Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Mythago Cycle by Robert Holdstock

I’m in two minds as to how I feel about these two books, Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. On one hand I think that they are a brave and inspired attempt to write imaginatively about the ways in which myths and legends continue to have impact on modern life, while on the other hand I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed them. Every now and one reads a book that gets everything right, and there is an almost physical reaction to that rightness, a response I think of as visceral. Probably the first time I ever felt it was reading Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen; a little later I certainly felt the same way about Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a book which has never been more than a few feet from my bedside since I read it in my teens.

Holdstock has certainly aimed for that reaction, and occasionally he gets close, but for me, he's not quite there. Part of the problem may be that he decided he was free to make up his own mythologies, very much as his characters do in his books; and although his invented stories are logically consistent with what we know of the origins of the British, they are not the ones I would have told. Actually, I think Holdstock knows his sources considerably better than I, and that it is me who is at fault in a purely academic sense, but these are works of fiction, so cavilling is permitted.

Both books are set in the period not long after WW2, in Herefordshire, on the edge of the ancient Ryhope Wood. This woodland is a remnant of primeval forest, and its apparent extent (about 6 miles) belies its true nature as a limitless forest where time is distorted and people may disappear. From these woodlands, too, mythagos appear, manifestations of archetypal heroes called into being by the interactions of the imagination and the earth energies concentrated there. This theory is lent weight by reference to Arthur Watkins’ book The Old Straight Track - a book which does supply some of that visceral response I talked about - a wonderful, scholarly piece of nonsense about ley lines that feels "true" (to the extent that there are still lots of people out there who spend their weekends happily hunting leys). Mythago Wood, the first in this Cycle, introduces the Huxley brothers, whose father had written up his observations and theories about the forest, coining the word mythago (from myth-imago) and has died, weakened by his attempt to call into being the most primeval mythago, the Urscumug. Oak Lodge, where the brothers live on the edge of the wood, is visited by a number of mythagos, among them Guiwenneth, with whom, in separate manifestations, each of the brothers falls in love. Both brothers are drawn to the wood, and after the disappearance of one, the other goes in after him, in the company of Harry Keeton, a pilot, who has encountered a similar woodland in France.

The second book, Lavondyss, tells the story of Keeton's younger sister, Tallis, who has grown up on the outskirts of this forest, and who is particularly sensitive to the presence of the mythagos. While still a small girl she begins to make masks which allow her to see in different ways, and she creates / re-discovers the nature of the countryside where she lives, giving the landscape its true names. She, too, is drawn into the wood, journeying in search of her brother in the company of mythagos. As she travels she learns more of the nature of the interactions between humans and mythagos, and the dangers inherent in changing stories.

You may have gathered by now that I am deeply interested in the ideas behind these books, but less impressed by the stories themselves. There are further works in the Cycle - not sequels, Holdstock says, but re-visitations - which should prove interesting to look at, but I found Lavondyss a bit rambling, perhaps because the adult Tallis never entirely caught my sympathy, although the first part of the novel, in which child Tallis traverses the landscape in the company of Ralph Vaughan Williams, is very well done, perhaps the best writing of the cycle so far. What worked here was the constraint placed by the domestic setting: the need to imbue the landscape with mystery while maintaining the sense of the familiar; when Holdstock ranges into purely imaginary landscapes the lack of such constraint shows in the length of some of his sustained passages, to their detriment. I hope that the later works may be a little more disciplined, but fear they may not, since for many years a measure of 'good' fantasy literature equates with a volume’s ability to act as a reliable doorstop in a high wind. (This was the second 600-page book I'd read this month - my hands hurt from holding them!)

I'm going to end yet another R.I.P.IV review by saying that this a book is for those interested in the workings of fantasy, and only secondarily for its merits as storytelling. Holdstock uses some of the same ideas and themes in the unconnected Merlin Codex, where I feel they work rather better, but I do like the fact that he attempted to impose an imaginative, yet believable, structure on our continued fascination with mythology, and I consider that in itself to be a good reason to read these books. I predict that they will last long beyond their less difficult and more popular doorstop cousins.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Supernatural Tales by John Buchan

Sadly, I have had to abandon my copy of Buchan’s Supernatural Tales in Devon, too bulky to carry home after three weeks’ absence, during which I didn’t find time to blog about it. My memory isn’t good enough to write in detail about individual stories, but I can give a flavour of it here.

I found myself labelling it “sub-Lovecraft”; in fact, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the title of the first story in the collection, 'The Watcher by the Door', actually referred to a Lovecraft story. On checking, though, Buchan’s story is – as I had at first supposed – earlier than anything by Lovecraft, who was only 11 when Buchan’s collection was published. The story deals with the apparent possession of Robert Ladlaw, a landowner in the coal-mining area of southern Scotland, a land which was once, according to the narrator, the ancient Pictish kingdom of Manann. Ladlaw has become convinced that he has an alter ego, an ever-present watcher by his side, an alter ego which dogs his footsteps. His nerves are badly affected, and when he finds an account of a similar occurrence in the life of the Emperor Justinian, he is certain that “some devilish occult force, lingering through the ages, had come to life after a long sleep…a deadly legacy from Pict and Roman”. His visiting friend, the narrator of the story, is gradually persuaded of the reality of this possession, since Ladlaw seems to have acquired knowledge of the area’s past that he can only have come by through some sort of direct experience. Verisimilitude is lent here, as in others of Buchan’s stories, by reference to classical authors such as Ausonius. Eventually the local vicar proves susceptible to the elemental/demon, and it moves on.

Another story, 'The Kings of Orion', focuses on a classical legend that tells how the kings of Orion were expelled from their home and came to earth, where their lineage can occasionally be seen in people with exceptional qualities. In a story with a similar theme, 'Tendebant Manus', an insignificant politician suddenly and remarkably becomes an able statesman on the death of his brother.

These last two show that a theme Buchan returns to in his supernatural stories is that of the psychology of the individual, a theme also prominent in novels such as Sickheart River. Indeed, some of his regular characters appear in the stories, a device which helps to anchor his speculation about the supernatural nature of some phenomena more firmly in the real world. Other stories hark back to classical sources, as often feature the sacred grove of legend, suggesting that Buchan probably read J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

If you are looking for the frights evoked by Lovecraft, or the great British exponent of the ghost story, M.R. James, then you may be disappointed by Buchan, although you will find some similar explorations of the tensions between the rational and the subconscious that interested the intelligentsia of the day. For Halloween reading, the novel Witchwood is the better choice. Buchan is a good storyteller (though some of his prejudices may rankle with the modern reader) and for anyone interested in the development of fantasy literature, both stories and novel make an interesting foray into the mind of the late Victorian rationalist intent on explaining the inexplicable.

A collection of Buchan's supernatural tales published as The Moon Endureth can be read on Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson

Some detective stories unfold clue by clue, so that the process of detection is, for both investigator and reader, a linear one. They can make entertaining reading, especially when accompanied by good characterisation or a heightening sense of tension, and are often the sort that end with a life or death situation: a hunt for a missing person, perhaps. Then there are the more old-fashioned kind, the successors to the Golden Age novels, where the detective has to come to grips with a really knotty puzzle – the locked room being the classic – and the sharp reader has the pleasure of being a step ahead . . . or the frustration of being a step behind. Sometimes the plot hinges on a crucial fact, as in Dorothy Sayers' Have His Carcass, that the ordinary reader will probably be unable to guess, even though the clues are there for anyone with the necessary knowledge – irritatingly so, in some cases, such as the novel I recently read which depended on an obscure point of law.

I’m delighted to say that After the Armistice Ball falls mainly into the puzzle category. It was recommended by Juxtabook, who made Catriona (pronounced Katreena, by the way) McPherson’s first book in the Dandy Gilver series sound eminently readable and fun. It’s set in Perthshire not long after World War I, where Dandy is the bored wife of a country landowner; with two young sons at prep school she has little to do beyond dealing with her correspondence and walking her purely ornamental (i.e., not a gundog, to her husband’s chagrin) Dalmatian. An intrigue over some stolen diamonds, evidently purloined during a houseparty given by her friend Daisy Esslemont, offers a much-needed diversion, but things become much more serious when a pretty young acquaintance meets a shocking death in a seaside cottage. Summoned to the scene by the young woman’s family, Dandy* senses that there is something amiss, and determines to investigate, aided, and sometimes distracted, by the victim’s fiancé.

Attention to period detail is loving – the author has obviously steeped herself in the literature of the 1920s, and knows her way round a country house, both upstairs and downstairs (more evidence of this can be seen on the Dandy Gilver website). The research is handled lightly, though – we’ve all met those books where every last detail is crammed in, in the hope that somehow the right atmosphere will be created – and Dandy’s light, inconsequential voice (she finds life more comfortable, she informs us, if she remains firmly on the surface) rattles on about the divide between the classes, the losses incurred in the war, human and financial, or the sheer boredom of country life. Her staunch avoidance of sentimentality – of overt displays of maternal affection, for instance – serve as a reminder that here are different times, different customs, while her chatty style ensures that modern sensibility isn’t offended.

I think I detect all sorts of favourite people from other books who have provided inspiration for her characters: Lady Montdore from Love in a Cold Climate, for instance, or Robert, husband of the Provincial Lady, who I’m sure lurks behind Dandy’s husband Hugh, while the Galloway setting for the seaside cottage calls Five Red Herrings very much to mind. The knowledge that this is a series, and that several more books already exist to be enjoyed, fills me with a sense of pleased anticipation, if also with concern for my personal finances, since I think these are going to stand the re-reading test. I’ve already thought of several friends and relatives who might like After the Armistice Ball for Christmas, too. My only complaint, in fact, is that I couldn’t put it down, and thus, it went far too fast.

*Amended to correct silly typo - sorry, guys!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pigeons at dawn

I thought that, as I have been so neglecting the Bookshelf, that I would post a quick catch-up. As some of you will know, I have been in Devon looking after Aged Parents, and far too busy fetching and carrying to attend to my blog. By bedtime I was too tired for much reading, so I found an old copy of Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post, which kept me going longer than you could imagine. It was very comforting, a story of prospecting for gold on the Cumbrian fells. The characters are familiar from Swallows and Amazons, with the addition of Dick and Dorothea Callum. Nancy is determined to find gold before Captain Flint gets home from foreign climes, although plans are initially frustrated by Mrs Blackett's refusal to let them camp on the fells because a drought means that there is no water anywhere. How the problem is overcome is too good to spoil, so I'm not going to tell it here.

Much ingenuity is exercised in devising a communication system with homing pigeons - Mrs Blackett is remarkably tolerant about the final arrangement which involves a loudly clanging bell whenever a pigeon deigns to return to its home (the dilatory and unreliable Sappho comes home at 5am). And the long-awaited arrival of the armadillo, Timothy, is delightful.

I wasn't a huge fan of Ransome's books when I was a child, but I am making up for it now, partly, I suppose, because it makes me rather nostalgic for the days when children had freedom to go off with a tent and quantities of revolting things in tins, without the feeling that adults were peering over their shoulders all day. I felt especially wistful at the idea that a group of children would amuse themselves far into the night by singing campfire songs. The sun used to shine in those days, too.