Archives for posts with tag: Literary Fantasy

As we’re still within the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I’m going to continue the theme of Christmas ghost stories by recommending “The Inn at the Edge of the World” by British author, Alice Thomas Ellis. This novel was first published in 1990. Second-hand paperback copies are easy to find and it has recently become available as an ebook. Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) was renowned as a literary editor and novelist so she may not seem an obvious choice for Fantasy Reads. However, she often drew inspiration from British folklore and many of her novels feature elements which can be interpreted as supernatural.

“The Inn at the Edge of the World” is set on an (unnamed) island off the west coast of Scotland. Eric has left the “horrid comfort” of a boring life in England to fulfill his romantic dream of running a small hotel “at the edge of the world”. It isn’t going well. The inn is unprofitable, Eric doesn’t get on with most of the locals and his bored wife, Mabel, longs to return to city life. In a last effort to drum up custom, Eric places an advert suggesting that people who are dreading the Festive Season should come to stay in his remote hotel in a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas – the islanders get drunk on New Year’s Eve instead.

Mabel thinks that the advert is silly but it attracts five guests from England. She flounces off to Glasgow just as these visitors arrive on the island. They are Jessica, a charming actress best known for doing voice-overs for commercials, Jon, a handsome young actor who claims to be much better acquainted with Jessica than he actually is, Ronald, a psychoanalyst whose wife has just left him, Anita, who runs the stationary section in a London department store, and Harry, a retired soldier who once lived on the island. Eric manages to look after his guests with the help of local handyman, Finlay, and his silent, web-fingered sister-in-law.

The five guests socialize with the regular customers in Eric’s bar, who are mainly well-off people from the mainland with holiday homes on the island. The true islanders prove harder to fathom. Several of the guests join in a ghost-hunt and Jessica learns about tragic events in Harry’s past. As everyone tries to ignore the season of goodwill, there are disquieting incidents – a fence is repeatedly torn down, a mysterious boy keeps appearing near the inn and the local seals behave strangely. It gradually becomes apparent that one of Eric’s guests is in danger and another is probably insane. Who will survive Christmas at the edge of the world?

Alice Thomas Ellis was the pen-name of Anna Haycraft. Like Alison Uttley (see my last post), Haycraft was a woman of fascinating contradictions. Though she came from a family of atheist intellectuals, she grew up to be both a devout Roman Catholic and a fierce critic of the Catholic Church. She nearly became a nun but eventually married a publisher and had seven children. She spent most of her time in cities but seems to have felt most of home deep in the Welsh countryside. Her lifestyle was famously Bohemian but her writing was highly disciplined. Her novels are black comedies which deal with serious moral and spiritual issues. Haycraft claimed to reject Feminism but the heroines of her novels are often strong, free-thinking and free-loving women.

None of Haycraft’s elusive novels fit neatly into established genres. I might classify “The Island at the Edge of the World” as Literary Fantasy but it could also be called a social comedy, a ghost story, a moral tale, or even a “woman in peril” thriller. Let’s take the comedy first. Haycraft’s accounts of her chaotic domestic life, collected as “Home Life” volumes I-IV, are among the funniest books I know and a great consolation to hopeless homemakers everywhere. Her novels are comic in a much darker way, so don’t expect sweetness, sentimentality or conventional happy endings. Haycraft enjoyed taking urban sophisticates out of their comfort zone and subjecting them to boredom and bafflement in the countryside until their certainties are stripped away. In this novel she shows little mercy towards comic characters like pompous Ronald and pretentious Anita. Ronald is depicted as a man stuffed with academic knowledge about the human psyche who hasn’t a clue about how to relate to actual human beings. I do feel that Haycraft is a bit hard on poor Anita, who pretends to be a fashion-buyer because clothes are more glamorous than stationary and longs to be thought of as a “real woman”.

Critics have often found the mix of comedy and tragedy in Haycraft’s novels unsettling but part of the point of “The Inn at the Edge of the World” is that most of its characters don’t know what kind of story they are in. For some, their stay on the island will be a comedy of errors; for others a shocking tragedy or a longed-for release. Jessica mocks the melodramatic plight of the heroine of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (the only novel she has with her)  not realizing that she herself has been cast as the central figure in somebody’s grand obsession. Only Harry, a man who has lost two loved ones in the prime of their lives, expects the island’s ghosts and journeys clear-eyed towards his destiny. Haycraft herself had to endure the deaths of two of her children. She writes about life-long grief in a precise and understated way that I find intensely moving.

The supernatural elements in “The Inn at the Edge of the World” enhance both the tragic and comic aspects of the story. The novel’s viewpoint characters – Eric and his five guests – are all outsiders in the context of the island. Cynical Eric is scathing about the bogus crafts and customs which the islanders sell to tourists but is unaware of the deeper level at which ancient ways and beliefs continue. Most of Eric’s customers think of themselves as superior to the superstitious locals but it is the visitors who aren’t seeing things clearly. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the visitors’ failure to recognize ghostly encounters while they are having them or to notice the extraordinary, even when it is serving them breakfast. Like Margo Lanagan in her brilliantly written novel, “The Brides of Rollrock Island” (see my Fantasy Reads post of November 2013), Haycraft has updated the legend of seal-woman (Selkies) who marry humans, with emphasis on the domestic drudgery they are subjected to.

One of the things I like about Haycraft’s work is the way that she transforms unsympathetic characters by giving them what I would call luminous moments. Eric’s barely suppressed hatred for his customers is played for laughs but he has moments when he is still overwhelmed by the wild beauty of the island. Something he glimpses in the final part of the story alters his perception of the boundary between life and death. Actress Jessica is sometimes vain and shallow but she is redeemed by kind impulses and flashes of self-awareness. Jessica experiences both physical and spiritual danger on the island and realizes that turning her back on Christmas is a symptom of turning her back on life. There is no tinsel or jollity in this Christmas story but “The Inn at the Edge of the World” still makes you believe in the importance of celebrating human contacts and the renewal of hope at the darkest time of the year. Until next year….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

 

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 a book which has caused some consternation in literary circles – `The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. It only came out a few months ago, so it’s available in hardback and as an ebook but not yet in paperback. Professional reviewers tend rigidly to divide writers into `literary authors’ and `genre authors’. They don’t like it when someone who has been labelled as a `literary author’ dabbles in different genres. It was bad enough when Ishiguro attempted something approaching Science Fiction (`Never Let Me Go’) but now that he’s written an Arthurian Fantasy the critics are either throwing up their hands in horror or pretending that, even though it contains ogres, pixies, Knights of the Round Table and a dragon,`The Buried Giant’ doesn’t really count as Fantasy. Maybe the pixies were a step too far but I hope that my readers are open-minded enough to judge the story on its own merits.

`The Buried Giant’ is set in Dark Age Britain some years after the death of King Arthur, who led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons. Now Britons and Saxons have learned  to live side by side and the country is at peace. In a small village dwell an elderly British couple known as Axl and Beatrice. Like their fellow villagers, this devoted couple are affected by a dementia-like mist of forgetfulness which it makes it impossible to remember much about the early days of their marriage and hard to keep more recent events fixed in their minds. They can’t even recall why their son lives in a different village but they feel that the time has come for them to visit him, even though the journey will be difficult and dangerous.

After a troubling encounter with a mysterious boatman, Axl and Beatrice take shelter in a Saxon village which has recently suffered an ogre-attack. A visiting Saxon warrior named Wistan kills the ogres and rescues a wounded boy but the superstitious villagers turn against the child.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take the boy with them to their son’s village but first they want to consult a holy man in a mountain monastery about Beatrice’s health. Wistan rides with them because he has a mission to fulfil in the mountains but he’s forced to disguise himself as a `half-wit mute’  in order to evade the British soldiers who are hunting him. During their journey, the group meet an aged knight who seems to recognize Axl. The knight turns out to be Sir Gawain, who tells them that long ago his uncle King Arthur entrusted him with the task of slaying the fearsome local dragon, Querig.

After a fatal fight, the group reaches the monastery but it proves to be a place of dark secrets. All four travellers are soon in danger and must flee for their lives. Wistan is determined to banish the magical mist of forgetfulness that hangs over the land. Beatrice supports him because she wants to remember all the details of her family life. Axl increasingly fears the guilt that returning memories might bring. Ending the enchantment will involve more deaths. Is that a price worth paying for justice? Or will the hero accomplishing his quest cause the innocent to suffer as much as the guilty?

Some `literary authors’ are embarrassingly ignorant of genre fiction, so when they attempt Science Fiction or Fantasy it’s like watching someone re-invent the wheel. Ishiguro seems much more knowledgeable. He likes to play with a genre and transform it for his own purposes.  The cloning-people-for-spare-parts plot of `Never Let Me Go’ was unoriginal and implausible and yet it was a truly haunting novel (and later, film). The plot of `The Buried Giant’ is largely put together from standard Fantasy elements whose origins aren’t hard to trace – various Arthurian Romances, parts of `Beowulf’ and a dash of Ingmar Bergman’s `The Seventh Seal’ – but the atmosphere of the novel is distinctive and disturbing. Have you ever had one of those nightmares in which you’re sure that you’ve done something terrible but can’t remember what and the guilt still lingers after you wake up? Well, reading `The Buried Giant’ is rather like re-living that nightmare.

The giant of the title may be a metaphor for buried truths but thankfully the journey of Axl and Beatrice is more than a simplistic allegory; it is a touching portrait of a long marriage and a gripping story in its own right. After a slow start, Ishiguro establishes a constant sense of menace; a feeling that something dreadful is about to happen or perhaps already has happened. If you like everything in a novel to be clearly explained as you go along, you won’t enjoy `The Buried Giant’, but if you are willing to surrender some control to the author and stumble along in a fog of ignorance, like Beatrice and Axl, there will be rewards. Usually when an author reworks traditional material, such as the legends of Arthur and his knights, it is still fairly obvious how the story will play out. That isn’t the case with `The Buried Giant’. The four leading characters constantly surprise the reader and themselves because, if you’ve lost most of your memories, how do you know what kind of person you are? Hero or terrorist? Peacemaker or betrayer? Loving spouse or cruel adulterer?

The plain, almost banal language which Ishiguro uses somehow makes the darker aspects of the story more chilling. `The Buried Giant’ is Horror fiction in the sense that it deals with the physical and emotional horrors which people inflict on each other – often in the name of a `higher good’. Like many of the best Fantasy authors, Ishiguro uses the conventions of the genre to explore challenging ideas and to ask difficult questions. Questions such as – Must everyone face death alone? Can there be true peace without justice? Is it ever right to hate a whole race because of the actions of its leaders? Does the concept of a forgiving god encourage people to forgive themselves for unforgivable sins? Should crimes be forgotten for the sake of the future? I’m sure you can see the contemporary relevance of some of these questions.

Ishiguro is on record as saying that he used a Fantasy setting for his story because he wanted to write about the eternal issues behind the politics of specific conflicts. It might have been better if he had used a freshly invented world since, putting aside the issue of whether Arthur ever existed, the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons was a very real one which still has consequences for British politics. For much of the book, Ishiguro seems to be using British characters for his villains – as so many Hollywood movies do – but he’s too good a novelist to do something so unsubtle. Just as he has made an utterly convincing case for one side being completely in the right, Ishiguro suddenly shows you the opposite side of the argument from the perspective of people he’s taught us to care about. `The Buried Giant’ doesn’t offer easy answers but I’ll never hear the phrase, `forgive and forget’ again without thinking about this novel. So, even if you usually avoid `literary novels’ you might want to give this one a go. Ishiguro even writes surprisingly good fight scenes. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk