Posts Tagged ‘literature’


All of the reviews I’ve put on this site to date have been previously published in one magazine or another, but here’s one that I wrote specifically for Goodreads, a nice book/ social networking website. If you’re interested in books, sign up and friend me, it’s populated by a lot of very nice, articulate people, many of whom write great critiques of all manner of papery products (and digital one, naturally).

I’ll probably write more of these “original” reviews, but probably not many. Nearly all books I read are for reviewing purposes, and I blush to say therefore for financial gain (no, not bribes, a magazine fee for the review. Tsk). But I enjoy Adam’s books so much, and I am determined to tell as many people as I can about them, that I wanted to have my say on this, his latest novel for FREE. Wow, an almost Christian level of generosity there.

There are reviews of Land of the Headless and By Light Alone also on this site. As always, click on the links.

Jack Glass

Roberts’ books are truly difficult to rate, because there isn’t anything else like them in the modern SF genre. He writes beautifully, really beautifully; the kind of image-dense, well-crafted sentences that you have to read three times just to savour the feel of them sliding through your neurons. His ideas are magical, and he’s no imaginative slouch – each novel he writes sports a new and freshly minted world of wondrous veracity.

Set in a future where humans thickly clot the space between the worlds of the Solar System and are ruled most oppressively, Jack Glass is a story about a kind of cosmic terrorist, but presented as a series of three murder mysteries; the literary conceit here being Roberts’ take on the old country house, Agatha Christie style whodunnit.

To a point this is what we have, but the detective angle proves more a surface gloss to SF world buildery. The murders take back seat and we’re soon hip-deep in Roberts’ usual concern of the unworthy swain courting the unobtainable damsel. Who are we to complain? All authors have their literary drums to beat, but with the gruesome first installment of Jack Glass it appears at first that we have escaped this particular obsession, and it’s something of a surprise and disappointment to be presented with it again.

Glass himself is a confident, capable man, much more sure of himself than many of Roberts’ earlier protagonists. Part of the book’s draw is the slow revelation of the various layers to his character, and the discovery of the romantic flaw in Glass is well-judged, if slightly disappointing, by which I mean it fits this story perfectly, but anyway, see above. The dividing up of the story into three undoes the pacing, and the contrast between the first taut, superbly claustrophic tale and the more languid tone of the latter two unseats the reader. There’s a little too much time spent detailing the inner thoughts of teenage girls (something Roberts already tackled brilliantly in By Light Alone). He does it well, admittedly, but too much here.

Although this is not his strongest work overall, Jack Glass contains some of Roberts’ most artful writing, and the first part of the book is among the best SF stories from one of today’s finest British SF writers.


To give myself a quick break before heading off to the great quarry of words, which must be broken free from the bedrock of language by exhausting main effort, I’ve put up a few more reviews on here on the blog, plus an interview. We have:

Masters of Horror A review of part of the anthology TV series (I love anthology horror).

Let The Right One In The Swedish book that became a Swedish film that became an American film. And an interview with its author, John Ajvide Lindqvist.

Fenrir Part two of MD Lachlan’s centuries-spanning werewolf/Norse saga.

Mammoth A silly TV movie from SciFi. So bad that it’s simply bad.

Laters!


As part of my ongoing quest to put much of my archived work online, and to make up for not posting much this past week, today for you I have:

Hunter’s Run (book)  Great SF adventure collaboration between George RR Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham.

Dark Alchemy (book) Magic anthology about wizards by fantasy’s brightest and best.

300 (film) – Zac Snyder’s take on Frank Miller’s take on the Battle of Thermopylae

Perfect Creature (film) – Interesting if confused New Zealand steampunk, alt-reality, vampire movie (I did say it was confused).

Blade: House of Cthon (TV) The pilot of the TV show of the movie of the comic.

Time Trap: Quatermass (TV) – All-round information on that other great British SF character, Bernard Quatermass, who was like a more grown-up Doctor Who.

If you haven’t already, check out the other reviews I have here, there are quite a lot of them now, and still only a fraction of what’s to come.


I wrote this piece for SFX 134, (I think). By 2005, I had known Robert for several years. I first met him at Euroctocon in Dublin in October, 1997. He and I got on very well and have remained good friends ever since. Rankin is one of life’s singular gentlemen. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is, if anything, even more bizarre than his characters., while the stories he tells in person are all the more astounding for being (mostly) true. I treasure the rare occasions we get to sit down, drink beer and, as he puts it in his Londony way, “talk toot”.

Robert Rankin

Rankin is a teller of tall tales who comes from a long line of tall tale tellers. Few could be taller than his latest book, The Brightonomicon. It takes a cue from New Age movements who saw a zodiac engraved into the earth about Glastonbury and applies the idea to a streetmap of Brighton. Not just any old Zodiac has the author discovered, but one of truly Rankin-esque proportions. Armed with a felt tip Rankin set to, tracing out his new cosmology on B-roads; no Gemini or Taurus here, but the Nazca-like lines of the Hound of the Hangletons and the Woodingdeane Chameleon. There are twelve in all, and each has a story, a case, attached to it which must be solved by old favourite Hugo Rune and his new teenage sidekick, Rizla.

“I wanted a reason for each of them to be there, you also wonder where these names come from – why is Hangletons called Hangletons? We have these dangerous areas, like Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb. So, in the book, Moulsecoomb is inhabited by a pirate captain called Moulsecoomb, who stills comes out and attack the pier from time to time.”

Of course, these dangers of the genteel town, jewel of the south coast and home of the exotic pavilion are imagined…

“Er, no,” interrupts  Rankin, “You don’t want to go to those areas with anything less than a tank.”

And that is his power. Rankin so effortlessly mocks our world that it’s difficult to see which parts are pure fiction and which are not. Indeed, sometimes you suspect he makes none of it up, and is privy to a portal to some alternate reality where backchat is the highest of arts. You get the feeling of reverse dramatic irony – here it is not we the audience who know more, but that his character Hugo Rune knows everything.

Rankin is fascinated by magic, so it is no surprise that Rune owes much to that infamous wizard, Aleister Crowley, whose self-portrait hangs in Rankin’s hall. But, when you look closer, there’s a lot of Rankin in there too. Rune is the master of the scam, a man who pronounces, “I offer the world my genius, all I expect is that it cover my expenses.” Rankin himself is as much raconteur as writer. We could discuss some of his escapades here, would it not bring certain agencies of the crown upon his head. His true, if no less astounding, tales include that of the Blue Peter badge, or the strange case of the cash machines, a story he regaled many an audience with until a kindly policeman took him to one side and asked, gently, that he desist.

“Rune’s not based on me,” counters Rankin. “He is a mix of my father and Crowley. He knew Crowley, actually,” he says. “He met him in the war. My father didn’t fight – using the famed Rankin common sense he thought to himself: ‘I’ll get myself a nice reserved occupation – fireman should do it.’ Which meant standing in the middle of the blitz holding a hosepipe!” he laughs. “Anyway, he met Crowley in a pub in 1943 or ’44. My father didn’t believe in the magic, but he did think Crowley was the greatest poet of the 20th century. So he cultivated him by buying him lots of drinks. I remember my dad pointing out Crowley on the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover and saying ‘I know him.’ Then he told me he had a couple of first editions signed by the man himself. I was amazed. Of course, my mum, the fundamentalist Christian, had burnt them as Crowley was, after all, the Great Beast. I was gutted.”

Maybe there is more of Rankin Jnr in Rune than he suspects. Or perhaps there have been a long line of Rankins behaving like Runes. He is the fourth Robert Fleming Rankin – a connection to Alexander Fleming now lost to history and, like his father, his life has been full of cameos of unusual people (he went to art college with Freddie Mercury, for example). He’s done many bizarre things, such as convincing the inhabitants of Brentford a Griffin lived there, but he seems as oblivious to how unusual this track is as he is of the genuine reverence with which his fans hold him, fans whose numbers are growing. Rankin was ecstatic to see his previous book, The Witches of Chiswick, advertised in a railway station and, and has begun to force open the American market. Full of tall tales he may be, but you could never accuse him of boastfulness, however, you don’t get posters in Paddington if you’re small fry, old chap.

In true generous style, Rankin has one last thing to say. “That’s the best picture of me that I have ever had taken” he says of his portrait to the left [not included here, sorry folks]. “And I’d like to say thank you to the man who let us use his carousel. Beautiful it was, built in 1888. He even stopped it for us, whereas the pier wanted to charge us £150 to take our shot there. So thank you, and sod the pier.”


Spring is packed this year. Omega Point was out last week (in the US, UK edition out on 6th April), and Champion of Mars is out on the 26th of this month in the US, on the 10th of May in the UK. I’m not attending Eastercon, mostly because it’s Easter and I’m off back up north, but I will be at The Discover Festival on 18th-19 May at Snibston near Leicester.

There are a couple of interviews about Champion of Mars due soon, one at Solaris the other at I Will Read Books. In anticipation of that, I thought I’d post this article I wrote for Death Ray on William Hope Hodgson, as his work was a big influence on Champion of Mars. This piece appeared way back in 2007 (sheesh, time flies). I haven’t put it up until now as I had no copy on file and had to TYPE IT IN, so I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve not read Hodgson before, I seriously recommend him. I read the Gollancz collected novels of Hodgson whilst travelling around India on honeymoon, which was interesting. Nice bit of romantic, light reading.

Terrors of the Sea

Some of the all-time greats of SF are all but forgotten. Guy Haley puts the case for William Hope Hodgson, whose tales of the occult paint a powerful picture of a wolrd threatened by unseen horrors…

On occasion, at ist very best, science fiction is a genre of truly impressive  wonders. But only infrequently  are the heights of imaginative excellence scaled, and all too often the writers who accomplish the feat soon languish forgotten.

One of those rare visionaries was William Hope Hodgson, an early 20th century author, sailor, photographer and bodybuilder whose work deals with big stuff – no less than the spiritual perils of the outermost darks, and the fate of humankind.

Hodgson’s stories crackle with muscular energy, and his prose can –at its best – attain a stunning majesty. His work bears comparison with the later HP Lovecraft, and shares similar themes; notably that there are powerful alien creatures out there, and that their very existence is inimical to human life. As Lovecraft himself said, “The work of William Hope Hodgson is of vast power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life.” But unlike Lovecraft, Hodgson’s books brim with the indomitability of the human spirit, and his heroes are men of action who often survive their adventures to tell the tale.

Hodgson was born into the family of an Essex clergyman in 1877. At the age of 13 he attempted to run away to sea, and though initially unsuccessful, by 1891 he was allowed to become a cabin boy. He remained a sailor for eight years, and this career had great impact upon his character.

The sea appears in much of Hodgson’s fiction, although he professed to hate it. He wrote many nautical poems and stories, but it is in two of his better known novels, The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909), that his interest in sailing and what he termed the “ab-natural” collided. The first is the more haunting (if harder going) of the two; a dark tale of shipwreck survivors who find themselves tormented by pallid creatures on an island swathed by entrapping seaweed.

Despite this recurrent theme, his finest creations actually have little to do with the sea. The House on the Borderland (1908) is a short novel that tells of a mansion built upon a metaphysical faultline, a liminal building that is neither of this world nor truly of the present. A diary reveals that the last occupant experienced an out-of-body experience there, which led to terrifying  encounters with “swine-things”, finally culminating in an almost psychedelically described trip to the end of time (a trip reminscent of that in HG Wells The Time Machine) and the house’s destruction.

It is the far meatier The Night Land (1912), however, that is generally reckoned to be his finest work, and should be read by all who enjoy weird fiction.

The Night Landis set millions of years in the future, a time when the sun has died. The ancient Earth is shrouded in blackness haunted by monsters, granted ingress to our own realm by the meddlings of aeons-dead science. Against all the odds, mankind survives in a vast pyramid known as the Great Redoubt, living in peace with one another, even as time marches on toward their unavoidable extinction. The story concerns a man who receives a message from a woman he believes to be his reincarnated wife, and he sets out to fetch her from the long-lost Lesser Redoubt.

True, The Night Land is written in appalling cod-archaic English and includes a great deal of what China Mieville – in his introduction to The House on The Borderland, the Gollancz Fantasy Masterwork collected works of Hodgson – calls “egregious romance”, but it triumphs over its self-imposed limitations to give us a quest story of breathtaking power. This is truly one instance where a writer can be seen to triumph in spite of himself, and Hodgson’s vision of this alien, inimical Earth remains in the mind long afterwards.

Other creations of note by Hodgson include Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, a collection of short stories which detail the adventures of a paranormal sleuth. Carnacki is a tough customer. While a Lovecraftian protagonist often ends a story with his sanity is tatters after an encounter with some horrifying monster, Carnacki chases after it with his revolver.

William Hope Hodgson was killed, aged 40, in The Great War by a German shell. With characteristic bravado, he died executing perilous, voluntary duty. He left behind only a relatively small body of work, but one which has had a lasting impact.

Here’s a couple of elderly websites with more on Hodgson. For general information go here, while The Night Land is devoted to, you got it, The Night Land and has stories penned by other authors. Gollancz’ collected edition of Hodgson’s novels, mentioned above, is a bargain and a great place to start.


I’ve been very busy the last month or so, so there’s not been much activity here on the blog. Things are entering a tranquil period here at the top of the stairs. Although Omega Point and Champion of Mars are due out soon, I have no books to write at the moment. I’m waiting on pitch acception/ rejection for five or so concepts. It’s a nervewracking time, but there’s not much to be done, like being becalmed in the doldrums.

So, setting aside walking Doctor Magnus and gardening, I thought I’d take the morning to put some more bits and pieces from my Death Ray days up. There are several new TV, film, and book reviews in the appropriate sections above, and also this lengthy interview with Alan Garner. Garner is one of the best writers working in the English language. His technique is pretty much beyond compare, and it was a great pleasure to speak to him in 2008. I’ve put this interview up under the “Interviews” tab at the top there (please do check the tabs out, there is a ton of stuff hidden in those drop down menus), but seeing as the fantastic news broke last week that Garner is to write a third book in the Weirdstone series, I figured I’d make it the main body of today’s post. I hope you enjoy it.

The Edge of Darkness

By the measure of the mechanical classification human heads force upon the world, Alan Garner is supposedly a children’s author, but his books are not for kids. Dark with old truths, they well up from a place as wild as the magic they portray.

Alan Garner, author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is scion of an ancient clan of Cheshire craftsmen, and this defines him. His books tell an ultimately happy tale of a man steeped in local culture, wrenched away from it by the changing world and his own ambition, then reconciled with it; in case you are in any doubt, we’re talking about the author here, not a character.

Local myths and a sense of profound belonging underpin Alan Garner’s literature, while the discipline of craft, inherited from his forebears, gives us his artfully precise technique. Learning adds further glamour to his work. Classicall- educated Garner’s greatest ambition was to be an academic; fate had other things in store, and he never completed his Oxford degree. But he kept much of what he learnt, and applied it diligently to the creation of fictions. The depth of research and reading that goes into Garner’s books is phenomenal (he famously learnt Welsh to write The Owl Service). Together with his intimacy with his native county, this intense research helps him create books of great magic that are all the more terrifying for being rooted in the utterly real. If you are going to have goblins wandering around in modern England, then that England better be unreproachfully realistic, is his point of view. So much so that if, in reality, a road turns right, yet he needs it to go left for his narrative convenience, it’ll go right. This certainty of the landscape he drapes his stories on gives something of hyper-reality to his books. And it clings to him too; the man exudes a rare potency that goes beyond the merely intellectual, even down a crackly phone line.

It is reading, not writing, that occupies most of Garner’s time. One writer once described writing to me as gathering together lots of ideas, piling them up on a mental compost heap, and letting them mulch down until something good came out of it. This seems to apply to Garner too, albeit as an extreme example. He produces relatively few books, and much mental compost goes into each.

“That’s a very good description of the process,” says Garner, “I shall probably steal it. Every writer – though I avoid writers, I don’t think they’re a very good lot to mix with – has to find their own way to write. There are guide books, but I don’t think they are much use.”

He begins to describe his writing process, insisting that it is only his 50 years of experience that allow him the hindsight to describe how he developed his style.

“I consider that there are confusions that arise over writing,” he begins. “These start at school, where you’ve got 30 minutes to write about the day in the life of a five pound note or something like that, and children think that’s writing. It is perceived that everybody can write, therefore it’s very difficult to explain to people that there’s a very good reason why not everybody can. The trouble is that we’re not all taught to paint, to sculpt, to compose music, but we can all ‘write’.”

This is a truism even we at the lowlier end of the scribbling professions are irked by. Because most people can pick up a pen, they think they can write, but that’s like saying because I can nail two bits of wood together with a hammer and a nail, it makes me a carpenter. Furthermore, Garner holds that choosing to write is not a conscious decision, but an affliction. Those that write creatively have no choice.

“I feel that whatever creative writing is, this need to write imaginative fiction is a pathological condition. I write because it is what I do, it is what I am.”

They say that writers write no matter what. Why would anyone, the pay’s lousy, and who would wish to undergo what Garner does? He appears happy with his lot, but as he describes it, Garner’s path to a book is a grueling, mystical experience.

“I never go looking for ideas, they come looking for me, subjectively speaking. I feel that I’m pregnant, but I don’t know who the father is. At first I don’t know what the story’s about, then pictures start to form in my mind, and it becomes slightly more intelligible. That gives me a hook, and I know what it is that I’ve got to find out. Now, because I set out in this world with the only ambition of becoming an academic, I do know how to find information, and so I read and I read and I read and I read. It’s marvelous because it’s stuff I’ve never known before. And that’s the thing that is great about not being an academic. If you can think of an academic being an inverted pyramid, learning more and more about less and less, writing is the other way up. I find that things that nobody has seen, as far as I am aware, are connected, and the more I read the more the connections come, and,” he admits, “I love the reading because it also means I don’t have to write anything.”

This bibliological fun, which can take years, has to come to an end eventually, and it is then that Garner enters a world of pain. For him, writing really is a disease. Garner suffers  from bipolar disorder, an imbalance that can cause extreme emotional states of mania or depression. It is a common affliction of the creatively gifted, and it certainly sounds like, listening to his description of writing process, that it plays a part in his work.

“There comes a dreadful moment when my notebooks and bibiliographies are starting to cross refer and I know there is no more to learn, and I sit there and there is still no story. There then comes what I call the ‘Oh my God phase’. I’m an evening mind. I learnt at university that you can’t read with that intensity that’s required for a degree or for research for more than three or four hours in 24. You’ve just got to go and do something else. So I have this habit of trying to get into my workspace for about six o’clock in the evening for three or four hours, then stop. When the ‘Oh my God’ bit comes, I still go and do the same thing. I go and sit in the room, and I look at the fire, and I try not to think, which is extremely difficult. It’s almost as if I’m saying to the bitch goddess, ‘Okay, I’m here, where are you?’. This is extremely tiring, and it can become distressful, and it can become disorientating, it can lead to depression, but I’ve learnt to cope with it. It can go on for more than six months. This is before all the really weird stuff starts! And I can’t do anything else, really. I am not very intelligent when spoken to, I’m not very interested in things very much. I feel so lethargic, both mentally and physically, until then, without any warning a phrase comes into my mind. It’s got a hard line round it and I write it down quickly. It’s always the end of the book. I still don’t really know what the story is, but I’ve learnt to recognise that phrase, and put it down, and forget it.

“Within a few weeks, it starts again. I’ve got a very visual memory, and a very visual mind, and I see flashes. I’m sitting in the cinema, I’m being told a story by what is happening inside me, so I write it down. Let’s say I see two people walking along a beach, I can hear what they are saying, but they are not in-sync, and they are out of focus. So in this interior editing booth, I can spool back, and play back until they are in focus, and they are in sync.”

As he emerges from his meditative state, the words come faster and faster, until he is feverishly writing away.

“Let’s say I get 300 words and the tap gets turned off, it would be foolish to go any further, so I stop. But the gaps between the tap being turned on and off shorten and the tap is left on for longer and longer until I am writing so fast I can barely keep up with what I am seeing or experiencing. Then there’s the worse moment of all ‘Hey, what about that last sentence and paragraph? What if it doesn’t dock?! I’ve been writing out into the cosmos, I shall pass Pluto at any time!’, but it always goes ‘click’, it puts me in mind of Apollo 11, coming up over the horizon.”

This sort of channelling of a muse, the late nights, the phrase popping into his mind… Once upon a time Garner thought something very strange was going on. “At first all this was terrifying, it’s just now disconcerting,” he says. But as he has grown older he has realised that it is his subconcious brain churning away.

“I think now that the book is written in the ‘Oh my God’ bit. Which leads me to the conclusion that the intellect never had an original idea in its life. Originality is an unconscious process, and that’s what creativity is. So that’s why I think it’s a pathological condition, it’s something over which the individual has no control.”

Reading earlier interviews with Garner, one gets the impression that these periods of intense thought and introspection started long before adulthood, during a succession of serious childhood illnesses (meningitis and pneumonia among them). He was pronounced dead once. He was often alone in his room and, while his body waged war against disease, he would make imaginary worlds out of the cracks in the ceiling, or defy the personifications of  death he saw there. When did actually manage to go to school he was such a know-it-all he felt alienated from his classmates, though his time at Manchester Grammar seemed happier. A later scholarship led to further education at Magdalen College, Oxford. It opened his eyes to a wider world, but also opened a chasm between his family and himself – he was the only one not to work directly with his hands, and describes himself as ‘the first failure’ – that took him many years to heal. He seems to have suffered a sense of dislocation, of straddling two very different realities. Much of his work could be seen as an attempt to remedy that.

“When you get somebody from a deep, but narrow, culture, being stuck into formal education, especially the one I had, which was classics, then it can be very destructive, if you are not careful. I can remember my parents  being excited that ‘Alan had got a scholarship’, but for them, with hindsight, I saw that it was a three dimensional object. An education for them was a car or a brick. I would come home from school, excited by the concept of irregular verbs, and they looked at me, and they thought that I was trying to put them down, with the exception of my grandfather.”

Garner speaks often and fondly about his grandfather, a blacksmith of few words but great wisdom. Garner describes sitting in the dark of the forge from a young age, absorbing family stories that were, eventually, to form the basis of his The Stone Book Quartet. Later in life he’d go to the forge and excitedly talk about his learnings, to which his grandfather would reply with such as: “Oh aye, and what about the co-efficient of the expansion of brass?”, which, Garner says, was not a putdown. For hundreds of years, smiths held the magic at the heart of the village, emerging from the deeps of their own personal underworlds carrying the miraculous products of their forge, but there’s more here to Garner’s recollections, a personal awe, and as he speaks of him it is not hard to imagine Garner’s grandfather as the last incarnation of Weyland. Think on these two memorable things Garner’s grandfather said to him, which he describes as “curses”.

“He didn’t talk much, but when he did say anything, you didn’t forget it. He said ‘Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be there when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying ‘What fool made that codge?’ And the other thing when I was seven, this was a real curse, and I never got away from it, and I think if you look at my books, those that work, they have followed this one. He said, ‘If the other fellow can do it, let him.’”

Garner’s divorce from his roots was a painful one, his education the double-edged sword that cut him from them. He enjoyed, and made great use of, his further education, but his early schooling was traumatic. He says he loathed primary school. His mouth was washed out with soap for speaking the local Cheshire dialect (he has said that the class system creates a kind of bilingualism – technically called ‘style-shifting’. Accordingly, he does not use the vernacular when speaking to us, though he employs it often in his books and slips into it when reporting the speech of his parents and grandfather), and his arm was strapped to his chest to “cure” him of his left-handedness.

“The saving of me was that I spent slightly less than half my primary school years at school, because of my illnesses. But when I did turn up, I wasn’t part of the pack, and I was top of the class. Oh boy! I do remember a lovely teacher called Miss Turner who engaged with me and one time, ‘Alan Garner,’ she said ‘will you put your hand up if you don’t know the answer’. I remember another occasion when I was at the blackboard, and I carefully drew in coloured chalks the sections through the cone of the volcano. I only just made it out of the playground after school with my life.”

But memory is a tricky thing. A traumatic incident is more easily recalled, and puts a glowering cast on happier times. The nature of identity and our perception of ourselves within our own lives is a key theme of Garner’s books. We are self-built constructs; if you like, our own personal legends, not entirely “real”, but fundamentally “true”. Garner is well aware how what we remember, or even choose to remember, shapes who we are.

“My actual pattern of life took me away from those children for about thirty years. Then there was a reunion of some sort, and I thought I better go along and see how they are. And I found out that I’d been extremely popular! One matronly figure, who still in my eye still looked eleven, she said, ‘Oh, we were all in love with you Alan.’ Well, they could have told me! But some of them are still in the district and we picked up on the friendships of primary school. And that’s very gratifying. Memory is totally unreliable. My friend’s a barrister, and he says when you get three witnesses with the same story they’re all different. I think that’s true of life. I think of my grown up children, and sometimes I come out in a sweat, sometimes I was really dreadful to them. And, of course, they don’t remember it.”

Ironically, it is his writing, that most intellectual of pursuits, that brought him full circle and healed the gap. Firstly, he came eventually to accept that he too is a craftsman. Though his words may come to him is some Merlin-esque fugue, it is the discipline he employs afterwards that makes his books what they are. Like his stonemason great-grandfather, or his blacksmith grandfather, he has no control over how the raw material is formed, but he has control over what he selects, and how he approaches it.

“I can see now that my grandfather worked in very much the same way; he worked intuitively. That was interesting for me to realise, after I had been writing for some time, that we were both of us using our hands.

“I also had the fortune to be educated in to the structure of language, not in English, and I think that is a great benefit. Thing with me is I love cutting, oh dear! I love to take a machete to a text, and it can be very funny. The most extreme case was in one of the more recent books, Strandloper. I debated with my editor Christopher Maclehose for 20 minutes about whether I should replace a semi-colon. But when he said ‘Would it be impertinent of me to suggest to you that the whole of the next chapter be redundant?’ I asked why, and he told me, and so we dropped a chapter in three minutes.”

Garner is no friend to the adjective. He loathes purple prose, even to the extent of preferring less flowery Germanic root words to Latin derivatives. He describes his works as very long prose poems. In some ways, he’s the last of the Anglo-Saxon scops.

“When people start pointing fingers, I stop reading. Didactic writing is something that would actually make me become an urban guerilla. Show, don’t tell! It’s so much harder, and therefore rewarding and enriching. It keeps me intellectually young. Because this always happens: If I’ve got something right, then somebody will write to me or speak to me and they will have a completely different reading of the text, and it is at least as good as, and sometimes better than, mine. This is the showing bit, instead of pointing the finger you are opening your hand and saying to the reader ‘Can you see anything there?’ I’m not in any way criticising the physical, descriptive writer. It’s something that I can’t do. But if you’re writing something intensely emotional, and you describe what’s on the table, then the sauce bottle gets in the way. I think I’ve got very few bees in my bonnet, but one of them you did make hum then. That is a really big issue for me.”

Well, it’s a richer world for different writing styles. If everyone wrote like Alan Garner, it wouldn’t be quite so exciting, would it?

“No, it would not. That’s why I killed all the other Alan Garners.”    We have another bee for him, actually. And that is that he dislikes it when people try to categorise his work. Besides the age of many of his protagonists, it is perhaps his love of unadorned prose that makes people see his work as for children, but thought the language is simple, it is not simplistic, and the themes it conveys are neither.

“Ghettoes – no!” he groans. “They call me a children’s writer, but what’s so amusing is that I’ve had three of the novels made into television, and as soon as you can see what’s happening, nobody starts talking about children. The coincidence is that The Owl Service DVD has landed on my doorstep this morning. I can remember that this film went out for eight weeks at about four o’clock. It was a teatime family show, but on the cover of the DVD it says ‘suitable only for persons of 12 years or over’!”

The Owl Service is based on the legend of Blodeuwedd (Garner scoffs kindly at my pronunciation) from the Welsh book of myths, the Mabinogion. He’s a precursor to the likes of Neil Gaiman in his employment of British folklore and dark age legends, but he uses his sources chillingly. It’s a clean-burn terror though, a useful feeling. Garner has no time for horror, as he says it has no catharsis. It is children who often find themselves dealing with the unknowable powers of ancient magic, and it’s pretty clear that his ideas of childhood do not accord with the sentimental feelings held by wider contemporary culture. He cites John Masefield’s Box of Delights as a realistic, unsentimental portrayal of what it means to be a human, let alone a child, though a growl of annoyance creeps into his voice when he mentions the final paragraph, shoehorned in at the publisher’s insistence to give a happier ending. His own characters follow Box‘s Kay Harker: resourceful, open to real peril and capable of making intelligent choices. Its undeniable that his “childrens” books are a useful map for those on the cusp of adolescence. They depict children as people, not as cotton-swaddled innocents, and reveal both the power and peril at hand within the real world. They treat children with respect, and demand they do the same to the reality about them.

It is this association with the real world, and not the magic within, that make his books so potent. Garner is, like King Arthur, the land. So deep is his connection with his home, so adept is he at portraying it, that to read about Alderley Edge is to visit it. Despite his detour to Oxford, he has resided in the county of his birth for most of his life, dwelling in a 700 year-old house within sight of Jodrell Bank’s main dish. This second great aspect of his books is another answer to his search for place. Through it he has become another link in the long chain of his clan. This has helped him, at least, finally reconcile who he is within the contexts of his art and his family.

“I do remember a particular occasion when I thought ‘What do I have to do to please this lot?’,” he says of his kinfolk. “It seemed that there had been total severance. Because I was fairly logical I thought ‘Is there anything we have in common?’, and then I realised there was. I’d got this enormous, rich, historical culture that was all connected with one place, Alderley Edge. And that we still shared. But I knew something they didn’t, an added richness. I could describe it in geological terms, as a multi-faulted Triassic scarp, and I knew what I was talking about. Fortunately I was wise enough not to try that one on! Alderley Edge became for me the point at where we met, and still do meet, though that was totally internal to me. I can now see that pattern in the early books. In early books you either suppress or you forgive, and my early books have very little human characterisation in them, they’re a young man’s books. But the energy and the power of the landscape is there. It’s already mature. When I go to the Edge, and when I went there, I knew why that stone was in the hedge. I knew who’d built that wall. I knew the stories about individual trees, and who’d done what to whom and where, and when.”

That is a very rare thing now. Garner is a master in a grand tradition of English literature. His work is bound to location by ties of emotion, blood and time. And in that. he’s the last of a kind.

“Don’t be so pessimistic!” he scolds. “Writing’s going to suffer a change. I don’t think that people are going to stop writing, and I don’t think the pathological state is going to go away, or ever be cured, but yes, there are very few people now who can spend their adult life where they spent their childhood. The verb I apply to Alderley Edge is ‘to own’ because it has two meanings. It doesn’t mean to possess, it means to have an obligation towards it.”

But we do live disconnected from our birthplaces, and are thus unconnected to where we have chosen live. Who will write like Garner now? A secondary factor is that writers of such polished brevity as Garner cannot flourish in a world where books are all but marketed by physical weight. Who, crucially, now not only has great personal knowledge of his environment, but also ancestral knowledge of it? Garner reads out a quote from the Irish Poet, Patrick Kavanagh, that perfectly encapsulates this.

“Parochialism is universal, it deals with the fundamentals, to know fully even one field, or one land, is a lifetime’s experience. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, a stream at the junction of four small fields; these are as much as a man can experience.”

Garner speaks of academics being inverted pyramids, but in a way that is what he is too. He is a scholar of the land, knowing everything about one handkerchief-sized part of the England. There’s a documentary on the DVD of the The Owl Service, called At the Edge of the Ceiling, made at the opening of the 80s by Granada. In it, Garner stalks the field margins and woods of the rising east of Cheshire, the ultimate parochialist. The emptiness of the place and the sound of the wind are far more eerie than the ridiculous choral music laid over it. He seems a solid part of those things, a piece of the deep reality of the place. He is as much of the landscape as the ancient powers of which he writes. That is at the crux of his books: home is not where the heart is; home is what we are. He has found his way home, like the fairytale hero who undergoes a great quest to discover what he really needs has been right under his nose all along. We, the rest of us, footloose and scattered far from where our ancestors lived are, by that measure, homeless.

Garner is in his 70s now, of such years that when people tell him they enjoyed his books as a child, they can turn out to be retired headmasters. When he is finally gone, one of the last writers who has both understanding and experience of this connectivity will be lost. We can only hope Garner’s stories will join the tales of his ancestors, or the legend of the milk-white mare, or the vicious spirit of Thursbitch, as an indefatigable echo of an elder England. With luck, they will not entirely be buried under the broad driveways of the WAGs now laid over Cheshire’s fields, and will patiently wait until they can be heard by another that knows how to listen to the land.

 

The Books of Alan Garner

Lots of magic, a handful of goblins, the relentless turning of the wheel of time, and a ton of research…

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen 1960

Perhaps Garner’s best known book. It opens with a local legend, that of the Iron Gates. A 140 warriors lie sleeping under the hill, each with a milk-white mare. In the legend, a wizard asked a farmer for his horse, a milk-white mare, to provide the final knight with his mount. The farmer declines, saying he will get a better price for the horse at the market, the wizard counters that he will not, and will sell the horse to him. That evening, the wizard’s prediction duly comes to pass, and the farmer is shown the cavern where the knights sleep. In Garner’s book the farmer takes, without the wizard’s knowledge,the Weirdstone, a sort of key to the cave.

In the present, Colin and Susan are two kids spending time with family friends at a farm at Alderley Edge. Susan possesses a bracelet, an heirloom which, unbeknown to her, contains the Weirdstone. Its return to the locale of the cave precipitates a struggle between light and dark, as the Dark Spirit Nastrond uses his catspaw Morrigan attempt to capture the stone, and destroy the knights who are fated to destroy them. Garner paints a breathing picture of his home village, then utterly subverts it, filling even the familiar with hidden terrors.

The Moon of Gomrath 1963

The sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Susan and Colin are forced to consort with the dangerous Old Magic. Susan has a magical bracelet gifted her at the end of the first book as recompense for losing the Weirdstone, but when she lends it to the elves to aid them in a struggle in their own world, it leaves her open to the malign influence of the Brollachan, a wicked spirit. Though the Brollachan is driven from her body, Susan’s spirit is lost, and only Colin’s devotion saves her. However, she has been sensitised to magic, and the pair of them unwittingly release the Wild Hunt. Their attempts to undo their actions lead to their capture by the Morrigan, and the return of the Brollachan. In the end they are triumphant, and Susan is revealed as a force for good.

The Moon of Gomrath is a darker novel than Weirdstone, with a less unambiguously happy ending, and deals with the difficult subject of sexual awakening.

Elidor 1964

Drawing elements from Irish and Welsh mythology, and from the folktale Childe Rowland, Elidor tells of four siblings who are pulled into the parallel world of Elidor by its king Malebron. The land is wasted, and must be saved. The three eldest siblings are trapped, and, to release them, Roland must undergo a quest to recover four objects that will facilitate the healing of the land. He does so, and releases his siblings. Finally, the unicorn Findhorn must sing the land back to life, but on the bleak post-industrial streets of Manchester, it is beguiled by Roland’s virginal sister and slain by Elidor’s enemies. Still, the land is saved, and the king restored. But this is no jolly romp for the kids, but a dark and exploitative experience. Elidor belies the notion that adventure is free of cost.

Garner spent some time as a television journalist, and he credits this experience with a change in style. “That’s where I learned to listen, because the big change comes after the first two books, with Elidor you get real dialogue for the first time, because I’d learned to interview for three minutes and to go back and cut it down to a minute and a half and not cheat.”

The Owl Service 1967

Three children step-siblings Alison and Roger and the Welsh Gwyn are forced to relive the legend of Blodeuwedd. “Face of Flowers” was created by the wizard Gwydion for his son Lleu, who could marry no woman, but she had no interest in him, and incited the warrior Gronw to kill Lleu, a crime for which she was turned into an owl. This tragedy is repeated by every generation, and though Gwyn’s ancestors tried to lock up the magic in the eponymous dinner service, Alison lets it out by tracing the pattern.

One of the few of Garner’s works not set in Cheshire, The Owl Service is a layered book, examining through the legend the subtle fractures that run through British society, clashes of class, nation and family. It was adapted as a TV serial in 1967, where the sexual themes were played up. The Owl Service won the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Red Shift 1973

A development of the themes of The Owl Service, Red Shift details three interconnected periods of history in South Cheshire, near the village of Mow Cop. The stories tell of deserting Roman soldiers, a man and his wife during the Civil War, and the mentally unstable Tom, whose troubled relationship with his girlfriend Jan and his parents push him over the edge. The characters each have flashes of each other while in various states of mental imbalance: Tom is suicidal, 17th Century Thomas Rowley suffers from fits, and Roman era Macey is subject to beserker rage. Other thematic elements; the colour red, exploitation and a stone axe tie the eras together. The tale also owes something to the legend of Tam Lin.

The story was adapted by Garner into a BBC Play for Today in 1978.

The Stone Book Quartet 1979

Four short stories about Garner’s ancestors, written between 1976 and 1978, were collected into this one volume. Garner learnt the family history underneath the stories as a boy by listening in to his relatives as they came to pay their respects to his grandfather. It was the only one of his books that he let his father read the typescript for, and was gratified when his father demanded to know how he had learned all the family secrets. The book’s genesis as four short stories began when his wife, experiencing premature labour, was attended to by a midwife who turned out to be one of Garner’s cousins, whom he had not seen for 30 years. She presented him with a photograph of his young grandfather, whose intense gaze seemed to call out to him. There is no fantasy in The Stone Book Quartet, but that is not to say there is no sense of the numinous in the everyday it depicts. It won the Phoenix Award in 1996.

Strandloper 1996

After a long silence, Garner returned with Strandloper, a fictionalised account of the life of William Buckley, a convict transported to Australia in 1803 who escaped and ‘went bush’, living with aborigines for over 30 years. Buckley became totally naturalised, and largely forgot how to speak English, though he returned to live among Europeans at Hobart in 1856.

Garner’s book makes much of Buckley’s supposed mental problems (Strandloper has him as an epilectic) and has him return to his native Cheshire, changed but at one with his roots. Another story that features fractured time and a definition of reality by reference to identity, Strandloper can be seen as the ultimate in Garner’s expression of his quest for a place in the world.

Thursbitch 2003

There is a valley with an ill reputation in The Peak District named Thursbitch. While walking over the moors one day, in the 1950s, Garner found a stone with an inscription upon it, detailing how a man had been found dead in the snow, the single print of a woman’s shoe beside him. He returned to his memory of his discovery several times over the following decades, before finally writing the novel. Like Red Shift and Strandloper, the novel deals with dislocated time, being set both in the 18th century and now. It’s been called a literary moebius strip, as the events at the beginning of the book are described at the end. And like the rest of his work, it is concerned with place, though the peculiar animus loci of Thursbitch, a name which roughly translates into Modern English as “Demon Valley”, is a malevolent one. Many odd stories are attached to the place, and Garner reported a strange experience of his own while writing it.

Did you know…?

Garner has lived in the same house for decades, and written all his books in the same room. Part of it is a 14th century timber house he moved to the location.

“We’ve just turned it into a charitable trust so it can’t be got at afterwards,” he says. “Because I had a horrible experience, I watched a film about Rudyard kipling, and there was a shot of his house, and it was his study and there the chair was slightly away from his desk, there was a notepad on the desk, his glasses were half out of their case, and the pen was by the side, and the great man was going to come in at any moment and write another deathless sentence, and I thought my god he’s killed that house, it was in total aspic.”