Archives for category: Horror

As winter bites I’m recommending a dark book for a dark time of year – “Grendel” by John Gardner. My previous choice (“Black Ships”) was a novel based on an epic poem in Latin (Virgil’s “Aeneid”) retold from a woman’s point of view; this time I’ve gone for a novel based on the great Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” (see my Fantasy Reads post of June 2014) told from a monster’s point of view. “Grendel” was first published in 1971 and reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series in 2015, with a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts. You can get this as an ebook but I cherish my battered Picador paperback which has a wonderfully sinister cover illustration by Michael Leonard and semi-abstract illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Like the complex poem it is based on, “Grendel” doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative. The story is told by the monster himself as he looks back on the events and encounters which led to his reign of terror. In Dark Age Daneland (Denmark), in caverns below a lake filled with fire-snakes, a wordless water-hag gave birth to a son called Grendel. As he grows, this son becomes bored with the clinging company of his devoted mother and the “putrid stinking hole” they live in. He begins to explore the forest surrounding their lake. An attack by a wild bull leads to Grendel’s first meeting with a group of humans led by a warrior called Hrothgar. Grendel’s attempts to communicate with them fail and he has to be rescued by his mother.

Grendel spends years secretly watching the humans who encroach on his forest. He learns about murder and war as he sees rival groups destroy each other. Most ruthless of all is Hrothgar who gradually makes himself the greatest power in the area. A blind harpist arrives at Hrothgar’s meadhall and sings of the glories of the ancient kings of Daneland. King Hrothgar is inspired to believe that he is the ruler destined to bring peace and prosperity to his country. He decides to build a magnificent new meadhall on a hill overlooking the sea. When the hall is finished, the harpist, whom Grendel calls the Shaper, sings of God’s creation of the world and how an ancient feud between brothers (Cain and Abel) first “split all the world between darkness and light”. Grendel, a descendant of Cain, longs to come into the light but when he tries to enter the hall people perceive him as a monster and drive him away.

Grendel still yearns to believe in “the hopeful dreams” of the Shaper but is disillusioned during a conversation with the great dragon who can see past, present and future. The dragon claims that nothing Grendel does will make any difference in the end but still encourages him to scare people “into glory” by acting the monster. When Grendel next gets into a fight with Hrothgar’s soldiers, he discovers that he has become almost invulnerable. For twelve long years Grendel makes murderous night-attacks on Hrothgar’s hall and no-one is able stop him. Then fifteen strangers arrive in Daneland and their mighty leader offers to guard Hrothgar’s hall. Suddenly, “it’s a whole new game” for Grendel….

Is it worth trying this novel if you haven’t read “Beowulf”? My answer is – yes. It helps if you have a basic knowledge of the legend of “Beowulf versus the monsters” but even this isn’t essential. Plot-wise, Grendel himself tells you all you need to know. You may also be worrying that the characters in “Grendel” will speak in archaic and poetic language that is hard to understand. Well, there are some passages of poetry but most of the time Grendel pokes fun at the human tendency to make speeches that are “long-winded, tediously poetic, all lies”. John C.Gardner (1933-1982) was a professor of English literature who specialized in Old and Middle English but he wasn’t a tweedy type – he died in a motorbike accident. He was capable of producing brilliant pastiches of Anglo-Saxon poetry but “Grendel” is also full of contemporary language and deliberate anachronisms. So the dragon explains his views on the universe in scientific terms and a rebellious peasant uses modern political jargon. Though short (120 pages) “Grendel” is a very wordy book but one in which the impact of every word is carefully calculated.

At first glance the original black and white illustrations in “Grendel” look like meaningless squiggles but once you examine them carefully you begin to see the shape of a huge hairy beast. Antonucci’s drawings don’t just show you the monster they illustrate the main theme of the story – Grendel’s search in an uncaring universe for something which would give meaning to his life and death. As he looks back on his “idiotic war” with Hrothgar, Grendel calls himself a “Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men”. Grendel envies animals who simply live their lives without reflection while he is condemned to observe and question everything.  In the course of the novel he explores and rejects many of the ideals and beliefs which people live by, such as patriotism, heroism, revolutionary politics, loyalty to family, romantic love and faith in benevolent or all-powerful deities.

Gardner finds characters in the original poem to embody most of these ideals and beliefs. He uses Hrothgar’s champion Unferth, who is infamous for killing his own brothers, to illustrate the “shoddy reality” of men who claim to be selfless heroes and he allows Grendel to idealize Hrothgar’s beautiful queen for a while before being repelled by her sexuality. Hrothgar is presented as a thug who foolishly comes to believe his own myth. His shining meadhall has a doom-laden atmosphere because a monster within Hrothgar’s family is as dangerous as the one prowling outside. While telling his own story, Grendel exposes and jeers at most of the illusions people cling to but he never quite rejects the power of the Shaper to create beauty and meaning through his poetry. In a controversial book called “On Moral Fiction” (1978), Gardner himself argued that fiction ought to be a force for good. He also criticized contemporary authors for not caring enough about their characters.

It is very clear that Gardner cared about Grendel. The narrative voice he created for this outcast driven mad by poetry is extraordinarily convincing. Grendel describes his own brutal deeds in gruesome detail and with the blackest of humour. He whinges and rants but there are moments of lyrical beauty. This monster’s actions and ideas are fascinatingly unpredictable. He goes through extremes of emotion yet there is always a detached part of his mind mocking his own feelings. Gardner shows Grendel enduring the loneliness of the psychopath who finds it hard to believe that anyone else is real. He cannot even relate to his mother, whom he describes as a “horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature, eyes on fire with useless, mindless love.” The hero (never named in this novel) who is destined to be Grendel’s nemesis accuses the monster of shaping his own dark world. “Grendel” could be read as Horror but like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” it is also story about what makes us human. Gardner’s Grendel is one of Fantasy Fiction’s great anti-heroes. Meet him if you dare. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

Advertisements

I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.

As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.

In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.

I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.

Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of  “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.

An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused.  The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.

Geraldine

www. chalcedon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending “Rotherweird”, a debut novel by Andrew Caldecott set in a very peculiar English town. Since “Rotherweird” has only just been published, the choice is between hardback and ebook. The novel comes with a striking cover design by Leo Nickolls and monochrome illustrations by Sasha Laika, which sounds like an argument for buying the hardback. Sadly, the illustrations are so blurry you might as well go with the ebook version. “Rotherweird” is a difficult book to classify, so I’ve had to invent a new subgenre for it – Cosy Horror.

Ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Rotherweird Valley and the town of Rotherweird have been set apart from the rest of England. The town is ruled by an elected Mayor and an hereditary Herald and has “a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world”. Most of Rotherweird’s inhabitants never leave the valley and outsiders are rarely allowed in but in 2017 several exceptions are made. Corrupt Mayor Snorkel has been bribed to permit ruthless multi-millionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone to restore the town’s Elizabethan manor house, which has been empty for centuries. Slickstone arrives in Rotherweird with an actress and a juvenile thief whom he has hired to impersonate his wife and son.

Another new arrival is Jonah Oblong, a young history teacher who is desperate enough to apply for a post at Rotherweird School. He agrees to take the job but is warned that he must only teach the modern history of the outside world. Any study of the history of Rotherweird itself is strictly forbidden. Once Oblong moves to Rotherweird he is perturbed to discover that his predecessor, another outsider called Mr Flask, vanished without trace after being sacked for looking into the early history of Rotherweird. Oblong soon meets a wide range of eccentric locals, including chivalrous Games Master, Gregorious Jones, fiery scientist, Vixen Valourhand, ex-teacher and biologist Godfrey Fanguin and frustrated shop-assistant Orelia Roc. When Orelia buys a set of four mysterious stones and resells them to Slickstone, who seems to know their purpose, a sinister series of events is set in motion.

With Fanguin’s help, Oblong investigates his predecessor’s disappearence and the meaning of the cryptic notes he left behind. After he witnesses Slickstone display some extraordinary powers and stumbles on the body of a murder victim, Oblong becomes part of a diverse group who are determined to uncover the truth about the town’s origins and foil Slickstone’s evil plans. Some of this group are already surprisingly knowledgeable about the strange history and even stranger geography of Rotherweird. That knowledge will lead the companions into a hidden world of beauty and horror haunted by monstrous beings and the sins of the past. All of Rotherweird is in danger and the Midsummer Fair may be the last chance to save it…

I ought to be cautious when reviewing this novel because the author is a barrister who specializes in defamation and libel law but I must admit that I dithered about whether to recommend “Rotherweird”. Followers of Fantasy Reads may imagine that I take a Pollyanna approach to fiction – seeing the upside of every book and liking everything. This is far from the truth. I only recommend about 20% of what I read and there are plenty of Fantasy novels which I find disappointing or positively hate, such as… No, I vowed not to waste words on bad or boring books so I won’t name them. Books that feature on Fantasy Reads don’t have to be perfect (see my August 2015 post on “The Paper Magician”) but they do need to have some distinctive quality which makes them worth recommending. At first, I believed that “Rotherweird” was going to fail this test because I kept thinking – this is very like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” but not as good. Caldecott lacks Peake’s emotional intensity and gift for poetic language and he hasn’t created powerful leading characters to compare with Steerpike and Titus Groan.

In fact “Rotherweird” doesn’t really have leading characters since it is a story about a place. I’ve chosen to make outsider Oblong the central figure in my synopsis because he is the easiest character for readers to identify with but the novel isn’t like that. Caldecott’s narrative has more than a dozen viewpoint characters and a complex double structure. Events in the town’s present day are interspersed with enigmatic scenes set in the 16th century. Rotherweird’s mix of quaint old-fashioned customs (at one point Oblong finds himself competing in a coracle race dressed as a grasshopper) and cutting-edge Science never seems entirely plausible. For much of the book the numerous story-lines don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The self-consciously eccentric locals can be hard to empathise with – authors please note that coining funny names is not a substitute for proper characterization – and gangling Oblong is not exactly hero material. He is more like a hapless character from a novel by Evelyn Waugh or even P.G.Wodehouse. Caldecott has fun giving Oblong a disastrous love-life but the social comedy in “Rotherweird” tends to work against the Horror elements when these finally arrive. I was disturbed by a creature who is part good woman and part malicious spider but to be honest you can terrify me with the tiniest of spiders.

“Rotherweird” seemed like one for the reject pile until I noticed that I was ignoring my husband at breakfast in order to finish reading this novel. At some point, I’d been hooked by Caldecott’s wayward plot and charmed by his setting. So, what is good about “Rotherweird”? Caldecott does have a strong visual imagination. His style may not be poetic but it is highly readable and pleasingly precise – when Sir Veronal sends for some “flavourless biscuits” they are served “in a white napkin, lined up like poker chips.” Caldecott writes entertaining dialogue which is more literary than natural but that helps to establish Rotherweird as a timeless place, set apart from the rest of the world. It’s an extreme version of the kind of small provincial town often celebrated in English literature – think Cranford or Tilling with added zany machines and weasel-men. Rotherweird lacks some of the main annoyances of modern life, such as traffic jams and mobile phones. This is a place I should like to visit and I got a strong sense that creating Rotherweird was a labour of love for Caldecott.

If you enjoy plots put together like a jigsaw puzzle and intriguing mysteries, “Rotherweird” is the book for you. This novel has mysteries galore. Why has Sir Veronal restored the manor house and what is he trying to remember? Who is the scholarly Countrysider known only as Ferensen and what happened to missing teacher, Flask? What is the purpose of the set of stones and the meaning of some mysterious murals in the church? Why did Rotherweird have to be sealed off from the rest of England and what kind of monster once came to its Midsummer Fair? These questions are answered in the current novel but there are plenty more mysteries left to be explored in the impending sequel, “Wyntertide”. “Rotherweird” is a book to be read for the range of its characters rather than their depth. Sir Veronal Slickstone is a standard Fantasy villain but, due to a last minute plot twist, this doesn’t matter. What I really like is the variety of the “good guys”. The companions are female and male, young, middle-aged and old, and include a cheery pair of inventors, a reckless scientist, a warm-hearted cleaner, a reclusive scholar, a timid bureaucrat who learns to take risks and an authority figure brave enough to break with tradition. I’m looking forward to reading more about this group. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

It is about time that I recommended something by the great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). Isn’t Zelazny the most perfect surname for a writer who inhabited the borderlands between Fantasy and Science Fiction? The novel I’ve chosen, “Jack of Shadows” (1971), is set in a world divided between a magical darkside and a scientific lightside. There are plenty of old paperback copies around but don’t go for the 1974 Corgi edition which I have – its ghastly bat-dominated cover makes “Jack of Shadows” look like the tackiest of Horror stories. The novel was reissued in 2016 in the “Rediscovered Classics” series with a good introduction by Joe Haldeman.

This story begins in the Twilight Lands during the Hellgames. Many powerful beings are competing for the Hellflame trophy but the thief known as Jack of Shadows plans to steal it for the father of the woman he loves. Jack is difficult to defeat because if any shadows are present he can escape into them but he is betrayed by two darksiders who serve the Lord of Bats and beheaded. Jack is annoyed at “having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job”, especially as this means a very long walk back from the Dung Pits of Glyve. During his perilous journey through the horrid realm of Drekkheim he meets a Wise Woman called Rosalie whom he once seduced with promises of taking her to live in his possibly non-existent castle of Shadow Guard. She warns him against letting hatred lead him to “the machine that thinks like a man.”

Jack’s hatred for his enemies does increase when he discovers that his beloved Evene now seems to be the bride of the sorcerer known as the Lord of Bats. After escaping from a cruel imprisonment, Jack visits his only friend, the chained fallen angel, Morningstar, who tells him about the great machine at the heart of the world. Jack breaks the rules by crossing over into the human lightside, where he gets a college-job lecturing on anthropology. He is soon pursued by a terrifying darkside monster known as the Borshin and forced to flee but he already has the information he needs to overpower his enemies. Jack will have his vengeance, even if it costs him his soul. Can anyone stop him destroying the world?

“Jack of Shadows” is a mish-mash of a book which shouldn’t really work and yet this story has fascinated me for years. The plot moves extremely fast and all manner of ideas are crammed into this short novel (only 157 pages). The opening chapters read as humorous Dark Fantasy, rather similar to Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories (see my Post of June 2012) or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (see my Post of July 2014). Initially, nothing is taken very seriously. When the Lord of Bats appears, he’s described as though he was a vampire out of a junk Horror movie and he lives in the absurdly named fortress of High Dudgeon. These jokes make the ensuing psychological duel between Jack and his arch-enemy all the more shocking. When Jack is masquerading as Dr Shade in the science-oriented human world, the story resembles a Crime Thriller before morphing into Horror again as a monster haunts the campus. Once Jack is back among his shadows, the tone darkens even further. There are deliberate echoes of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlow’s version of the Faustus legend, not to mention “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The more successful Jack is in wreaking revenge, the more tragic his story becomes.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Zelazny’s novels are dominated by variations of the same hero/anti-hero. To begin with, Jack seems a typical Zelazny hero – a threatened loner with unusual powers who is willing to question and shatter the rules of his world. What makes Jack distinctive is how close he gets to becoming not just an anti-hero but the villain of the piece. In the early chapters, most readers will like this amusing trickster but we soon get to see Jack’s ruthless side. The more he is denounced as a selfish liar and fantasist, the more Jack is determined to validate his self-image, even if that means forcing everyone else to fit in with his own version of reality.

Zelazny’s female characters aren’t usually memorable but the ones in this book are something of an exception. Sad-eyed Evene becomes a haunting figure as Jack changes from devoted lover to implacable stalker. Rosalie is the human love whom Jack simply forgot to go back for. She has become an old woman while her shadow-Jack has not aged at all. Rosalie has cause to be bitter and vengeful but she chooses forgiveness and acts as the guardian of Jack’s soul and the voice of his conscience.

Jack’s respect for Rosalie and his strange friendship with the angel/demon Morningstar are the two elements which made me want to stay with Jack on his journey through his own personal hells. Morningstar is an unforgettable creation, with his “great, lightning-scarred visage” and his lidless eyes always looking towards a sunrise that never comes. The poetic conversations between Jack and Morningstar are the heart of the novel. Jack is told that, “Everything that lives changes or dies” and that “Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.” Morningstar’s explanations deconstruct Zelazny’s own genre of Science-Fantasy in a disturbing way, so it is fitting that there is a massive apocalypse at the climax of the novel. Many authors would have set a whole series in this complex double world but Zelazny always refused to write a sequel to “Jack of Shadows”. I’m glad that he didn’t because the enigmatic ending allows each reader to finish Jack’s story in her or his own way. Do try it and see which ending you choose.

While writing this post I realized that a book which contains two stories of failed love might not be the most appropriate choice for Valentine’s Week, so here is a quick bonus recommendation. If you are still in a romantic mood (or need cheering up after reading “Jack of Shadows”) you couldn’t do better than Garth Nix’s charming Regency Romance “Newt’s Emerald” (2015). This is now at the top of my list of Georgette Heyer- inspired Fantasy. On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful Newington (Newt) is shown the magical emerald which is her birthright. When the emerald is stolen, Newt disguises herself as a boy and embarks on adventure which will bring her danger and romance. Enjoy. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

My second October book – “Slade House” by David Mitchell – is a very different haunted house story from my previous choice (“Frost Hollow Hall”). I know this recommendation is going to cause me some problems. The first of these is that there are two well known British writers called David Mitchell. Just to be clear, “Slade House” is not by bearded comedian David Mitchell (who always makes me laugh) but by the David Mitchell who grew up in my own home county of Worcestershire and is best known as the author of “Cloud Atlas”. “Slade House” was published in 2015 and is available in paperback (though the hardback cover is creepier) or as an ebook. My next problem is that the unusual structure of David Mitchell’s novels tends to make their plots rather hard to summarize but here goes…

“Slade House” is set in London and tells the stories of five visitors to a house that shouldn’t exist. During World War II Slade House was bombed to rubble and yet every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, somebody finds a small iron door in a wall in Slade Alley. Through it they’ll discover an idyllic garden and a beautiful old house. Once they are inside the house, it is unlikely that they will ever be seen again. In 1979, schoolboy Nathan Bishop is invited to Slade House with his musician mother. In 1988 the house is investigated by Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds and in 1997 by student Sally and her friends in a university Paranormal Society. In 2006 journalist Freya Timms tries to discover the truth about her sister Sally’s disappearance while in 2015 a doctor called Iris Marinus-Fenby is lured through the iron door. All of these people have something in common but only one of them knows what it is.

In the section about Freya, she sets out to interview an old man who is probably a lunatic but who might hold the key to the Slade Alley mystery. She is told an extraordinary story involving a pair of twins with a telepathic link, an occult master of “the Shaded Way” who lived in a secret valley in Algeria, the journey which souls take when they cross “the Dusk between life and the Blank Sea”, and beings known as Atemporals who can create spaces which are immune to time and survive by draining people of their psychovoltage. Freya is being lied to, but not in the way that she thinks. Visitors to Slade House are doomed to learn about how vulnerable and how resilient human souls can be.

The next problem on my list is that David Mitchell is what we’d call in Britain a “Marmite author” – someone you either love or hate. I’m sorry I don’t know what the equivalent term is in other countries; perhaps somebody can enlighten me? I manage to both love and hate Mitchell, often in the course of the same book. At some moments, I think he’s the most profound of writers and at others, the most pretentious. Even when I hate Mitchell’s work I never find it boring and I do think that he often gets a raw deal from professional critics. Reviewers of literary fiction don’t like it when someone they regard as a “serious writer” strays into the realms of Science Fiction or Fantasy (see my April, 2015 post on Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”). Mitchell’s novels are often regarded as somewhere on a scale between difficult and incomprehensible but I’m confident that the super-smart Followers of this blog can cope. Fantasy readers are used to large cast lists and complex time-bending plots.

As well as being a “Marmite author”, Mitchell is a “Magpie author” (feel free to substitute an equivalent bird). He snatches up bits and pieces from myth and folklore, science and philosophy, and a wide range of genre fiction and then puts them together in unexpected ways. The opening chapter of “Slade House” deliberately echoes H.G.Wells’ famous short story “The Door in the Wall”, which features a child discovering “A door leading through a real wall to immortal realities.” Wells’ story is beautiful and sad but not dark. Mitchell’s version rapidly becomes very dark indeed when young Nathan finds a portrait of himself inside Slade House – a portrait with no eyes. As innocents suffer and predators triumph, the novel takes on the tone of a Horror story.

It can also count as a Ghost Story, since Slade House is haunted by remnants of its victims. Contrary to most Ghost Stories, the apparitions are there to warn not threaten. The innocent dead are contrasted with the greediness of souls who will do anything to cling on to life.  An overarching plotline about two battling groups of immortals, which also featured in Mitchell’s previous novel “The Bone Clocks” (2014), could come straight out of many a Young Adult Fantasy novel. It is ingeniously worked out but not particularly original. So there is my fourth problem, how do I persuade you that “Slade House” is still worth a try?

Well, you might find it fun to pit your wits against Mitchell as he tries to mislead and wrong-foot his readers. You may think that you already know how this good versus evil plot is going to work out but you need to stay alert and look out for repeated incidents or details which may be more significant than they seem. Just to give you fair warning, my synopsis contains a similar piece of misdirection. In “Slade House” Mitchell makes use of one of the traditional rules which are supposed to govern interactions between humans and supernatural beings. See if you can spot which one before it’s explained to an unlucky visitor to Slade Alley. Mitchell also springs surprises by making minor characters from one plot strand (such as a passing window-cleaner) vitally important in another. Though he is famous (or infamous) for complex multi-stranded plots, I’d say that Mitchell’s greatest talent is for creating fully-rounded characters -both old and young, female and male. All the background details of his characters’ lives are very convincing, whatever period of history they come from.

In some of his books, Mitchell writes with equal confidence and vividness about everyday life in the near or far future. In “Slade House” he cleverly employs a standard motif from folklore and Fantasy fiction – the traveller ensnared by a false vision – to get to the heart of his characters. Each of the visitors to Slade House is presented with a scenario which seems to fulfil their secret hopes and longings. For example, nervous Nathan is reunited with his estranged father and shy Sally, cruelly nicknamed Oink, suddenly finds herself the most popular girl at a party. The betrayal of these hopes is heartbreaking but this isn’t a depressing novel because it also contains examples of great love and bravery. Unsympathetic characters redeem themselves in their final moments and even the two villains are allowed a genuine bond with each other. Mitchell is a writer who seems to have faith in the amazing potential of the human race.

One final problem – all of Mitchell’s novels are interconnected in strange and complex ways. A character, object or idea from one book may pop up in another and there are fictions within fictions. “Slade House” could be regarded as a sequel to “The Bone Clocks” but there isn’t a straightforward chronology in Mitchell’s fictional universe. Only in the final section of “Slade House” will it make any difference whether or not you’ve read “The Bone Clocks” and the experience is equally good both ways. So, if you’ve been nerving yourself up to try a David Mitchell novel, this relatively simple and short (233 pages) example might be the one to go for. Have a scary but safe Halloween…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley – a novel which shows that if you want a story with strong heroines you don’t always have to go to a female writer.  “The Rook”, which is Volume One of “The Checquy Files”, was first published in 2012 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It is a novel which doesn’t fit neatly into just one genre. “The Rook” could be classified as Urban Fantasy with Science Fiction and Horror elements but it is also a Murder Mystery and a psychological Thriller. O’Malley is an Australian-born writer who was educated in America but “The Checquy Files” series is set in Britain and concerns a very British kind of secret organization.

With “The Rook” you get two heroines for the price of one. At the start of the story our heroine finds herself in a rain-drenched London park surrounded by corpses. She can’t remember how she got there or who she is and even her body doesn’t seem familiar. Fortunately there is a letter in her pocket from her battered body’s previous owner, Myfanwy Thomas, telling her to use the cards in her wallet to check in at a luxury hotel.  Once there, Myfanwy 2, reads another letter from her predecessor, Myfanwy 1, describing how she was warned by several psychics that she was going to be attacked and stripped of her memory. Myfanwy 2 is given a choice between two deposit boxes. One contains the wherewithal for a fresh start abroad; the other all the information she would need to take on Myfanwy 1’s identity and a life of power, wealth and danger.

After surviving another attack, Myfanwy 2 chooses the second option. The next letter in the sequence explains that she has the power to disrupt other people’s control of their own bodies. After this power first manifested in nine year-old Myfanwy 1 she was taken away from her family and raised by a secret organization known as the Checquy Group whose purpose is to protect Great Britain from supernatural threats. The agents of the Checquy (pronounced Sheck-Eh) come in two kinds – Retainers, who are ordinary human beings, and Pawns, who each have some kind of inhuman power. The Checquy are ruled by a Court which always consists of a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Rooks and two Chevaliers. Myfanwy I was unwilling to use her special power in combat but her talents as an administrator caused her to be promoted to the rank of Rook. Myfanwy 2 doesn’t have time to learn much more before she has to turn up at Checquy headquarters and pretend to be the real Rook Thomas.

On her first day, Myfanwy 2 has to deal with her scarily efficient PA, Ingrid, and with Rook Gestalt, a single mind with four bodies – all of them annoyingly blonde and gorgeous. She manages not to throw up when watching the interrogation of a visitor from Brussels who has killed and eaten a prostitute. The Checquy assume that the man has natural inhuman abilities but he turns out to be something worse – a monster created by a group of European scientists known as the Grafters. Back in the 17th century, the Grafters used their surgical skills to adapt men and animals into a monstrous army which invaded Britain. At great cost, they were defeated by the supernatural powers of the Checquy of the day. The Grafters were stamped out – or so it was thought. Now they seem to be attacking Britain again and horrible things begin to happen. Myfanwy 2 surprises her colleagues by being brave and resourceful in the field. The letters left by Myfanwy 1 warn that she cannot necessarily trust those colleagues. Timid Myfanwy 1 was in the process of uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of the Checquy. Rook Thomas is not the woman she once was, so can she unmask the traitors and save the Checquy from their ancient enemies?

Amazon kept telling me that I should buy “The Rook” because I own all of Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” books but I resisted for a long time. Amazon aren’t always right – they are currently convinced that my cat-loving husband has a labrador and keep recommending doggie treats. I love “The Laundry Files” (see my September 2014 post on “The Rhesus Chart”) and I didn’t want to read something that sounded like a pale imitation.  Luckily, I opened a copy of “The Rook” in my local bookshop and was immediately captivated by the wry narrative voice of Myfanwy 2 – “It sounds like I’m the Defence Minister of Ghosts and Goblins, but as long as the job is “all fairly self-explanatory” I’ve no doubt it will be fine. The country might get overrun by brownies and talking trees, but what the hell – there’s always Australia!” The two series do have a similar premise (the existence of a secret branch of the British government which uses both magic and technology to fight supernatural threats) and Stross and O’Malley share a dark sense of humour. It may not be apparent from my synopsis that “The Rook” is a very funny novel. O’Malley doesn’t have Stross’s uncannily accurate knowledge of current trends in management and government policy but he has the British character nailed and he has given his Checquy Group a long and inventive history. There is a delightful running joke about the Checquy having been sent to deal with various situations which readers will recognize as coming from well-known Fantasy stories.

“The Rook” has a wider range of female characters and a more complex structure than any of the “Laundry Files” books. Amnesiac main characters are not uncommon in fiction but the device is used particularly well in this novel. The reader learns about the strange world of the Checquy step by step, just as Myfanwy 2 does. Scenes in which she has to deal with things she knows nothing about such as “tidying up after that outbreak of plague in the Elephant and Castle” and a “scheduled assault on an antler cult” alternate with the new Rook reading carefully prepared briefings from Myfanwy 1. These cover the history of the Checquy and its sister organization in America, the Croatoan, and give detailed accounts of the members of the ruling court, like haughty Lady Farrier who can walk into other people’s dreams or hot vampire Bishop Alrich whose hair changes colour when he drinks human blood. Some of the back-stories in these briefings, such as what happened when a Pawn thought he’d developed a rapport with a dragon’s egg, aren’t necessary to the plot but are gruesomely entertaining.

Myfanwy 1’s more personal letters describe her upbringing and rise to power and her attempts to discover why she is going to be erased. Meanwhile, in the current part of the narrative, Myfanwy 2 is having to cope with increasingly bizarre events including a conversation with a flayed aristocrat in a tank of slime, a house in Bath full of man-eating fungus, and a cocktail party with a very high body count. Further subplots about Myfanwy 2 striking up a friendship with a glamorous American Bishop and an unexpected approach from Myfanwy 1’s sister add to the hefty page count. If you prefer fast-moving linear narratives you might get impatient but as a voracious reader I’ve a lot of tolerance for over-stuffed books. I also appreciated the games that O’Malley plays with genre. Kick-ass Bishop Shantay who can turn herself into metal, represents the flamboyant American comic-book superhero tradition. She’s the perfect contrast to quiet administrator Rook Thomas who, like a character from a classic British Spy novel such as “Smiley’s People”, is so much more formidable than she seems.  The plot of “The Rook” concerns the long-standing and bitter enmity between the supernatural Checquy and the scientific Grafters but it could be interpreted as a dramatization of the perpetual argument between lovers of Fantasy and Science Fiction about which is best. A wonderful twist right at the end of the novel suggests the stance that O’Malley himself might take in this argument.

This plot twist works because O’Malley made me believe that only the woman Rook Thomas has become would think of taking the Checquy in such a startling new direction. Publishers have finally realized that strong heroines sell books but in Fantasy fiction I often get the impression that a male leading role (warrior, wizard etc.) has been automatically replaced by a female one without giving much thought to the differences the change of gender might bring. That isn’t the case with “The Rook”. O’Malley has created a number of complex and interesting female characters. They convince as professional women doing difficult jobs and none of them are in the plot to be somebody’s love interest. Shy and plain Myfanwy 1 could destroy people with a touch but preferred forensic accounting and sitting at home reading Georgette Heyer novels and eating pastries.  Myfanwy 2 is irritated by her predecessor’s dull dress-sense (O’Malley is very good on clothes as an expression of character) but has increasing respect for the courage with which Myfanwy 1 faced her impending destruction. One of the fascinations of this novel is watching Myfanwy 2 develop a distinct personality, starting with small rebellions such as taking cream in her coffee and working up to taking the lead in tackling monsters and traitors.

If both versions of Rook Thomas aren’t enough of an attraction, may I draw your attention to Ingrid, the loyal PA who remains unflappable in dire situations which would reduce most of us to hysteria. How often in Fantasy fiction is a middle-aged, married secretary allowed to shine? “Stiletto”, the recent sequel to “The Rook” features two more appealing heroines, one representing the Checquy and the other, the Grafters. “The Checquy Files” is a series I’ll be sticking with. If you can stomach some quite strong violence, do give “The Rook” a try. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each January I recommend an antidote to the festive season and this year it is `The Book of the Dead’. No, not the collections of funerary texts known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This `The Book of the Dead’ is an anthology of `original stories of mummies and mayhem’ edited by Jared Shurin. It came out in 2013 and is one of a series of interesting anthologies published by Jurassic. You can get it as an ebook but the striking black and white illustrations by Garen Ewing and the creepy cover look better in the paperback edition. As I’m an Egyptologist myself, I am not easy to please when it comes to mummy stories but I found plenty to enjoy in this collection.

`The Book of the Dead’ is introduced by Dr John J. Johnston, Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, and contains nineteen stories by a mix of American and British authors from the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. The anthology is dedicated to one of my favourite Victorian heroines – Amelia Edwards, the remarkable traveller and writer who founded the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 `with the purpose of protecting and raising public awareness of the monuments of ancient and medieval Egypt.’ Since Amelia wrote ghost stories and kept the heads of two Egyptian mummies in her bedroom, I’m sure she would have loved the gruesome delights on offer here. Some of the authors have based their stories on scholarly research but Johnston makes it clear that this was optional because `facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale.’

A few of the stories are actually set in Egypt, such as Gail Carriger’s `The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, The Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar’ (an acidic prequel to her Parasol Protectorate series) and Will Hill’s poignant `Three Memories of Death’. Others follow Ancient Egyptian mummies who have ended up in countries such as America (Paul Cornell’s `Ramasses on the Frontier’), England (Jonathon Green’s `Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies, Rooms 62-3′) or France (Louis Greenberg’s hilarious `Akhenaten Goes to Paris’). Not all the mummies in this collection hail from Egypt. The prize for most grotesque story should probably go to David Bryher’s `The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ in which a space-age Lady Devorguilla has her husband’s mummy grafted onto her back. In `Tollund’, Adam Roberts gives a clever twist to the standard `archaeologists fall victim to the mummy’s curse’ plot by having arrogant Egyptian scholars investigating bog-mummies in primitive Denmark. This story has a wonderful dank and foggy atmosphere and some moments of gut-wrenching horror, though I found its Science Fiction ending rather disappointing.

The Ancient Egyptians didn’t just mummify people. Mummified cats are the inspiration for several stories in this collection, including Jenni Hill’s charming `The Cats of Beni Hasan’ and`Mysterium Tremendum’  by Molly Tanzer, a decidedly unsentimental tale of an undead Pharaoh determined to be reunited with his pet cat after `twenty-seven long centuries’. Hill’s story is based on the historical fact that thousands of cat mummies were smashed up and spread on fields as fertilizer. Other contributors have focused on different indignities which Egyptian mummies have been subjected to, such as their wrappings being turned into paper (Roger Luckhurst’s `The Thing of Wrath’) or their bodies ground up and used as condiments or to make ink (`Bit-U-Men’ by Maria Dahvana Headly). No wonder most fictional mummies come back to life in a very bad mood.

I’m glad to say that all the mummies I’ve encountered have stayed safely dead, but people have long been fascinated by the idea that the Ancient Egyptians used magic and mummification to cheat death. Some of the stories in this volume imagine more modern methods of ensuring that the essence of person never dies, such as an afterlife on the internet (`Henry’ by Glen Mehn). In modern fiction and in Horror movies, those who try to live for ever are often classed as monsters. It seems that we want corpses who refuse to stay in their tombs to be punished, even when their motivation is eternal love. `Old Souls’ by David Thomas Moore is a subtle tale of a relationship spanning many lives which has become a bitter torment, while Lou Morgan’s `Her Heartbeat, An Echo’ describes a museum guard’s tragic obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess weary of immortality. Very few love stories involving mummies have a happy ending.

The tales in `The Book of the Dead’ range in tone from the heartlessly horrific to the hauntingly sad. In between there is a surprising amount of humour. I was particularly tickled by the long-lost mummy of Akhenaten trying to get through French passport control after putting on a wig and a body stocking and slathering his face with bees wax `to look less….dead’.  As you might expect with a multi-author anthology, I didn’t like all the stories but a hit rate of around 70% seemed pretty high to me. If you choose to open this particular `Book of the Dead’ you will get the bonus of finding out how The Egypt Exploration Society is still helping to study and preserve the remains of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. In these troubled times, it is a task that is more urgent than ever. Happy New Year.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk