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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Witching hour

We’re just over a week away from All Saints or All Hallows Eve, in case it had somehow slipped your mind in our modern commercialised world.

In the pagan Celtic period it was the start of Samhain in Ireland and Scotland, and in Wales Hallowe’en is Noson Galan Gaeaf, ‘the eve of the first day of winter’. When the start of winter was christianised in the 8th century the feast of All Saints was transferred here from the Pentecost period; no doubt this was due to ancestor worship traditionally being marked on the cusp of winter — with guising and offerings of food and drink at the graveside by the descendants of the deceased to appease their spirits — and therefore an apt time to honour all the saints and other souls who had gone before.

Myself, I don’t go for the partying or the trick-or-treating or the churchgoing, but I’m happy to mark the occasion online by offering a few words about Hallowmas on this post.

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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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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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In the lion’s den

Anne Fine: The Devil Walks
Corgi 2012 (2011)

A spiral has but one path to the centre, and like a whirlpool it may seem to suck you into its depths. A maze, however, gives you options, a chance to follow a different way should you so choose.

Anne Fine’s Gothick novel, aimed at young adults but no less engaging for more senior readers, offers its protagonist Daniel similar chances to escape the spiralling path of his life, one which seems to have consigned him to the life of a recluse in a sick room, fated to a permanent limbo of existence.

Until a Doctor Marlow comes calling, and releases him into the world. But at what a cost, one that will mean pain and death for some, and pangs of misery for our Daniel: will he have been freed from one lion’s den only to find himself in another?

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Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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