The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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An abyss next to you

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Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

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Three legs bad

An Alpine acalanche

The White Mountains
by John Christopher.
The Tripods trilogy I.
Collier Books / Macmillan Publishing 1988 (1967)

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

There’s nothing like a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel to take your mind off current ills, providing that what’s described doesn’t approach too closely to reality. That’s the case with the first of Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, which seems to describe a time which may be in the 2060s, roughly a century after when the novel was first published. There are echoes of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) along with aspects of medievalism which are reminiscent of Keith Roberts’ alternative history novel Pavane (published a year after The White Mountains) and Peter Dickinson’s dystopia in The Weathermonger (also 1968), but Christopher’s novel has a quality all of its own.

Will is thirteen years old, living in the village of Wherton somewhere in Hampshire, not far from Winchester. He has not yet been Capped by the Tripods but his friend Jack is about to be, in what is evidently a coming of age ritual. He has anxieties about how this will change him, a state that is compounded by conversations with a mad-seeming Vagrant, who spouts bits of Shakespeare and Shelley — he calls himself Ozymandias and sings fragments of songs like Tom O’ Bedlam — but informs Will of resistance to the Tripods in what is known as the White Mountains.

Will determines to escape the conformity that has been imposed on those Capped by the Tripods, but is encumbered by Henry, his bullying cousin, who discovers his plan and insists on accompanying him. And so begins a journey to the White Mountains that involves a sea journey, a traverse of an abandoned French capital, a horse-drawn journey by chemin de fer and a spell in a French château. All the while there is the menace of the Tripods and the fear that the cousins and their new companion Beanpole are being tracked.

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A dangerous bunch

Bookshop interior

The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
Gollancz 2020

At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:

“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”

And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.

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Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

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Midnight hag

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I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett,
illustrated by Paul Kidby.
Corgi Books 2011 (2010)

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is’t you do?
Macbeth IV/1

Terry Pratchett is full of surprises. Because this, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of Discworld novels, is marketed as ‘for younger readers’ one might not anticipate that this is considerably darker than its predecessors, despite the expected humour and wit. And yet, with Tiffany being fifteen going on sixteen, perhaps with her growing maturity a more realistic view of what’s possible in Discworld is inevitable.

Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Pratchett’s collection A Slip of the Keyboard, noted that “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” and that is more than evident here in the stark opening and much of what follows. Some of that rage may have been tied up with his diagnosis for Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, but he had always been furious about injustices and that comes through very strongly here.

But don’t think I Shall Wear Midnight is a miserable instalment in Tiffany’s story: this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale, even for a young witch who’s already mature and responsible beyond her years. The interweaving of the traditional folksong Pleasant and Delightful gives — for old folkies like me, born the same year as Pratchett — the story an added piquancy with its themes of love, leave-taking and loss, and may bring a tear or two to the eye.

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Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

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Intrepidity personified

Detail from front cover design

The Black Island by Hergé (Georges Remi).
L’île noire (1956) translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner (1966). 
Egmont 2009

Young reporter Tintin doesn’t find trouble, trouble finds him. Like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot he just happens to be on hand when dastardly deeds are being committed; yet despite setback after setback he remains intrepidity personified.

This is no more evident than when his efforts to help those in a stricken aircraft during a casual stroll in the Belgian countryside are viciously rebuffed, leading in time to an impromptu cross-channel trip to Sussex followed by a flight to Scotland.

And all the while we are left to wonder how a teenage newspaper reporter somehow always seems to be the subject of press reports but never the writer of them, and how the long arm of the law seems to always be grasping the wrong end of the stick.

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Lost beneath the sea

Mevagissey in the 1960s

Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper.
The Dark Is Rising sequence 3,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Puffin 2019 (1974)

This is a book with magic in its pages, its phrases, its words. There were moments when my neck hairs rose, especially during the making of the Greenwitch, and times when I was transported by the sheer poetry within a paragraph or passage. If this short novel in Susan Cooper’s five-book fantasy sequence occasionally feels poised between revelation and resolution, that’s no doubt because it’s the middle book in the series: it’s here where earlier strands become more intertwined but where we can’t yet see the whole picture. But to me it’s the quality of the writing which holds the attention, and because Greenwitch is virtually a novella in length I think its brevity works in its favour, making the story more intense.

As the novel opens we realise it’s the Easter after the events in Over Sea, Under Stone (published in 1965), with news of the theft of the so-called Trewissick grail from the British Museum where it had been donated by its finders the Drew children Simon, Jane and Barney. Before they can get too het up over the relic’s disappearance relatives get in touch offering them a holiday break in south Cornwall, at the fishing village where their adventures had all begun.

Coincidentally — or perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence — young Will Stanton, whom we met in The Dark is Rising (1973) and who is more than he at first seems, is invited by Merriman Lyon, the Drew children’s great uncle, to take the next step in the conflict against the Dark, which of course will take them down to that Cornish village where the Drews are now already ensconced. Naturally their hackles are raised by the appearance of a strange boy, especially one who doesn’t appear to mind their natural suspicion or quiet antagonism. But soon all will have their attention focused on the strange artist at work down by the harbour.

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Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

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Bluebeard’s Castle

tower door

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)

Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate

Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.

In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.

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A wanting, a yearning

Lark by Anthony McGowan.
The Truth of Things 4,
Barrington Stoke 2020 (2019)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a stroll, a laugh.

A lark.

Going for a walk on the Yorkshire moors when you’re underprepared is never a good idea. Especially when snow is on the way,and you’ve set off later than you should have. And when you’re responsible for your brother who has learning difficulties.

Teenager Nicky and his older brother are filling in time before their mother flies in for a visit with the boys and their father, from whom she’s divorced. As a way to distract them from excitement mixed in with some anxiety, their father suggests a little expedition on a walk he used to do as a lad.

But Nicky is inexperienced and underestimates the dangers involved; it’s a lot of responsibility to load onto his shoulders. It’s all very well to buoy up Kenny with stories he has thought up — until they find themselves embroiled in a real-life story which mayn’t have a happy ending.

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Picturesque prosody

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

A Sicilian Romance
by Ann Radcliffe,
edited with an introduction and notes by Alison Milbank.
Oxford World’s Classics 1998 (1790, 1821 edition)

The commission of one crime often requires the perpetration of another. When once we enter on the labyrinth of vice, we can seldom return, but are led on, through correspondent mazes, to destruction. — Chapter XV

Ruinous castles, subterranean passages, tempest-tossed shipwrecks, bloodthirsty bandits, damsels in distress, villainous rulers, picturesque scenery, murder most foul — if anything defines the Gothick novel it is a selection of these features. And A Sicilian Romance, one of the early examples of this genre, has these in bucket loads.

In addition, setting her story in the island of Sicily allowed Ann Radcliffe full rein to indulge in the frissons of horror and bewilderment that her readership expected, gleaned from travellers’ tales and from the dramatic pictorial landscapes that proliferated during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this, her second ever novel — this text is that of the 1821 edition — the author produced a fine novel in the Gothick tradition which, despite a few infelicities in factual detail and unlikely coincidences, still thrills the reader with its account of moral retribution.

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Cruel as the grave

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

Till September Petronella
by Jean Rhys.
Penguin Modern: 13,
Penguin Books 2018

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.” — Song of Songs, 8:6

This selection of four short stories of contrasting lengths have been well chosen, their semi-autobiographical nature spanning the author’s lifetime from a Caribbean childhood to an ill-advised revisit, their themes of alienation, loneliness and depression mirroring the author’s own experiences.

One might think such bleak writing might be of a nature best avoided, but the power of her simple yet expressive prose, seemingly artless but nevertheless exquisitely crafted, is hypnotic and at times dreamlike. I was captivated and felt, paradoxically, both protective and utterly useless: here was a human being expressing her hurt and sense of drifting and yet I was unable to help.

Three of the pieces are told in the first person, a fact which to me strongly suggests a degree of autobiografiction, and though the final piece — less than two pages long in this edition — is in the third person, almost as if she is standing apart from herself, sadly observing and grieving for the person that she was. In such a context it feels close to a form of literary disassociation.

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