, having aged a mere six months. In that time her parents have become OAPs, her brother has married and had children, and her ex-boyfriend, a once-promising musician (who was at one point accused of her murder) has seriously failed to live up to his promise. Joyce’s novel explores the impact of her return, and the sudden perspective it puts upon the passage of twenty years in each character’s life.

coverRamsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk (published last month) opens with one of those “real people’s problems” tabloid-style talk shows, where the host, Jack Brittain, is poised to reveal the results of a DNA test that will prove if, as Maurice Arnold suspects, his grown-up son Luke isn’t really his son at all. Maurice suspects his brother, Terence, who has always been overly proud of the boy, taking him on trips to remote parts of the country and telling him odd little fairy tales. But despite a family resemblance, it turns out Luke isn’t related to either. Nor, even, to the woman he calls his mother. A stand-up comedian with an uncanny knack for imitation, Luke comes to suspect the truth about his origins by retracing, through his uncle’s tersely-worded journal, the odd places they visited, where they always seemed to meet with “kind folk”. Nice people? By no means.

Joyce’s novel uses a multiple viewpoint approach to work at two questions. One, the rational, is just what happened — is the returned Tara really Tara? And can she really still be a teenager, twenty years on? Or is it all self-delusion and an extreme case of arrested development? The other (and far more interesting) question, is how her disappearance and reappearance have affected the people who knew her (among which the most compelling stories are those of her ex-boyfriend Richie, to whom she was a sort of muse, and who, as a result, was left like the traditional fairy-thralled knight, bereft of his inspiration and life-drive; and of course Tara’s own, having lost twenty years’ worth of family life, and finding herself in a world with which she’s now two decades out of step). My one criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the two questions quite gelled. It’s interesting to compare it to Alan Garner’s Boneland, another Faerie-tinged book published this year which also dealt with the devastating, lifelong impact of loss, though in an even more intense way (perhaps because entirely focused on one character). Garner combines the psychoanalytic and fantastic threads of his novel into one meaningful narrative, whereas Joyce spends a chapter psychoanalysing Tara only to disprove it later, which left me feeling a bit cheated. But in Boneland, psychoanalysis, even if it has a dangerous air, is ultimately seen as an aid to self-understanding and self-healing, while Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s take is more about the abuse suffered at the hands of the profession by people whose experiences have taken them beyond the norm.

For most of The Kind Folk, Ramsey Campbell takes a more traditional horrific approach to the presence of a race of half-seen non-human beings at loose in the world. As usual with Campbell, his novel is mostly about the isolating, destabilising effect of the supernatural on one man’s family relationships, identity, and sanity. But the end managed to step clear of the simply horrific to a glimpse of something a little more magical. A far more claustrophobic but focused novel, Campbell’s worked that little bit better, of the two, for me.

Both The Kind Folk and Some Kind of Fairy Tale are well-written, interesting modern takes on the traditional matter of fairyland. Cornered as it is by hordes of zombies, vampires and teen wizards, I’m wondering if Faerie isn’t becoming one of the last refuges of the fantasy novelist who wants to do something genuinely different. There’s something about these outward blasts of the irrational & incomprehensible, and how they impact on real-seeming human characters, that smacks of those areas of life that fantasy, perhaps, is the best way to write about. The loss of a loved one may have a rational explanation, but that goes no way to explaining or expressing the impact it has on the people who feel the loss. The fantastic can. Besides, there’s something about the Perilous Realm and its inhabitants that, however much they may be commercialised into butterfly-winged, tutu-wearing Tinkerbells, there’s always a dark underside that resists commodification, a marshy creature lurking in the weeds, a too-wild dance echoing from over the next mist-wrapped hill. All too often, vampires and zombies are more and more restricted by rules and behaviours as their literature grows, but Faerie only seems to increase in its ability, the more it’s written about, to be what you don’t expect it to be. (Which may be its defining feature.) Besides, I don’t believe in vampires or zombies, but can’t help being a little bit afraid that if I say I don’t believe in fairies, they’ll get me.

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland coverAlan Garner’s latest novel, Boneland, is a conclusion to the Alderley Edge sequence that kicked off his writing career back in 1960. But it’s no ordinary sequel. As Ursula Le Guin points out in her Guardian review, the protagonist of Boneland, the male half of the brother-sister duo of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, “has aged some 30 or 40 years, and their author nearly 50.” Which is why, when I first heard about Boneland, not only did I know I had to read it, but I also decided (as I’d always intended, but needed something like this to actually make me do it) to get round to reading all of Alan Garner’s novels in preparation.

No doubt as a result of this, reading Boneland left me heady with connections to Garner’s earlier works, both minor (the image of a hand outlined in red on a cave wall; a character seeing how far he can freewheel across a landscape; puns on the fact that M6 or M45 could be referring to a motorway or a distant galaxy; the flash of blue-silver as the trigger for trauma; “Who-whoop! wo-whoop! wo-o-o-o!”; stone axeheads; graffiti; nonsensical rhymes and folk-songs; being “badly”) and major (the sensitive, imaginative, troubled hero-with-visions; the connections and resonances between two worlds, or two times; two narratives linked by a single geographical location; sacred promises and love promises abused or betrayed then (sometimes) healed).

In Boneland, Colin of the first two Alderley Edge books is now Professor Colin Whisterfield, a brilliant academic and a deeply troubled human being. Highly intellectual, possessed of “an IQ off the clock” and an almost completely retentive memory (“I don’t delete. Anything. Ever”), he lives alone, in a cabin in a quarry near Alderley Edge, pursuing his world-renown astronomical studies using the nearby Jodrell Bank Observatory, but unable to remember anything of what happened in Weirdstone or Gomrath (“I can’t access anything, anything, before I was thirteen”), only that he once had a sister, but now has a desperate, crippling sense of loss, and a belief that, by studying the distant Pleiades, he might somehow find her. His fragile mental state leads him to begin psychiatric treatment with the earthy, motorbike-riding Meg. (An essay, “Inner Time”, collected in The Voice that Thunders, detailing Garner’s own experience with psychiatric trauma and treatment, makes good accompaniment reading to Boneland.) But is Meg what she seems? The voice of Colin’s sister comes to him as he stands between a pair of “whisper dishes” at the Observatory, hinting that Meg might in fact be the evil Morrigan from their childhood adventures. Meg, meanwhile, starts questioning whether this sister that Colin claims to have lost was ever real.

Alongside the main narrative, as so often with Alan Garner, is a parallel strand, this time set in the very distant past, as an unnamed shaman, last of his tribe, perhaps of his race, goes through his ritual activities and wonders, bereft, who will dance the dances to move the sun across the sky and return the spirits of beasts to the land once he’s gone? And, once more, this parallel narrative is connected to the modern-day strand by a physical object, a “black stone paperweight” which Colin realises is “five ice ages and half a million years old!” Like so many sacred objects in Garner’s fiction, it’s easily overlooked or undervalued: “This stone is poor, and cheap in price; spurned by fools, loved more by the wise.”

Elidor, cover by Stephen Lavis

At the heart of Boneland is a theme that runs deep through all of Garner’s novels from Elidor onwards, and which is, I’d say, one of the key themes to a lot of 20th and 21st century culture — the incommensurability of the extremes of intellect and emotion. Troubled genius Colin, highly successful as an intellectual but deeply flawed as a human being, beset by bouts of trip-switch irrationality, is Garner’s ultimate test case in this arena (and yet another of many troubled male heroes-with-visions, fits and flashbacks), with both sides of his intellect/emotional-damage equation hiked to the max. In my Mewsings on The Moon of Gomrath, I quoted a passage as indicating what I thought was the first stirring of Garner’s authentic imagination, the point his early writing really caught fire, as he describes Susan’s encounter with a being straight from the “Old Magic”:

Susan looked at him, and was not afraid. Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could. She knew what made the horses kneel. Here was the heart of all wild things. Here were thunder, lightning, storm; the slow beat of tides and seasons, birth and death, the need to kill and the need to make…

“Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could” — and it is making that connection, between the intellect (“the mind”) and emotion (“something deeper”) that Colin is failing to do. Perhaps that’s why he needs his sister. His world is full of the mythical and the scientific overwriting one another. His main astronomical work, for instance, is with “MERLIN” — not the Gandalf-like Cadellin of the first two books, but a “Multi-element-radio-linked-interferometer-network”, whose chief computer is called “Arthur”, and Arthur is, of course, one of the names of the Sleeper Under the Hill in Alderley Edge, whose sacredness Colin has abused by trying to get him to wake to rescue his sister. But Colin has at least a sense of the answer to this inability of reductive, analytic intellect to accept myth, imagination, and emotion:

“There can be more than one answer. There could be an infinity of answers. Truth isn’t fixed… Both systems can be real, but both are models. You can’t, or shouldn’t, confuse them. I did.”

“Hey now, kiddo,” said Meg. “Are you, an astrophysicist, saying that mythology and science have equal validity?”

“I’m saying they could have. There may be truth in fairy tales. My mistake was to mix them.”

And, later:

“…you could argue that for a thing to have a multitude of possible meanings is tantamount to its having no meaning at all. But perhaps the opposite could once have applied. Perhaps a thing that could be thought to have a multitude of meanings, then, gained strength and importance from the ambiguities.”

Red Shift, the primal Garner text, starts with a conversation:

“Shall I tell you?”
“What?”
“Shall I?”
“Tell me what?” said Jan.

There, we have someone (the writer?) trying to find a way into telling his story, but meeting only with misunderstanding and obfuscation, a block that ultimately becomes the book’s tragedy. Boneland starts in a similar, but subtly different, way:

“Listen. I’ll tell you. I’ve got to tell you.”
“A scratch, Colin.”
“I must tell you.”
“Just a scratch.”
“I will.”
“There.”
“I shall.”
“Done.”

Here, while one voice says it’s going to tell a story, the other tends a wound. Which could be said to have been Garner’s work, from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to Boneland — telling stories to heal a wound, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to breach the divide. As the grown-up Colin says, “Someone has to look after the Edge. There always is someone; always has been.” And of course he means Alderley Edge, but “the Edge” could also be the dream/reality boundary the shaman Strandloper walks, and the “Wasteland and boundaries” that are the “gates of Elidor”, or the corpus callosum that links the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the point at which intellect and emotion must meet to make a whole, healed, human being.

Boneland is by no means a traditional sequel to the Alderley Edge books, but neither is it (as I feared it might be) an ironic rewriting of them, or an attempt to dismiss them. (Garner did once make mid-career disparaging remarks about his first two books, but has apparently warmed to them again.) And I, for one, am thoroughly satisfied with it, both as a continuation of those first two novels, and a continuation of Garner’s body of work as a whole.

Thursbitch by Alan Garner

cover imageThe title of Alan Garner’s 2003 novel, Thursbitch, comes from the name of a valley in the Pennines, usually taken to mean “the Valley of the Demon”, though Garner says a more accurate (and less pejorative) term than “Demon” is “Big Thing”, thus managing to incorporate awe and power, rather than just evil, in the word. Like so many of Garner’s novels, it’s a story told in two time frames, with occasional rare points at which they — present day and the 1730s — touch, or at least glimpse one another.

In the present day we have Sal, a geologist, and Ian, a priest and psychiatrist, exploring Thursbitch and its environs on a series of day trips. Sal is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, but finds her memory of the valley remains clear, and her response to it is increasingly profound. She talks of it being a “sentient landscape”, a phenomenon she says “most geologists agree about”, but don’t discuss in textbooks. Meanwhile, in the 1730s, we follow Jack Turner, a jagger — a man who makes his living travelling the country, transporting goods from one place to another — who was found, as a baby, in Thursbitch, a place which has religious significance for the locals. Jack is a sort of shaman of the valley, conducting an ecstatic rite in which the locals indulge in hallucinogenic mushrooms. There’s a sacred well where the stone head of the god Crom is kept, but the main spirit of the valley is the Bull, and it is when the local “land man” makes plans for building in the valley that the Bull is angered, and Jack’s life takes a turn for the worst. This coincides with his encountering Christianity, with its confusing notion of “sin”, for the first time.

cup made from Blue John stoneJack feels like a further link in the chain of Garner’s visionary heroes, who have developed from the “sensitive, imaginative one” of Elidor, and the “troubled young men with visions” of Red Shift, to the fully-fledged shaman of Strandloper. Jack is immersed in his visionary relationship with the “Big Thing” of the valley, but his life is balanced and grounded by his relationship with a woman, Sarah, and it’s when she’s taken from him, at a point that coincides with the wronging of the spirit of the valley, that things fall apart. (Once again, in this novel, there’s a sacred object — this time a cup made of “Blue John” stone — given as a love-gift and named with a nonsensical-sounding name (it’s a “grallus”, a grail), that crosses from one time to another, though it’s much less loaded with the ideas of abuse and betrayal than previous such objects in Garner’s work. Now, as with Strandloper, it’s the land that is the true sacred/abused object.)

Garner talks about his own experience of discovering and exploring Thursbitch in a lecture, “The Valley of the Demon” (which can be read here, though unfortunately without the photos he refers to). The novel could be said to be Garner’s response to the puzzle of that landscape — how it made him feel, how he came to understand the various peculiarities of its man-made buildings, its standing stones, its well, its church. But also, at the end, it’s about “a broken man as can mend”, a description that applies to both Jack in the 1700s and Ian in the 2000s. “But if I never went, how could I come home?” says Jack, of his work as a jagger; and by the end, “home” is as much a mental state, a balance and a sanity that needs to be returned to, as it is a physical place.

The pagan wildness of Thursbitch‘s gods recalls that first stirring of what I thought was the authentic Garner imagination in the “Old Magic” of The Moon of Gomrath. In fact, the further I’ve got through this re-read of Garner’s novels in preparation for his most recent, Boneland, the more I’ve come to see his first two books, which I at first thought of as prentice-piece fantasies, only marginally part of the main thrust of his work, as very much a part of the whole, perhaps even unconscious blueprints for it. Which makes the fact that Boneland is a continuation and conclusion of those first two all the more enticing. And it’s up next.