Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock The Fetch Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast. The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit doppelganger and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) and interweaves these into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family. As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.

I must confess a feeling of connection with Holdstock. Born three weeks after him, I shared his interests in British mythology, history and storytelling until his untimely death in 2009, but came across him only once at an Arthurian conference in Cardiff in the 1990s when he must have been working on his Merlin cycle. I was impressed by the Mythago titles I had read but faintly irritated by his deliberate misspellings of many Welsh-rooted names; no such problem arises with The Fetch, however. More convincing is Holdstock’s highlighting of the family’s claustrophobic life by the occasional foray into the outside world (Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall, London) and of course into the world of the past (I especially liked the reference to early 20th-century descriptions of antediluvian sea creatures in the fossil record).

Holdstock has a soft spot for the theme of the Quest, particularly that of the Holy Grail, and that reappears here in an unusual but, in the context of this story, very relevant way, along with a striking treatment of the Fisher King. All in all, this was for me a very well crafted and haunting tale; my only reservation is the conclusion which is simultaneously rather pat and also rather open concerning the boy Michael and his family. Indeed, his sister Carol and parents Richard and Susan, who all bear very ordinary names while being subjected to not very everyday experiences, are at times well drawn but at other times I feel the motivations for their actions are hard to fathom exactly. The other enigma is the psychic archaeologist Francoise, whose ultimate function as a dea ex machina rather loses this reader’s empathy with her.

One other point: the cover illustration of my paperback edition is full of details that closely echo the details of the text–all except for the doppelganger spirit itself: true, there are elements of a fetish with a gold mask, the fish face of a foetus, the amorphous aspect of a shape-shifting entity, the height manifested by its appearance to the psychic, but where the blood-red colour comes from I have no idea.

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9 thoughts on “Meddling in Nature’s domain

    1. Hope you like it! I seem to have fixated on similacra in my last few posts. They remind me of the observation that rich ladies in iconoclastic Byzantium used to smother icons with love and kisses, secretly taking them to bed with them just like dollies or teddies.

      Marionettes and puppets and pets (the word ‘pet’ is derived from ‘poupette’, ‘puppy’ from French ‘poupee’) all evoke reactions of various sorts as we invest them with a sort of life. I suppose that’s one reason why the Toy Story films were so popular and successful. The Fetch is just a more sinister take (and a familiar one at that) on the same motif.

  1. Holdstock’s Mythago Wood was one of my favourite books when I initally read it – but I didn’t enjoy Lavondyss so didn’t follow up on more of the Mythago Cycle. But you’ve strirred up my interest again,and I’ll keep a look out for the Fetch, I know I’ve seen it around in the past.

    1. Apart from Mythago Wood I know I’ve read its prequel, Gate of Ivory (US title Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn): I have to say they felt very samey. I don’t have any memory of the others, if indeed I ever really read them as opposed to skimming them.

      The Fetch, not being part of that sequence, touches on similar themes but has a different setting, so you might find it a little more enjoyable!

      You might think that as a fan of Arthuriana I might have devoured his Merlin Codex trilogy — Holdstock was expounding about the first of the yet-to-be-published books at the Arthurian conference I mentioned — but reading the back cover synopses about a time-travelling Merlin didn’t attract me at all, I’m afraid.

    1. I’m trying hard — very hard — not to acquire new books until I make a significant dent in my bedside pile. (Having said which, I’ve just finally got a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale.) Stop me if you’ve heard my tale of woe already.

      1. I have 3 piles: one for books I must read immediately, one for books I’ll read as soon as there’s a window in my schedule, and one for books that I think I ought to read but suspect I might not get around to — yet can’t part with either. I went through a library phase, but then found myself buying the books later. It’s an excessively profligate habit, but one I can’t seem to break.

        1. Sounds like a system! I’ve stopped going to the library too — not always the range I’m interested in, plus I was acquiring fines from taking too many books out and not having time to finish them. Cheaper to buy the ones I wanted!

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