Willoughby Chase is a place

The fictional town of Blastburn features in these two novels

“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.

The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.

And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.

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Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

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Put through the mill

Blastburn illustration: Simon Bartram 2014

We continue our explorations (note: with *spoilers*) of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) by listing those people mentioned as living in Blastburn, the town in the northeast of Albion that features in this alternate history fiction, set in 1842.

Though truly no justification is needed as to why I go into such detail, here is a brief summary, a kind of apologia, of my reasons:

  1. Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
  2. Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
  3. Education, education, education — discovering the hows and whys, the whos and whats, and the whens and wheres of the plot and characters encourages one to range widely outside the confines of a book’s narrative, revealing gaps in this reader’s (and perhaps others’?) knowledge and understanding. No bad thing, in my book.

In fact all about Exploring the world of ideas through books!

And now, on with the show.

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Not too long to readalong #WilloughbyReads

A reminder that in next to no time Ben Harris (@one_to_read) will be hosting a readalong of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on Twitter, using the hashtag #WilloughbyReads.

If you’ve never read it before but always wanted to, then now’s your chance to join in; and if like me you have already read it but fancy discussing it and seeing what thoughts others entertain about it, you’d be welcome too!

Ben plans that “days 1-11 will have a question about each chapter, an activity of a kind, and a question relating to JA’s writing ethos,” while “days 12-14 will be general”.

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The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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Joan Aiken’s Blastburn

Kingston Upon Hull as Blastburn, in Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (credit here)

Another post in my series exploring the ins and outs of Joan Aiken’s paracosm Midnight is a Place (1974) set in an alternate Britain she calls Albion.

This time I’m taking a closer look at the fictional industrial town of Blastburn, making an assumption that it’s in the region of Kingston upon Hull in East Yorkshire, maybe even contiguous if not actually occupying the same equivalent space.

In fact, I’m going further by basing Blastburn on Hull’s Old Town, the core of the medieval settlement bounded by the river Hull to the east and the Humber estuary to the south.

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Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

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