The Stones of the Moon by Judy Allen

UK HB, art by Pat Marriott

David Birch is the son of a professor of archaeology currently working on a Roman mosaic uncovered during the construction of a new motorway in a small Yorkshire town. Although he’s been taken out of school to be with his father as he’ll supposedly learn more on an archaeological dig, Professor Birch is happy to let his son follow his own interests. David fixates on a local stone circle, something his father — and, it seems, just about everyone else — has no interest in at all. Standing among the Weeping Stones, though, David gets a strong feeling of fear:

“He didn’t believe that they wished him harm, only that they were dangerous, unimaginably dangerous, just as heavy machinery in action is dangerous.”

Touching one of the stones as he leaves the circle, he gets an electric shock. These things, then, have a power, but what it is and what it’s for, nobody, at first, can tell him.

He bumps into a pair of local kids of his own age, Tim and Jane. Tim wants to be an ecologist when he grows up and is, as part of a school project, checking pollution levels in the local river, both above and below the local mill. He knows that downstream from the mill the amount of life in the river declines, but keeps wanting to double-check his results, not because he’s unsure of them, but because his father works at the mill and they need the money. Jane, meanwhile, has some unspecified connection to the stone circle.

Paperback from 2000

It’s not until David meets John Westwood, though, that he learns anything more about the Weeping Stones. John is, in the eyes of about everyone else in the book, just “some elderly hippie”. He’s fascinated by the stones, and has embarked on a fifteen-year-long project of self-education so he can understand them, a syllabus that not only includes history, archaeology and geology, but astrology and folklore. He believes the stones are associated with the moon, and tells David’s father the mosaic, when uncovered, will show that the Romans knew this too. When the mosaic proves to be of Diana, though, Professor Birch shrugs it off:

“I’ve come across them before, these people. The world of what you might call Alternative Archaeology is full of them. They give up everything of real value in their lives to prove something they believe to be external. In fact it’s all inside their own heads…”

“Or it could be,” David counters, “that he’s being true to himself. He’s given up all the things society thinks are important…” But David also starts to doubt Westwood when Tim and Jane’s father says the old hippie is into drugs, and doesn’t want his kids having anything to do with him. When David asks Westwood if it’s true, he says:

“I began to use drugs about five years ago in the hope of finding a short cut to the knowledge I was looking for… I met strange and magical things, but the only knowledge I found was this—that illusion blurs the perceptions even while seeming to heighten them… Now… I try to approach the truth as it should be approached, with directness.”

But, he admits, “the drugs I used are using me. They have left my mind just a little clouded…” When Tim and Jane’s father sees his kids with Westwood again — even though they’ve only bumped into him by chance — he gets the police onto him, and Westwood is taken away. Sure that he was onto something about the stones, David goes through Westwood’s papers (they were staying at the same boarding house) and comes to realise the stones do have a sort of power: they were created long ago to draw water up from deep in the ground so as to replenish the river in times of drought. Back then, they’d be activated by singing to them, but now it seems the sound of the machinery at the mill is providing a constant vibration of exactly the same note, and the stones are set to flood the town…

Judy Allen

Judy Allen’s The Stones of the Moon (1975) is a very short novel, chiming in with some of the folk-fantasy themes of the day, as well as the belief in “Earth mysteries” that took off in the 1960s, before going into flying saucer overdrive in the 1970s. As a YA novel, it doesn’t quite have the toughness of Alan Garner or the quality of Penelope Lively, but it does hit a few of the same notes. Tim, for instance, taciturn throughout most of the novel, at one point bursts out with an “it’s all right for you” type of speech about how it’s easy for middle-class David to talk about shutting down the mill to stop the stones from destroying the town or polluting the river, but his working-class family needs the income. But some aspects of the novel — such as Jane’s odd link with the stones, which never gets developed (I was expecting to find she was possessed by Diana, or something), or the fact that Westwood never gets his “I told you so moment” when the town is flooded — made me feel this isn’t quite as strong a work as the real classics of the era. (It was re-released in paperback in 2000, though, so it evidently had some staying power.)

What was most interesting to me was the attitude it takes to Westwood. It’s one of my fascinations with the culture of the early 1970s, how it deals with the aftermath of the late-60s upheavals not just in social change, but in imagination. The hippie era dumped a whole lot of weirdness into the culture, and suddenly everything, from aliens and UFOs to magical stone circles, ley lines and paranormal powers, not to mention psychedelic weirdness generally, were seeping into the mainstream.

Here, Westwood is dismissed by everyone as a slightly crazy hippie, mixing astrology with archaeology and using it to come to conclusions no one in their right mind would accept. His one-time drug use is latched onto as an excuse to dismiss him entirely. Even David, though drawn by his enthusiasm, starts to doubt him, comparing drugs, and the ideas they conjure, with the notion of the “fairy food” of folklore:

“In every story it is made plain that eating the fairy food is an irrevocable move, and that those who once taste it pursue it to the detriment of their lives, right to their lives’ end. It is never a beneficial or nourishing food; it is a teasing food, and it changes the personality.”

“So did the fact that Westwood had made that mistake [taken drugs] invalidate all his ideas?” It’s as though we’re also being asked, “Did the fact the hippies believed in so many crazy things mean that nothing they valued — all the social changes, and so on — is worth holding onto?”

Ultimately, in this book, Westwood is proved right, but, as I say, he never gets his “I told you so moment”, as though to keep his right conclusions at some distance from his unsound methods. Once he’s been carted off by the police, he’s not seen again — which is, perhaps, a symbolic ushering out of all that suddenly seemed slightly embarrassing, naïve, garish, or just plain wild-and-weird about the 60s, by the harsher side of reality. David is the one who’s left with Westwood’s ideas, to try to sort out what’s right and wrong, just as (it seems to me) Children of the Stones-era kids were perhaps being handed all that Earth-mysteries/UFO/psychic-powers craziness of the 60s as though to say: we don’t know what to make of it, you sort it out.

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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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