About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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Pattern seeking

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Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] 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.

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The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992

Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.

The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

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Spooky portal fantasy

Neil Gaiman: Coraline. The Graphic Novel
Adapted and illustrated by P Craig Russell
Colourist: Lovern Kindzierski; letterer: Todd Klein
Bloomsbury 2008

Gaiman’s Coraline is a chilling portal fantasy, a warped version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) as seen through a distorting prism, and here impressively presented in graphic novel form. Coraline’s family moves to a flat in an old decaying mansion, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their work to pay much attention to her. In her boredom, exasperated at the rather dotty aged residents in the other flats, she explores the house and eventually finds a locked door.

Though it’s bricked up she soon somehow finds herself through on the other side, only to find herself confronted by a psychic vampire of an ‘other’ mother with button eyes, eventually becoming trapped in a nightmare existence. However, just as Alice had both her Dinah and the Cheshire Cat, Coraline has a feline helper as adviser and companion, guiding her through the labyrinth and assisting her with the tricksy obstacles the other mother puts in her way.

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The mood is melancholy

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Joan Aiken: Bone and Dream
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2002

The final novelette in Joan Aiken’s St Boan trilogy (sometimes called the St Ives trilogy) again features Ned Thorne, his Aunt Lal and Uncle Adam Carne during a spell in a Cornish seaside town. Summoned another time by his aunt to ‘sort out’ a little problem, he takes a bus instead of the train he took in In Thunder’s Pocket and notices a very clammed-up anxious girl on the same journey. It turns out she — Jonquil is her name — is taking over from her sister Fuchsia to be the new ‘muse’ for a rather overbearing poet called Sir Thomas Menhenitt, the Poet Laureate of Wessex. And Sir Thomas (his surname is genuinely Cornish) is as scary as his reputation suggests; Ned remembers his lines about encountering a thrush, which in fact perfectly sum up people’s reaction to him:

All I had wanted was to hear him sing,
My presence made him flinch and take to wing . . .

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Keys to mystery

Joan Aiken: The Song of Mat and Ben
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

Ned Thorne has had a dream similar to one his Aunt Lal has had, of two cherubic-faced boys in old-fashioned clothes entering the bookshop run by his Uncle Adam. Returning — not without mishap — to the Cornish town of St Boan, young Ned has to combat with blizzards, bullies and human bugbears, the ghostly appearances of those twins being just the prelude. The key that helped him solve a mystery in the first story, In Thunder’s Pocket, may prove to have a crucial part to play in The Song of Mat and Ben.

As well as the supernatural, the second novelette in the St Boan Mystery trilogy focuses on an artistic endeavour, much as the first dealt with sculpture and the third will feature poetry. This time it’s music, as the title makes clear: the song is a ballad about the siblings, Matthew and Benjamin Pernel, whose demises a century before has caused ripples of resentment down the years. The questions the reader will inevitably ask are, Does Ned manage to solve the mystery? and How are things resolved? As usual, Joan Aiken doesn’t disappoint in bringing things to unexpected but satisfying conclusions.

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Cornish dream

Replica vitreous enamel sign

Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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