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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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An insubstantial shadow

Howard Pyle: How Arthur Drew Forth ye Sword

The Figure of Arthur
by Richard Barber.
Longman, 1972.

Arthur of Albion, published in 1961 when the author was 20, was Richard Barber’s first book on Arthur. The present one is a reaction against the current vision,¹ among others, of a Cadbury-based Arthur:

“[T]he orthodox view of Arthur is in danger of becoming accepted as fact by default of a challenger. […] If it seems that all that has been achieved [in this book] is to offer a different but equally insubstantial shadow we can expect no more.”

This “historical Arthur” postulated by current opinion [1973] is an attractive theory but it has its difficulties, he says.

  1. Documentary evidence in itself is insufficient: the authority of the evidence has to be considered since the writing of history was formerly regarded as a literary activity and not as the objective recording of facts.
  2. Archaeology rarely supplements historical detail but instead “provides the forest which the historian cannot see for trees.”
  3. Psychological traps abound for the unwary; since history abhors a vacuum a shape-shifting figure must be created by each era to fulfil its aspirational requirements.
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Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

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A warm imagination

The Rice portrait, said to be a portrait of the young Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry, painted in 1788 when she was 13.

Catharine, or the Bower
by Jane Austen,
in Catharine and Other Writings
edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993.

“[When] the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading.”

‘Catharine, or the Bower’

Catharine, also known as Kitty, lives with her aunt Mrs Percival at The Grove, Chetwynde, five miles from Exeter, far from “the hot House of Vice” that is London. We may suppose that, as with her author at the time of writing, Kitty is sixteen years old; but we’re immediately told that, unlike her author, she “had the misfortune, as many heroines before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.”

When we discover that her aunt is determined to preserve Kitty’s virtue by closely scrutinising, supervising and warning off any young man that crosses the girl’s path, we recognise that Austen is playing on common fairytale tropes; and so our task appears a simple one – to see how the story plays out. Unfortunately, we don’t get the joy of that because this, begun in 1792 as one of Austen’s first essays in novel-writing, remains incomplete.

Though there is evidence that, a score of years later, she was tinkering with this youthful fragment – removing outdated practices such as powdering the hair, and inserting references to the newly instituted Regency – she never did progress with this promising start. Yet, even at this stage, we can recognise some of her trademark themes.

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Coming to the boil

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Dream House by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jon Riley.
Puffin Books 1989 (1987).

“West Stenning is a sixteenth-century manor house set in rolling Kentish downland, four miles from Ashford and eleven miles from the historic city of Canterbury. Why not join us for a long weekend of writing, music or painting? Courses tutored by professional writers, artists and musicians run from…”

Dream House

West Stenning: a venue in rural Kent where schoolgirl Hannah helps with domestic chores between courses there; which celebrity-mad Dina haunts so she can glimpse or even meet famous people; where Julia, headstrong daughter of an actor tutoring on the course, heads to demand his attention.

Yet, unbeknown to all, Hannah’s younger brother Tom – who has visions of being a town planner and architect – is not only observing them all but, by sharing or withholding information, is also instrumental in deciding the outcomes of each girl’s hopes for the week, none of which are as they’d planned.

Having set everything up all Tom then has to do is to sit back and watch because, as we’re told, “Things were coming nicely to the boil on their own.”

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#Narniathon21: Tales of Narnia

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By way of extending our Narniathon for those who felt bereft after The Last Battle I suggested readers seek out Katherine Langrish‘s excellent study From Spare Oom to War Drobe, subtitled ‘Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year-Old Self.’

As you might guess, this then is “a personal reading of the Seven Chronicles, blending literary criticism with memories of childhood passion for the world of Narnia.” It discusses each of the instalments in chronological order and compares responses in childhood with those we might have as an adult.

As before I give readers the option – should they so choose, Mission: Impossible style – of answering three questions in the comments below, but feel free to add your thoughts on aspects you’d rather talk about.

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All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

The Cartomancer.
by Anne Spillard.
Pan Books 1989 (1987).

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards.

That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in.

This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

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