The Waterfall Box by John Gordon

Kestrel Books HB, art by Chris Molan

The Waterfall Box was John Gordon’s fourth YA novel, published in 1978. The box of the title is a small (“no higher than a teacup”) box of heavy, dark wood, ornately carved and bearing the words “IN TIME OF NEED” on the outside. It belonged, a few centuries back, to Silas Waterfall, known as Potter Waterfall for his founding of the Waterfall Pottery and his invention of his own unique green glaze. The box has been passed down — not to Waterfall’s descendants, as he had none, but to those of his housekeeper — until, in the present generation, it and the item it held (a small, sealed flask containing an unknown liquid) have been inherited by sisters Alice and Martha, one of whom has the box, the other the flask. There’s a family injunction never to sell these items, but whereas Martha married into money (her husband Richard now runs the Waterfall Pottery), Alice isn’t so well-off, and when she’s approached by antiques dealer Harman (“buying up the past to sell to the present”) offering her a substantial sum for the box — enough for her, her husband, and teenage son Bran to escape “this narrow house, squeezed by its neighbours in a crawling ant-run of a street” — she at first refuses, but, when Harman’s gone, changes her mind. She and her husband go out to celebrate the decision, and are killed in an accident.

Bran inherits the box, and is moved in with his aunt Martha, uncle Richard and his teenage cousin Sandy, who falls into an instant flirtation with him. (Even though Sandy’s parents are well-off, she’s impressed by the fact that, because he has the money from the sale of his parents’ small house, Bran is “rich”.) But it’s not long before Harman is back, claiming the sale of the box was agreed (even though he couldn’t know Alice changed her mind and decided to sell it after he’d gone). And by this time Bran has learned there’s more to the box than its being a mere antique. As well as a potter, Silas Waterfall was an alchemist, and it’s possible the liquid in the flask is the Alkahest (the “universal solvent” required as part of the process of turning lead into gold), while the pottery base of the box might be the Philosopher’s Stone.

By this point, the novel is following two strands. In the one, we have the development of Bran’s relationship with Sandy, in the other we have Harman’s desire to own the Waterfall Box. We never learn much about Harman, why he wants the box or how much he knows, only that he seems to know more than he rightly should. He approaches other people in the village, including Sandy’s best friend Stella, recruiting them to gain information about where the box and its now-reunited flask are kept. Harman has the patient-impatient air of a man who knows he’s close to getting what he wants, something he’s wanted for a long time, and believes he’s entirely capable of getting, by whatever means necessary. And there’s more than a spooky air about this shadowy figure, as we learn he’s able to call on a supernatural strength at times.

The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, Kestrel Books HB, cover by Allan Curless

But it’s clear the relationship strand is Gordon’s focus. Bran is attracted to Sandy, and Sandy is flirtatious with Bran, but the situation is more complex than boy-meets-girl. Prior to reading The Waterfall Box, I read Gordon’s first book of short stories, The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, and noted there how a four-person teen relationship dynamic showed up in several stories, most notably “Better the Devil You Know” (about a girl deciding how much gruff masculinity she wants in a boyfriend, and gets a close encounter with something perhaps-supernaturally both beast-ish and man-ish to help her decide). There, you have an intelligent, sensitive, slightly loner-ish main boy; a tough, at first belligerent, but ultimately principled rival boy; an attractive, though superficial, better-off girl who flirts with both boys, even playing them off each other; and a quieter girl, the other girl’s “best friend” in an uneven relationship, giving way to her but clearly more sensitive and worthy of the main boy’s love. That quartet is here, too, with Bran as main boy and Sandy as flirtatious girl, then Sandy’s “best friend” (as in “She’s my best friend and I hate her”) Stella as the quieter girl, and her amateur boxer of a boyfriend Griff (who Stella knows is really attracted to Sandy) as the belligerent rival. It’s obviously a tangle Gordon himself felt the need to revisit and rework, a mess of male identity (being tough versus being quiet and sensitive) and sexual attraction (the more flirtatious and outgoing girl who too-quickly changes loyalties, or the more serious girl who puts herself in the background), all superheated by teenage hormones, and with an added dose of class tensions (the more flirtatious girl is more well-off, the quieter girl is poor) just to keep things difficult. (Or, now I think about it, is it to keep things simple?)

The TLS review of The Waterfall Box (1st December 1978, by Gillian Cross) criticised the incompatibility of these two narrative strands:

“In practice, however, the two elements of the book act against each other. The fate of the alchemist’s enigmatic legacy is almost totally subordinate to the interaction of the characters. The violent implications of the mystery undercut the more prosaic teenage romance. It is hard, for example, to be patient with the long accounts of Bran’s reactions to Sandy’s sexual teasing when his grief for his parents—who are killed a quarter of the way through the book—merits only half a page of description. The final effect is one of insubstantiality, of a sketch for a powerful book with neither the incidents nor the characters to flesh it out.”

But I think the point is that Bran can’t resolve the situation with Harman and the box till he resolves the inner tangle of his relationships, and so sorts out his own values and priorities. Just as Harman’s offer to buy the box means easy money, in a crude way Sandy is easier in terms of sexual relationships, but ultimately both are shallow and perhaps (though we’re never given an explicit reason to feel Harman is evil, only that he has the air of it) immoral. It’s only by coming together in the right combination that Bran and the others can see Harman off, once his more supernatural aspects come to the fore.

Still, I do agree it’s not an entirely successful novel — but more because the supernatural aspects are worked out a little too quickly, with a lot of rushing about and characters intuiting things about Harman at the last minute, as a means of defeating him. I think that aspect of the novel needed more laying out of a few clues as to how Harman could be defeated, and perhaps about his motives, too, just to make the victory feel a bit more morally satisfying.

The Waterfall Box, as far as I can tell, seems only to have been published in hardback in the UK, with no subsequent paperback edition. This makes it quite difficult to find (and a little more expensive than I’d normally pay for a book of this vintage). Still, I think it’s an interesting part of Gordon’s work, clearly developing some of his concerns (and a better novel, on a first read at least, than The Ghost on the Hill, which I read last year but didn’t write about because it was too confusing on a first read — but which did get a paperback edition). Valancourt Books have recently reissued Gordon’s most well-known (among readers of weird fiction, anyway) novel, The House on the Brink, and I wonder if they’re going to work through his others, in which case The Waterfall Box might get a paperback edition at last. Who knows?


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.