Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

130-1

A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

Continue reading “Treasure in her belly”

Everyday supernatural

Illustration by Daphne Lee

Orang Minyak; and Pontianak,
by Daphne Lee.
One-story zines privately published by the author, nd.

‘[He] could leap high. And he floated, like a shadow, on walls and on ceilings. And then when it was safe he would float down softly and he would creep, silently, like a black cat, and no one would know.’

Orang Minyak

Sex and death: the only certainties where life is concerned. When the two are bound up in our imaginations with thoughts of the supernatural they can give rise to all-pervading obsessions – such as incubi and succubi, and vampires corporeal and psychic. How powerfully such obsessions are able to magnify both our fascination and our fears!

That’s where these two short stories score. Both were first published as one-story zines and later revised, appearing in the author’s collection entitled Bright Landscapes (Laras99, 2019 and Langsuyar Press, 2021). Related in a very matter-of-fact fashion and including ordinary conversations, both nevertheless hint at things beyond the everyday.

When whispers of old beliefs impinge on modern life can they really be accounted as beyond the bounds of possibility when they’re allied with persuasive rumours, odd coincidences and personal experiences? Do they then suggest that the supernatural too is somehow also an everyday thing?

Continue reading “Everyday supernatural”

The author’s fancy

Cover designs for three of Robertson Davies’s trilogies published by Penguin Books

The Salterton Trilogy
by Robertson Davies.
Penguin Books 2011 (1986).

People who do not know Salterton repeat a number of half-truths about it. They call it dreamy and old-world; they say that it is at anchor in the stream of time. […] And, sooner or later, they speak of it as “quaint”.

‘Tempest-Tost’

Set largely in a small town in Ontario around the 1950s, Robertson Davies’s Salterton Trilogy included his earliest novels, but far from being in any way gauche they seem to spring fully-formed and masterly from his imagination.

Along with his experience of the theatre, academic life, newspapers and literature he brought to his fiction a sharp insight into human nature and of life, whether provincial or metropolitan, and garnished his narratives with both caustic wit and compassion.

Continue reading “The author’s fancy”

The gift of gramarye

© C A Lovegrove

The Dark is Rising
by Susan Cooper.
Introduction by Susan Cooper, 2013.
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Book 2. 
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1973).

“Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

From the winter solstice, through Christmas and the New Year and on to Twelfth Night – the twelve days of Christmas are rarely so joyless and bleak as here when the Dark threatens the Light. Yet for all its fantastical elements – and there are many – The Dark is Rising is, I sense, a deeply personal tale for the author, set in the southeast corner of Buckinghamshire where she grew up and where, aged eleven, she will have experienced the severe winter of 1946-7 which affected so much of postwar Europe.

Our protagonist is Will Stanton, seventh son and the youngest in a family of nine surviving siblings, about to celebrate his eleventh birthday on midwinter day. But unbeknown to him he is something other than the amiable baby in the family, a personage who will have a crucial role to play during the assault of the Dark. He will have helpers but also a dread assailant, and there will be a betrayal that will put the fate of many at a risk beyond imagining.

Alongside this archetypal conflict which threatens a Ragnarök-scale disaster and the several players who have parts to play is the corner of England that the author knew so well from childhood, a landscape that is as integral to the plot as the people. As Cooper wrote in her introduction to this edition, “every inch of the real world in which Will Stanton lives—and some of the fantasy world too—is an echo of the Buckinghamshire countryside in which I grew up.” In this, my second read of the novel, that knowledge quite literally grounded the novel for me.

Continue reading “The gift of gramarye”

Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance

Carcassonne-19th-century


19th-century Carcassonne

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Orion 2006.

I read this before it was acclaimed The Viewers’ Choice (in a TV Book Club shortlist at the 2006 British Book Awards) but, frankly, remained unimpressed. I had high expectations for an out-of-the-ordinary modern take on the holy grail written by a successful reviewer and generous sponsor of new writing, but was deeply disappointed at the result.

Kate Mosse has mixed up a cocktail of familiar elements (Cathar heretics, reincarnation, grail, medieval history) and somehow turned it into an entirely run-of-the-mill romance-cum-fantasy-cum-thriller. I admire her research into life in the Middle Ages, her knowledge of the French Midi (she lives in the old walled city of Carcassonne, ‘restored’ to a Victorian vision of the High Middle Ages) and her attempt to make the grail a little different from the familiar holy bloodline thesis. The labyrinthine storyline seesaws between the past and the present, turning on the fulcrum of a scandalously disorganised archaeological investigation.

However, her use of Hollywood-influenced magic denouements and crude Disneyesque villains and villainesses, combined with holier-than-thou heroines, ultimately left this reader cold and mystified. Drawing on the popularity of pseudoscientific themes propounded in, for example, Arthur Guirdham’s Cathars and Reincarnation (1970) and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh (1982) it maintains the po-faced seriousness of those speculative farragos while adding little in terms of literary worth.

Still, back in 2006 I couldn’t argue with 70,000 presumably satisfied readers, and probably can’t even now, though its frequent appearances on charity shop bookshelves, along with The Da Vinci Code (2003), suggests that those readers are now no longer fussed about keeping it on their bookshelves. I myself shan’t be seeking out the sequels.


This review, here slightly edited, was first published on 16th January, 2013; its brevity merely reinforces what I thought of it then.

I’ve reviewed other novels featuring the grail, listed on the page Grails, holy or otherwise (https://wp.me/P2oNj1-A2), including a couple of the better ones entitled Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, part of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence.

Parallel lives

Elizabeth I

I can’t help marking the passing of a second Elizabethan Age here in a post, especially as I was in the crowd on the Mall as a lad of four – coincidentally the same age then as the boy who would be king Charles III – to watch the young queen drive by in her golden coach to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. And then, several hours later, back to Buckingham Palace. All this of course on 2nd June 1953.

Refreshing what I remembered from school about the first queen of that name brought to light a few inexact parallels with the late monarch, parallels which I thought I would share here while they’re fresh in my mind.

And whether you’re a monarchist or a republican – and though on the fence I lean more towards the second frame of mind – I feel it’s important to acknowledge the seven decades of her reign, especially while the UK is still in its prolonged period of enforced mourning. How does Queen Lilibet compare with Good Queen Bess?

Continue reading “Parallel lives”

Night music

© C A Lovegrove

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III,
cover art by Dave McKean.
Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, foreword (1995) by Karen Berger.
30th anniversary edition, DC Vertigo 2018 (1988-9).

In his 1991 Afterword to this volume the author describes how he proposed reviving “an almost forgotten DC character […] and doing a story set almost entirely in dreams.” Editor Karen Berger suggested that the Sandman be created as a new character, “Someone no one’s seen before.”

And so it turned out: Gaiman had an image in his mind of a man, “young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes; Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”

It’s extraordinary how that initial image survived as the opening chapter of Preludes & Nocturnes, and how the scenario of an imprisoned Lord of Dreams was arrived at and then resolved. What’s even more extraordinary is how the series developed into The Sandman Library, with its thirteen volumes all going on to achieve cult status and, more than three decades later, to morph into an adaptation for a streaming service. But for someone like me coming completely new to it is it, was it, worth the hype?

Continue reading “Night music”

The missing hat

New York City 1926

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books, 2012 (1931).

For a classic noir thriller with laconic dialogue, dangerous secrets, and violence both threatened and actual, it’s interesting that what struck me more than the realistic and often visceral details in the story were two separate accounts of what I think are meant to be significant dreams. Whether the reader prefers Freudian or Jungian interpretations, the fact is both dreams reveal more clearly than actions or words the psyches of two of the protagonists.

One is of a fish caught by one character and taken and released by another, and the second concerns the release of a swarm of snakes from behind a locked door. Fish, snakes, a glass key – what in heaven’s name do they signify? It may take the diligent reader till the last pages of this 1930s thriller to get an inkling but I think it’ll prove worth it.

Of course the plot initially involves a murder. Ostensibly the mystery seems to invite the question of who did it, but with a few names in the frame the follow-up questions will also involve the how, the why and the when – means, motivation and opportunity – all with the ambivalent Ned Beaumont our psychopomp, albeit one with a compromised conscience.

Continue reading “The missing hat”

An ever-fixèd mark

Nathan Field, 1615 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

King of Shadows
by Susan Cooper.
Heinemann New Windmills, 2001 (1999).

“… Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken …”

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Fiction – and especially fantasy – for children and young adults is often disparaged by a certain class of critic (who should know better) as being light, frivolous or somehow lacking in serious intent or, worse, literary worth. And yet the concerns of young people, their hopes and anxieties, are worth respectful consideration because they are the adults of tomorrow formed by childhood experiences.

So it is with Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, ostensibly a slight timeslip novel where a youngster finds themselves back four centuries in the past, about to perform at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. “Sheer fantasy” may be the verdict of the jaded reviewer, “wish fulfilment” the cynic’s assessment; but the author’s intentions are more than just an entertaining narrative – though it is that as well.

Nathan Field is part of a company of young American actors trained to perform some of Shakespeare’s plays in the newly-built replica Globe Theatre on Bankside in the late 20th century. But on the eve of rehearsals in London the youngster falls ill, and wakes to find himself another Nathan Field in a different London – in 1599.

Continue reading “An ever-fixèd mark”

Theatres of illusion

Giuseppe Badiali, ‘A mausoleum’ (RIBA Drawings Collection)

Stage designs
by Wynne Jeudwine.
Country Life Books, 1968.

If we may accept the definition of fantasy as the act or art of imagining impossible or improbable things, then its manifestation comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, manners and places. Long before moving images on a screen one way to experience a fantasy world was to enjoy it in what the author of this volume terms “the theatre of illusion”.

A key element for the theatre’s visualisation, which steadily developed through the 16th and 17th centuries, was stage design. Graphic art specialist Wynne Jeudwine tells us that the theatre of illusion was concerned “not so much to reflect and enhance the mood of the drama as to create a sense of wonder,” with its ingenious perspective, colour effects and created spaces for movement.

During what the author terms “the years of glory”, between 1640 and 1730, set designers attempted to build on and outdo their predecessors and contemporaries; and though only their drawings remain (most of those in this book chosen from the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects) these sketches have merits as works of graphic art. We nevertheless have to work hard to imagine the impossible or improbable things that may have once been conjured up within their material if illusory forms.

Continue reading “Theatres of illusion”

Polychromancy #WitchWeek2022

#WitchWeek2022. Design after artwork by Bunny Pierce Huffman

In much of the inhabited world (90% of the global population lives in the northern hemisphere) the start of September marks the beginning of meteorological autumn, the season when our thoughts may turn to shorter days, colder temperatures and things sempiternally supernatural.

In just a few fortnights’ time Lizzie Ross and I will be celebrating another Witch Week, an event inaugurated by Lory Hess and inspired by fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones’s novel of the same name.

This year’s theme is Polychromancy, a word concocted via Greek polychromos (‘many-colours’) and manteia (‘divination’) to suggest a focus on fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds. The idea is to explore the work of SFF authors who identify as Black, Asian, Indigenous, or other colours and ethnicities such as Roma – or indeed who claim a multiethnic ancestry.

Continue reading “Polychromancy #WitchWeek2022”

Unostentatious Austen intro #AustenInAugustRBR

Blaize Castle
Blaise or ‘Blaize’ Castle, Henbury, Bristol, mentioned in Northanger Abbey © C A Lovegrove

A Brief Guide to Jane Austen
by Charles Jennings.
Robinson 2012.

For an Austen newbie like me, as I was early in the second decade of the 21st century, this Brief Guide – at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief, however – was an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically.

Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with Austen’s life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media.

Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, the indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships.

Continue reading “Unostentatious Austen intro #AustenInAugustRBR”

The Dead Hand

Town Hall, Y Trallwng / Welshpool

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books, 2011.

Monica had heard all her life that Opportunity knocks but once. But when Opportunity knocks, the sound can bring your heart into your mouth.

Chapter Seven

Young singer Monica Gall is at the core of this novel but, as with all the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (this is the sixth), there is a lot more to his narrative than – in this case – the musical education of an ingénue. The wider aspects of Davies’s mise-en-scène is equally important to him, as it must therefore be for the reader.

Thus the framing device involves a perverse Last Will read in Salterton, Ontario where the previous two instalments of the trilogy take place; as well as a cast of diverse characters we encounter many of Davies’s recurring literary motifs – literature of course, and drama, but also music, pedagogy, Europe, illusion, guilt, humour; and, rambling though the plot may feel at times, there is a sureness of touch and clarity of vision that comes from an author who knows why he wants to say.

And why does he want to say? The novel’s title comes from a passage written by George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century: in it Lord Halifax counsels a softening of personal arrogance and condemnation of others by remembrance of one’s own faults, one’s personal frailties: “they pull our Rage by the sleeve and whisper Gentleness to us in our censures.” And this is Davies’s theme too, the hauptstimme of the final part of his Salterton trilogy: temper judgement with compassion.

Continue reading “The Dead Hand”

Tolkien’s Sidmouth

Tolkien’s Hobbitonon-the-Hill

Many are the parts of Britain that are claimed as the inspiration for The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sarehole in Warwickshire, where Ronald’s widowed mother moved in 1896, is a convincing part-model; then there’s Buckland in Powys, Wales where it’s argued the young Ronald and his younger brother Hilary later spent a holiday with their guardian after their mother’s death in 1904. A recent item by a trainee reporter for Devon Live caught my eye with yet another claim for primacy as the original Shire:

Although you may know that Tolkien had connections with Oxford, you may be less familiar with his affection for the Jurassic Coast. According to his biographers, Tolkien essentially turned Sidmouth into the Shire.

Toby Codd, Devon Live

My not being a Tolkien scholar in any shape or form this assertion was therefore news to me, since I was only vaguely aware of Tokien having been to Devon’s Jurassic Coast on holiday at some stage. But is Sidmouth really the Shire? What’s the evidence for this assertion? Or is it all down to lazy journalism?

Continue reading “Tolkien’s Sidmouth”