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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Midnight hag

WordPress Free Photo Library

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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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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Jack a Nory

The Graveyard Book, Volume 1
by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P Craig Russell.
Illustrated by P Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and Stephen B Scott.
Bloomsbury 2014

This, the first volume of the graphic novelisation of Neil Gaiman’s 2008 Gothick award winner, is as one would hope a quite faithful adaptation of the original. The author’s text is itself quite visual, and this must have made it a lot easier for P Craig Russell to produce storyboards that matched the action and the pace of the narrative.

Here won’t be the place to critique Gaiman’s story, nor do I intend to refer to volume 2 of the adaptation in this review; what I will do is outline what worked for me in this presentation and what puzzled me. To misquote Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, “I have come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him;” however, the wording on the epitaph will be even-handed.

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