The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant


Lines ‘ciphered from a torn & tattered Script
found in an ancient Book of Holy Writ;
when thou hast o’ercome th’Initial Dread,
shalt find a timely Ode writ large instead

After thou hast prepared the charmed circle as heretofore describ’d, recite these words with an almighty voice, never wavering.

HAIL, thou that from this Husk’s late gone,
Acknowledge that I adjure thee to come:
Let no harm come to me nor Wight nor any
Living Creature; thus I bind thee fast, to
Own all Service to me, & Obedience,
Who dost bid thee ne’er part from me
Expressly; without Fraud, Dissimulation or Deceit
Enter into Pact to do whate’er desired
Now & evermore, till discharged be!


In a later hand, this followeth:

Continue reading “The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant”


Full of life


Terry Pratchett Johnny and the Dead
Corgi Books 1997 (1993)

With hindsight it’s all too possible to read more into this YA novel than the author intended more than a score of years ago. Is Pratchett’s obsession with death, here and in other of his novels, some kind of premonition of his debilitating illness or, as I suspect it is, merely his continuing exploration of and creative attempts to deal with one of the big questions that we all contemplate at some time or another — namely, is there any kind of life after our departure from this world? And how do we cope with that while we still have this life?

Johnny and the Dead is the second in a loose trilogy about teenager Johnny Maxwell who lives in a Midlands town called Blackbury. Alone among his three friends — Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less — he finds he is able to see the dead in the local cemetery. More than that, he is able to speak to them. They are livid — well, as much as the disembodied can be said to be livid — when they discover that the cemetery has been sold to some developers, the distinctly anonymous United Amalagamated [sic] Consolidated Holdings.

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When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

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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