The Power of Stars by Louise Lawrence

1989 Collins hardback, art by Geoff Cummins

I thought I had read all the Louise Lawrence books that initially grabbed my fancy, but when I happened upon the premise of this, her second novel, I had to read it because it sounded so bizarre: a girl is bitten by a rabbit and gains the destructive “power of the stars”. I was sure, from my recent reading of Lawrence’s Wyndcliffe, Star Lord, and The Earth Witch, it couldn’t be as radioactive-spider ridiculous as it sounded. It turns out to fit very much with the kind of late 1960s/early 1970s YA novel I’ve covered on Mewsings before — things like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy — so that, in the end, I found The Power of Stars (1972) interesting for its preoccupations, even though I didn’t think it quite worked as a novel.

The setting is the borderland mountain region between England and Wales, and the cast is that old Owl Service/Earth Witch formula, the bickering trio of teens (two boys, one girl) with added class tension (two are working class, one is middle class). The girl is Jane Bates, 15 years old and the poorest of the three, who lives with her Granny as her mother abandoned her before moving abroad and breaking all contact (as with Owen in The Earth Witch). Walking home from school with the local lad she’s known all her life, Jimmy Keir, and an English boy, Alan Grant, whose divorced, soon-to-be-remarried mother has recently moved to the area, all three, separated in the dark of the village countryside, are distracted by a strange, powerful brightness in the stars. They hear a weird scream, but it’s only a rabbit, caught, somewhere in the dark, in a trap. The following evening, the three are again walking home when they find the poor thing, still alive, though out of the trap. (They find the trap, which seems to have been hit by lightning — it’s just a lump of molten metal.) Jane picks up the rabbit, intending to take it to a vet, and it bites her, deep in the wrist. Uncharacteristically for a rabbit, it hangs on, as though to make sure she’s thoroughly bitten. Jimmy flings the rabbit off her, and they take her to Alan’s stepfather-to-be, Dr Nick Mackenzie, who, once Jane has been taken to A&E, seeks out the rabbit, thinking he might find something unusual about it because of its behaviour. He and Alan bump into local oddity Marcia Cotterel, known to the area’s kids as the Batwoman, because she’s a scientist studying bats (also, they think she’s a bit crazy). Her dog, it turns out, was also bitten by a rabbit — perhaps the same one — and she’s also trying to find it, to see if it was infected by some odd new disease.

1st UK HB, art by Antony Maitland

Things tick along for a while, with the trio of kids bickering lightly but constantly, in the way of bored teens, when two odd things start to occur with Jane. First, she seems to have gained a new fear of machines — though only at night, when the stars are out. Second, if Jane is particularly worked up, those machines suddenly fuse, or melt, or even blow up, as though hit by a blast of intense energy. Afterwards, Jane will usually be found alone in the dark, staring up at the stars, drinking in their light.

It turns out Jane has been infected by a sort of alien life-form, an intelligence that exists as tiny, neuron-like protozoa, simple on their own but somehow forming, together, a sort of intelligence. And it’s an intelligence that feeds off starlight and hates machines, perhaps because (Dr Nick suggests) they might have once become too reliant on machines in their own, more advanced, society that self-destructed, and now they’re trying to save us from the same fate, using Jane as a focus. (They also use her to drink up the experience of embodied life, something they’ve evidently been missing since becoming space-bound protozoa. That, and music.)

US HB

This hatred of machines, combined with bouts of the irrational need to destroy them, reminds me of The Changes. The BBC series came out in 1975, but Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of novels the series was adapted from were all out by 1970, and I can’t help wondering if Lawrence wasn’t proposing an alternative explanation for those books’ outbreak of irrational anti-machine violence. (Star-bound protozoa with a beef against the mechanical is a little bit better — though only just — as explanations go, than Dickinson’s Merlin-on-drugs.) But the idea of a rabbit bite infecting Jane with an alien life-form is less about scientific plausibility, I’d say, than a sort of imaginative pressure on the author to bring together the two archetypal forces that come out again in her later novel Star Lord: the science-fictional force from the stars, and the ancient forces of nature, only here they’re united, rather than being inimical as they are in Star Lord.

This is Lawrence’s second novel — her second published novel, anyway — and I thought it perhaps showed in a couple of structural weaknesses. The lengths she goes to in order to ensure her trio of teens are out at night (under starlight) in a machine (Alan’s car), far from home, near the climax of the novel, felt a bit too much like an author over-thinking things (they run out of petrol, then a tyre blows). And the chapter where Dr Nick and Miss Cotterel theorise on the nature of the neuron-like protozoa that have taken up residence in Jane’s brain relies a bit too much on some far-fetched guesses being taken by two scientists as the only likely explanation.

1976 Lions PB

But it’s a short novel, and I enjoyed it for how much it fits in with the other books of the time. The constant tensions between the characters have that post-Kitchen Sink era air of gritty social realism, as do their goodnatured but cranky attempts not to give in to class resentments (Alan always has money, Jimmy never does); the writing style has that poetic terseness writers on the literary side of late 60s/early 70s YA seem to slip into (Garner eventually taking it to the extreme, but it’s also there in John Gordon and William Mayne); and there’s another theme of early 70s YA, broken families and the added emotional burden this places on adolescents who not only have to deal with puberty, but some sort of supernatural/science-fictional menace as well. (And Jane’s “power of the stars” feels very much like that horror trope that became increasingly prevalent in the 70s, of what I might call Teenage Telekinetic Breakout Disorder, or Carrie’s Syndrome.)

It’s perhaps more interesting when read as part of Lawrence’s own body of work and her development as a writer (I now want to read her first novel, the more purely SF Andra), or as one more part of early 70s rural fantasy (folk fantasy, as it might be called), so I wouldn’t recommend The Power of Stars as a first read if you’re interested in Lawrence, but it’s by no means a bad book. I’m still not entirely sure about the rabbit, though…

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The Earth Witch by Louise Lawrence

UK HB, art by Ronald Himler

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

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

Lions UK HB, art by Jeff Cummins

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

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

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

Ace PB, art by Winslow Pinney Pels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Lord by Louise Lawrence

1978 Harper & Row HB, art by Ronald Himler

Louise Lawrence’s Star Lord was first published in 1978, and reprinted throughout the 1980s in both the UK and the US (where its Timescape paperback edition was titled Starlord). It starts with teen Rhys Williams out one evening on the lower slopes of the Mawrrhyn mountain in rural Powys, when he hears a sound he can only guess to be a low-flying aeroplane, followed by a tremendous explosion. It’s obvious something has just hit the mountain. He sets off to look for survivors, but doesn’t find any wreckage beyond some tiny splinters of a strange, pale silver metal. Soon after, the army arrive, stopping people from going up the mountain and evidently trying to find something, or someone. Then, at the farm cottage he shares with his grandfather Hywel Thomas, his recently-divorced mother Enid, and his sister Gwyneth, Rhys finds what appears to be a teenage boy hiding in the barn. He’s injured — not from the crash, but from being shot — and what’s more, his skin gives out “a pale waxed light, as if he were luminous.”

Rhys brings him into the family home, where everyone comes to accept that this “boy” is an alien being, Erlich, from Eridani Epsilon. Erlich claims there are others of his kind in other places on Earth, and if he could just reach them he’d be safe. There has already been an army officer, Captain Willoughby-Smythe, turning up at the cottage asking if they’ve seen anything, and it’s obvious the captain’s taken a fancy to Enid, so is likely to be back. The family think if they can just get Erlich well enough to travel, and take him over the other side of the valley to the nearest town, he could be picked up by his kin. The army, though, blocks all routes except directly over the pitiless Mawrrhyn. And, despite Hywel Thomas thinking Erlich is one of the mountain’s mythical fair folk (“He has the fairness”), the ancient power that is the Mawrrhyn is antagonistic to Erlich. It was the mountain, or the mystical power within it, that caused Erlich’s spacecraft to crash in the first place.

1980 US PB

There’s a lot about this book that’s similar to the 1975 HTV series Sky. In both, a golden, teen-looking alien comes to our world where some mystic force associated with nature immediately attacks him. In both, the main characters are just ordinary kids who have to try to help the alien get to some point of departure or safety, and in both there’s a sense of the thanklessness of the task. Sky, for instance, drops his teen helpers whenever he doesn’t need them, and seems to dismiss them as hopeless cases because they live in an age he only knows as being just before “the Chaos”. Here, Erlich is a little more sympathetic (when he’s even conscious), but helping him still comes at a price, and with no compensating reward.

Sky says “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.” Erlich makes no such claim, but he seems more like an archetype than a living being. The Williams family immediately assume he has “powers” — “power enough and knowledge enough to blast this earth to a cinder” — but Erlich never says he does and doesn’t give any demonstration that he does. We don’t know why he’s here or what he intends, and nobody asks, as though it’s taken for granted that powerful alien beings are living hidden amongst us. Most of all, though, he’s set up as the opposite to the ancient power represented by the Mawrrhyn. Erlich is “pure and applied science”, Mawrrhyn is “mysticism”. “Like me,” Erlich says, “she has conquered time and space, but in some other, different way.” To her, Erlich, and the power of science that he represents:

“…was destruction on a scale hardly begun on earth. He was the power of concrete and atom bombs, exhausts spewing carbon monoxide factory waste, plastic, poison, and pollution. He was mechanised science in its final terrifying form…”

Mawrrhyn, meanwhile, represents an ancient power — nature — but nature in her bleakest form:

“Her breath was cold, her spirit roaming. She was here in the moods of earth and stone, in the wind’s whine and the cliff fall. She was the rock-scarred age of this place. The bleak barren beauty of summer days. The stark grey cruelty of winter.”

Hers is a way of life, and a form of unacknowledged belief, that Enid knew as a girl growing up in this area:

“They were funny, the people living hereabouts. They went to chapel every Sunday but they were not Christian. They believed in something older than that, powers that were deep and dark.”

But:

“People cannot live with that kind of knowing. That’s why I left, see? I was only fifteen. Went to Cardiff, I did, and she [the Mawrrhyn] didn’t matter there. That kind of thing is dead under dust and concrete and traffic fumes. In the cities people do not heed. All those years I was forgetting her.”

Louise Lawrence

It’s like the essence of a cultural clash that was felt at the time, distilled into two primal powers. On the one hand, there’s a belief in a technological future, on the other the back-to-the-land urge that was stirred up by the late-60s search for a more authentic and natural way of life. Both have their dark side: with science, it’s the pollution of the natural world and the existential threat from weapons of mass destruction; with nature, it’s the pitiless winters of the natural cycle, or the “laws of dead sheep and rotting bog” as Rhys puts it.

In the end, neither is a human power. As Enid says, “they have no mercy, star lords and mountains.” But the family are committed to taking Erlich across the mountain because to do so would leave him — who at least has a human form, and can talk to them, so they treat him with human sympathy — at the mercy of another sort of power, that government/military power that’s so often the villain in crashed alien stories:

“Erlich was no conqueror. Nor was he meant to be captured and contained in some Ministry of Defence prison. Not meant to be bled by greedy governments, tapped of his knowledge, used and abused and desecrated.”

It feels to me that, in so much SF and fantasy YA fiction of the early 70s, a sort of imaginative quandary was being played out on the cultural plane, as teens from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service onwards were faced with the burden of fighting off an overdetermining, myth-laden past, while having to work out how to deal with the dangers of a technologically-perilous future. This feel carried on into the 80s, but more and more that decade decided on the technological future as the thing it was committed to. It’s most notable in the way that — or this is how it seems to me, anyway — rural settings were dropped and urban ones became the norm throughout the 80s. Star Lord is set entirely in rural Wales (which, for British 70s YA fiction, was the most rural of rural settings), but ultimately presents its technological power, the alien Erlich, as a little more human than the mystical-mountain power of the pitiless Mawrrhyn, which perhaps shows the way the cultural scales were tipping.

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