The town clock struck seven


The town clock struck seven.
The echoes of the great chime wandered in the unlit halls of the library.
An autumn leaf, very crisp, fell somewhere in the dark.
But it was only the page of a book, turning.

In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in Chapter 37 in the midst of the middle section of the book entitled ‘Pursuits’, Charles Halloway is described trying to make sense of the extraordinary events he has been witnessing. As janitor of Green Town’s Library he has the run of the building after it has closed, and over a few hours he has been fetching what he sees as the

… most important books … which he arranged in a great literary clock on a table, like someone learning to tell a new time. So he paced round and round the huge clock squinting at the yellowed pages as if they were mothwings pinned dead to the wood.

Clocks are the measure of time, and the presence of Time in the novel is huge. The year’s approaching a great turning point, the definitive arrival of autumn and the dark six months of the the sun’s cycle through the heavens; the summer’s true return will not be marked until Walpurgis Night, half a year away on May Eve. Now it is but a few days before Halloween, the night before All Hallows or All Saints Day, and devilry is afoot. Charles has laid out his books as though playing a game of Clock Patience. Some positions are specified (11, 2, 6, 9), one at least is kept vague (“very late up the literary clock”), at the centre Charles imagines the words spoken by the Witches in Macbeth:

By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes

  1. ?
  2. Occult Iconography
  3. ? portrait of the Prince of Darkness
  4. ? sketches of the Temptations of St Anthony
  5. ? etchings from Giovanbatista Bracelli’s Bizarie (curious toys, humanlike robots engaged in alchemical rites)
  6. (A history of circuses, carnivals, shadow shows, puppet menageries inhabited by mountebanks, minstrels, stilt-walking sorcerers and their fantoccini)
  7. ?
  8. ?
  9. By Demons Possessed; Egyptian Philtres; Torments of the Damned; The Spell of Mirrors
  10. ? Locomotives and Trains; The Mystery of Sleep; Between Midnight and Dawn;
  11. Dr Faustus
  12. ? Physiognomie. The secrets of the individual’s character as found in his face

This provincial library is clearly an extraordinary one to include so many obscure tomes; for Will and Jim “there’s nothing in the living world like books on water cures, deaths-of-a-thousand-slices, or pouring white-hot lava off castle walls on drolls and mountebanks,” but the titles Charles has dug out are way beyond the usual reference books one would expect to find in the stacks. Others may have researched whether Bradbury has based these on existing publications, but for most of us they clearly reveal how Charles is trying to find significant patterns in the scant clues he has at hand: Dark & Cooger’s carnival arriving at three in the morning, a mirror maze that effects transformations, the parade through the town and its near ubiquitous nature, an illustrated man with kinetic tattoos.

For Jim and Will (thirteen, soon to be fourteen), and for Will’s father Charles, “Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight. […] And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more …” Can Charles find the secret in these library books before time runs out for them? I shall try in a review to point the way, but I’m not sure the answer necessarily lies in book knowledge. Only experience will do.

A ‘novel’ novel

West Wales beach, looking west towards a mythical Gwales (personal photo)

Review first published 19th February 2015, reposted now that Tim Burton’s film of the same name is on general release

Ransom Riggs
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)

There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues —  words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.

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In praise of fantasy

Tiffany Tree of Life
Louis Comfort Tiffany: The Tree of Life stained glass window (source: Wikipedia)

I apologise for returning to the subject of fantasy, a topic which I sometimes feel has been unduly disparaged by some critics. Oxford Dictionaries define it as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”. One might surmise that this suggests admirers of fantasy are somehow deluded, a bit like the fantasists who believe in those impossible or improbable things; but I maintain that most aficionados of fantasy know the difference between reality and fiction (“things made up”) and the divide between knowledge and belief.

Let’s go back for a brief moment to the origins of the word: “phantasy” derives from the Greek word φαντός (phantos) meaning visible, and φαίνω ‎(phaínō) I cause to appear, bring to light”: related words like “phantom” and so on ultimately descend from φῶς, Greek for “light”. In other words, one could argue that fantasy is about shining a light on an object, a topic, a notion.

And that’s what I’d like to argue.

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Tall tales and tropes

19th-century whaling ship (credit:

This is the last of the posts I’d planned on Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket, the third in the series commonly known as The Wolves Chronicles. I’ve previously posted about the personages in that novel and on the voyages of Dido Twite, and also given an update on her colourful language. Now I’d to draw your attention to the motifs I’ve noticed in the series that occur in this installment, motifs that pop up elsewhere in her other fiction but which become increasingly plentiful in subsequent Dido Twite chronicles.

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Stones of eternity

Public Library, Waukegan, Illinois

As the northern hemisphere nights start to draw in, the crisp air almost crackles and the mist is a miasma creeping over streets and fields, our thoughts turn to things that go bump in the night. In preparation for a review of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, timed to coincide with The Emerald City Book Review’s annual Witch Week, I thought I’d like to share here a few thoughts on aspects of this Halloween thriller. And I shall start with Green Town’s public library, based on the Carnegie library in Waukegan, Illinois that Bradbury knew so well as a child in the 1930s:

Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. […] This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.

After this passage, which promises exotic experiences to come, the library — though it remains no less enticing — starts to take on a more sinister aspect:

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Steward’s enclosure

Last week I was a steward. No, I wasn’t managing property, household affairs or dining arrangements, nor was I recommending wine or being a flight attendant. I was in fact helping out at a local literary festival, one of a team setting up venues, checking in ticket-holders and selling books.

‘Steward’, by the way, comes from the Old English stigweard, which is a compound of stig, hall or building (it survives as ‘sty’ in Modern English, as in the lowly pigsty) and weard, a ward, guard or keeper. In the 13th century one of the High Stewards of Scotland — those who managed the Scottish king’s finances — took the title as the family name of Stewart. The seventh High Steward became King of Scotland in the 14th century, thus initiating the Royal House of Stewart, and this spelling survived until the period when James Stuart became king of both Scotland and England.

This is all well and interesting, I’m sure, but as usual I’m wandering around the houses. Back to the literary festival, the second one to be held in this Welsh border town.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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