I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.
The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?
The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)
One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:
“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”
Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):
“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”
By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.
I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)
A wonderful book.