Creepily insistent

© C A Lovegrove

‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H P Lovecraft,
in The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories.
Arcturus Books, 2022 (1929).

Published in 1929 when the author was nearly 40, this 1928 novella represents Lovecraft in his fully-fledged antiquarian horror mode, set in one of his preferred New England locales and in the university town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Sparsely settled as parts of Essex County were in the early 20th century, folks there kept pretty much to themselves, leading to some families becoming inbred. And then there’s this one branch of the Whateleys, consisting of the decidedly strange and reclusive Lavinia, her eccentric father known as Wizard Whateley, and her very strange infant Wilbur, father unknown.

The nearby settlement of Dunwich is spooked by odd lights and disturbing rumblings in and around Sentinel Hill, and by the strange foetid smells that emanate from the Whateley homestead. Still, Wizard Whateley pays out good gold for the succession of cattle that are led to the farm though, curiously, the herd never gets any larger.

But when building works at the farm change the house’s internal layout it rouses more than their mild interest, as does the rapid growth and precocious behaviour of young Wilbur, who shares his grandfather’s predilection for ancient arcane knowledge. That predilection leads Wilbur to consult old tomes in centres of academic excellence – including Arkham – but unfortunately his last visit to Arkham triggers a series of incidents soon known as the Dunwich Horror.

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#TDiRS22: Neither Light not Dark

© C A Lovegrove

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1974).

“Though they make me in the form of a creature, yet they are making no more than an offering, as once in older days it might have been a slaughtered cock, or sheep, or man. I am an offering, Old Ones, no more.”

Chapter Eleven

Greenwich, the meridian, marks the notional point when one day becomes the next but is neither, the point of balance when time is an orphan.

The Greenwitch – fashioned from hawthorn and then sacrificed as dawn breaks and a fishing fleet returns to a Cornish village – it too feels like an abandoned orphan, being a creature of Wild Magic and thus subservient to neither the Dark nor the Light.

And, in the interval between Easter and May Eve when spring gives way to summer, this wild child, this scapegoat naturally seethes and is ready to have a tantrum; is there anyone who doesn’t want to use her, who will instead show her kindness and wish for her to be happy?

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Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

130-1

A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

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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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#TDiRS22: 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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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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