Merlin’s Wood by Robert Holdstock

UK paperback. Art by Geoff Taylor.

Merlin’s Wood, a novella first published in 1994 in the collection of the same name, is listed by its publisher Gollancz as being part of Holdstock’s mythago series. Before reading it, I found some people saying it shouldn’t be considered part of the series, but the reason given — that it’s not set near Ryhope Wood (it’s set in Brittany, by the forest of Brocéliande, where the wily Vivien was said to have trapped Merlin once she’d learned enough of his magic) — didn’t seem convincing. I’d be happy for the mythago series to leave Ryhope Wood and explore other areas of mythago generation. But now, having read the novella, I think there are better reasons for excluding it from the series.

It starts with a young Sebastian Laroche urging his brother Martin to join him on the path around Brocéliande because there are ghosts on it. It’s an accepted piece of local lore that children can see these ghosts. Sebastian, though, takes things further, and dances his way into one of them. There, he can hear its thoughts and feel its feelings, and it’s scared, this ghost, and keeps looking behind, back along the path, as if being pursued.

Time passes. Martin, now grown up and a designer in Amsterdam, returns to the farm where he grew up. He’s there to bury his mother. His father died some time ago, his brother Sebastian died as a child, soon after dancing through those path-walking ghosts. There’s one other member of the family, Rebecca, adopted by the Laroches as a thirteen-year-old shortly before Sebastian’s death. As an adult, she moved to Australia, trying to learn more about an almost magical power of song she has. Now she returns, and she and Martin, who had, unbeknownst to their parents, become lovers in their young adulthood, resume their relationship. The farm has been left to them, though under the stipulation they sell it and move away from the forest, which Martin’s mother believed was dangerous for her children. Instead, they marry and settle down to live by Brocéliande.

French edition. Art by Arnaud Crémet.

Soon they have a child. Born deaf and blind, Daniel nevertheless seems able to hear his mother’s singing, and is soon singing himself. Nobody pays attention to the fact that Rebecca’s singing then dries up — until her sight begins to fade while Daniel starts to see.

One of the reasons I feel this novella doesn’t belong in a series with Mythago Wood is what happens when Rebecca’s song, then sight, then hearing start to fade. Martin takes her to a medical specialist at “the National Institute for Parapsychology”. When we later meet the local priest, Father Gualzator, we hear him talking of “the Church and the Hill”, which seem to be two separate but related aspects of the local religion, one Christian, one pagan. Both details point to this not being our world, or the otherwise identical-to-ours world of Mythago Wood. It seems to be a world where something of pagan worship, and perhaps a little of pagan magic, are an accepted, if not common, part of everyday life.

The other reason for excluding Merlin’s Wood from the mythago series is that there are no mythagos in this story. There are ghosts of the past — or, if not ghosts, at least insubstantial things, quite different to the very physical embodiments of myth that emerge from the depths of Ryhope Wood. A lot of Merlin’s Wood feels similar to the sort of woody, earthy, stone-age-to-dark-age magic of the mythago books, but at the same time it’s too different to really fit that series. (It might fit better with the world of Holdstock’s earlier novel, Necromancer.)

Czech cover.

There are artistic connections, though. Like the second mythago book, Lavondyss, this is a narrative with sudden, traumatic breaks. Shortly after the Rebecca/Daniel portion of the novella hits its climax, the narrative is handed over to a completely different character, and we get Merlin telling us the tale of his relationship with Vivien — or Vivyana, Ivanyavok, Evunna, Evye, whose name, in whatever form, means “Vision of Magic”. Vivien wanted to learn magic, and she and Merlin became lovers. It’s a bizarre story, set in a world of ancient sorcery, full of the sort of barbarically weird images so unique to Holdstock’s imagination:

“The lakes were so cold that in each one of them a hundred human bodies floated, half-way down, dead yet still alive, suspended from the process of living by the ice. The magic men of the region, the shamans, swam among them naked, feeding on the faint echoes of memory in the drowned, learning past truths to aid their own journeys to the underworld.”

One day Merlin realises that, however well they’re getting on now, Vivien will not be satisfied till she’s taken his magic for herself. So he takes steps, separating his magic from himself and setting it wandering the paths around Brocéliande in the form of human-like shadows — the ghosts that modern-day children will later see. Then the fight is on, and Vivien buries him in a shaft in the earth, capped by a stone cairn. From that moment, the two become a corruption at the heart of the wood:

“Yes, something lay rotting at the heart of the forest, a death that had been known for generations. It was a decaying place, shedding ghosts like autumn leaves.”

The battle for Merlin’s magic continues to influence the human life around it throughout the generations. The pair fight through others, blighting countless ordinary lives by forcing them to enact the tug-of-power between these ancient enchanters.

Another French cover.

Perhaps the best comment I’ve found on this novella is by Dave Langford, who writes of the narrative being “distorted by its weight of undeserved loss and inaccessible healing”. Lavondyss, too, dealt with an almost immeasurable sense of loss, and an almost inhuman path back to redemption. Here, in this much shorter narrative, the sense of breakage when the human world is invaded by the mythic is almost offhand, and the promised resolution is too remote. (At the end, Merlin seems to be offering to set things right, but is too casual when he says how long it will take: “Six months, six years, six thousand years”, it makes little difference to this almost inhuman being.)

There are undoubted moments of imaginative brilliance in this novella, such as this, from early on in Merlin’s tale:

“You may not be aware of it, but there is a bone in every human body which, when broken, begins the passage of time. For most of you, this bone is broken in the womb and soon dissolved. Rarely, it remains unbroken for centuries without end.”

2009 edition.

But at the same time, it’s hard to work out what to make of this story on a more human level. I feel inclined to reach for the same solution as I did with The Bone Forest: this is a tale about its own creative process. Like the image of the children dancing through ghosts at the start of it, and “the idea that to dance inside the ghostly figures from Brocéliande was to become possessed by some shadow of the past”, here, perhaps, Holdstock is allowing himself to become possessed by an imaginative figure, his version of Merlin, and to write Merlin’s tale as Merlin would tell it, so immersed in magic he doesn’t see things as humans do.

One of the things I liked so much about Mythago Wood was the slow revelation of what was going on inside the wood, Steven’s gradual understanding of what these bizarre beings from the past who stepped from the wood really were. Increasingly, throughout the series (and here, outside the series), Holdstock’s imagination has become wilder and more brutal, less inclined to that sort of measured build-up, and given to jarring narrative breaks that damage his human characters perhaps too much. I’m determined to finish the mythago books, but I’m wondering if they haven’t already gone too far from what I most liked about the early two, and whether the rest will be as fulfilling.

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The Bone Forest by Robert Holdstock

UK cover, art by Geoff Taylor

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

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

Illustration from Interzone. Art by SMS.

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

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

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

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

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

Czech cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Necromancer by Robert Holdstock

1990 Futura paperback

First published in 1978, Necromancer was the third novel Holdstock had out under his own name — the previous two being science fiction, Eye Among the Blind (1976) and Earthwind (1977) — but he was already a prolific author under a number of pseudonyms, including of horror (Legend of the Werewolf and The Satanists as Robert Black), historical fantasy (the Beserker series as Chris Carlsen), and sword & sorcery (the Raven series as Richard Kirk, in collaboration as Angus Wells). Necromancer would take Holdstock a step further towards the sort of modern-age/stone-age culture-clash feel of Mythago Wood and his other Ryhope Wood novels (there has to be a name for it — Woadpunk?) without quite hitting that series’s startling originality. There are, though, still hints of Holdstock’s strengths, here.

The novel kicks off with Dr Lee Kline, a Californian archaeologist and historian working at an unspecified London “Institute”, travelling to the Berkshire town of Higham to find out more about what he calls “the Higham Fragment”, a chunk of stone with an ancient mark on it, that he believes came from a much larger sacred stone. His suspicions centre on the font in the now fire-ruined church of St Mary’s, and when he visits it, he meets June Hunter, mother of young Adrian, who was seemingly brain-damaged as a result of being dropped onto the font during his christening. June, though, believes her son’s mind became trapped in the stone as a result of the accident, and comes to the ruined church to speak to him. (She regards the silent, mostly inactive boy at home as nothing but a “zombie”, a “human shell”.) Kline begins to suspect there’s something stranger going on — that some dark force resides in the font, and that this force is behind a spate of local suicides as well as the Hunter family’s troubles, which aren’t limited to Adrian. (Their daughter, sixteen-year-old Karen, sleepwalks and maybe-dreams about night visits from a humanoid creature that urges her to follow it out of the house.)

Norman Adams art for the 1979 Avon paperback

Kline travels to France to enlist the help of Francoise Jeury, a woman who has been writing to him for some time with (in his opinion) crazy theories about the ancient stones near her home, and her ability to read the truth about the past by touching them. Kline sort of believes and sort of doesn’t. He believes Jeury might have the powers she says she has — and she convincingly demonstrates them by reading a little too much about his romantic past from a ring he wears — but he doesn’t believe all of her explanations for them. Psychic powers and poltergeist phenomena he can accept, but not the idea that there are entities best referred to as “demons” active among us. Jeury agrees to come back to England and help June and Adrian. As soon as she touches the font at St Mary’s though, she knows there’s a real nasty demon inside it.

This is, in a way, Holdstock’s version of The Exorcist. Not only does a malevolent entity speak through the young Adrian and give him bouts of destructive supernatural strength, but there’s a hypnotism scene where another boy — a local teen called Don Belsaint, whose family have long been associated with the font — is regressed to a past life, and starts speaking a guttural stone age tongue and thrashing about on the bed. The Belsaints, it seems, are linked to the font-stone as its guardians, their DNA somehow encoded with knowledge of the spell required to keep the creature known as Cruachos trapped within it. In this, the book feels like Holdstock’s version of Quatermass and the Pit, too, with its idea of behaviour programmed into human genes, waiting to be activated.

A different Futura paperback cover

Adrian, as a slightly demonic young boy, is something of a Holdstock type, as the feral, would-be-shaman character of a young and slightly manic boy appears in other Holdstock stories, from the unnamed artist-apprentice in his short 1976 story “Magic Man”, to Tig in Lavondyss. But the really Holdstockian element here is the glimpse we get of the stone age that Francoise Jeury accesses with her special powers:

“I see the past, and in a sense it lives for me, speaks to me. What I see there, apart from the way of life, and of death, is frightening. They play with magic, and with the soul of man. We always think of them as primitive, dressed in furs and chipping stone, but Lee… There was such awesome power in those days, such terrifying abilities to summon the dark spirits of a world which, when you think coldly about it, is this world, this earth on which we stand. The earth has not changed, man has! What was in the earth then is in the earth now…”

It’s an interesting novel, with a folk-horror-meets-Exorcist kind of appeal, if you can imagine such a thing. For me, the main characters were too abrasive — everyone argues constantly with everyone, and is all too keen to analyse one another’s motives in the most negative way, and at great length — for anyone in the novel to really get my sympathies, but the way the dark-magic-tinged world of our ancestors breaks into the modern world — the thing Holdstock does so well — I could certainly have done with more of.

The character of Francoise Jeury (who is the “necromancer” of the title) returns in a later Holdstock novel, The Fetch/Unknown Regions, from 1991, though I haven’t read it. I must get on with my Mythago series read.

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