Philip Pullman: Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)
Exactly four decades ago this year  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.
Jane Austen Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008
“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”→
Joan Aiken The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)
Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).
Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.
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!
Joan Aiken really was an extraordinary author, one whose work I’m still exploring but for whom I have the greatest of respect as well as fondness. She had a gift for composing in different genres and for different audiences, displaying now a sense of poignancy, now a touch of mischief, by turns sprinkling magic dust or holding a mirror up to human nature. And she accomplished all this with no hint of the grandeur or hauteur often associated with the archetypal Great Writer.
Though she frequently wrote for adults Joan remains best known as a children’s author, especially for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. I’ve promised myself a reread of all twelve titles but I’ve been an ardent fan for some years now, making copious notes, some of which I’ve already included on this blog.
Attached are some draft notes on common motifs I’ve noticed in the series; they’re not complete, and I know there must be mistakes, but you can see where I’m heading with this. Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these; instead, I’ve just listed some of the more obvious patterns Joan seemed to reiterate in most of the books. Now I know that throwing motifs together is not a substitute for good storytelling, rather a way of structuring the narrative to conform to audience expectations; used clumsily it too often smacks of cliché and lazy authorial habits. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with wit and imagination and peopled with characters you can really care about (like the near ubiquitous Dido Twite) a solid framework of motifs can only help a story’s architecture to withstand all the withering attention that the critic will condescend to heap on it.
Whether you’ve read any — or indeed none — of the Wolves Chronicles (also called the James III sequence) you might still enjoy seeing how the idées fixes I’ve identified permeating the series are echoed in other literature, from myths and legends through fairytales and classics to modern novels and films.
Chuck Dixon Batman: The Chalice Illustrated by John Van Fleet
DC Comics 1999
Into Bruce Wayne’s hands is entrusted an object for safekeeping. Once sought and guarded by his medieval ancestors, the house of Gevain, the Holy Grail — for this is it, a relic missing since the time of the Crusades — proves a dangerous legacy for Wayne to guard, even when he is in his guise of Gotham City’s finest, Batman. Shall I list those who also seek the cup for its power? Ra’s al Ghul, the Penguin, Catwoman, Ubu, the Brotherhood of the Merivingians [sic] for a start. Lined up on the caped crusader’s side are Alfred, Azrael, the Oracle and Commissioner Gordon, but will they be enough to hold off the dark forces that hanker after the sacred receptacle? Or will Bruce be forced to call upon a more superior being to spirit it away. Continue reading “Crusader with a cape”→
Susan Hill Printer’s Devil Court
Profile Books 2014 (2013)
Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill. The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?
Enid Blyton Five Go Adventuring Again Illustrated by Eileen A Soper
Hodder Children’s Books 1997 (1943)
The second in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Five Go Adventuring Again as before features siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), together with their eleven-year-old cousin Georgina– hereinafter George — and her dog Timothy (also variously referred to as Tim, Timmy and a ‘peculiar-looking’ and ‘terrible mongrel’). Published the year after Five on a Treasure Island but set during the Christmas holidays of the same year, this outing for the quintet also involves intrepid youngsters, unbelieving grown-ups and a few dastardly villains.
Circumstances dictate that the trio again spend time at Kirrin Cottage by the sea where, not unexpectedly, trouble finds them. In 1943 Britain was still at war, though you’ll find no reference to the conflict bar the fact that a secret formula is close to being stolen by enemies of the state. Continue reading “Secrets galore”→
Benjamin Lee The Frog ReportPuffin Books 1978 (1974)
Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.
This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this? Continue reading “Slight but entertaining”→
Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010 Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)
The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.
This bleak novella is set in an isolated valley called the Sink, somewhere in Western Australia. The inhabitants of three houses — Maurice and Ida Stubbs, Murray Jaccob and Ronnie Melwater — all have secrets which, in the normal run of things, would just stay secrets. Except, with the arrival of an unseen predator which starts attacking livestock — a dog, geese, ducks, a goat, a kangaroo, sheep — these secrets come creeping out of their past, into their dreams and out into reality. What is this predator? A feral cat? A mange-ridden fox? Wild dogs? A Big Cat escaped from a circus trailer? Or something more rare, something out of the Southern Continent’s dark prehistory? And how does its unpredictable presence impact on the guilty feelings of individuals and their relationships with each other?
Alan Garner The Moon of Gomrath
Endpaper maps by Charles Green
Jacket design by George Adamson
Collins 1970 (1963)
“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”
This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.
Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011
Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.
The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”→
Robert Holdstock Gate of Ivory
Voyager 1998 (as Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn 1997)
At the heart of this fantasy is the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen, but there are also echoes of other Celtic texts including The Spoils of Annwn, motifs from classical mythology and references to more recent fiction such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian Huxley, like his father before him, ventures into an ancient woodland — Ryhope Wood — peopled by figures from myth and legend and emanations from dreams and imaginations, following a personal quest born in tragic circumstances. Continue reading “Enter at your peril”→
Joan Aiken The Teeth of the Gale
Red Fox 1997 (1988)
The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.
As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way. Continue reading “Building castles in Spain”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.