Secrets of the Fantastic Short Story

tumblr_ni2qbhNsuY1rzim2co1_500What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.

These are the stories:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947

Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.

the_yellow_wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.

Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.

Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.

Rocking Horse WinnerThe boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.

peake-004Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.

220px-Enoch-soamesThe one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.

MetamorphosisThe notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.

In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.

In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.

Reading RoomOnce again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.

Enoch-soames-maxThis ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.

The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

willowes03Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) is one of a trio of fantasy masterpieces written by British women in the 1920s (Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and this), in the run up to the universal franchise of 1928.

This is by far the least known of the three, but it shares the strangeness of the other two. In some ways, in fact, it’s the strangest of all, because of the way its strangeness creeps up on you. If you’re told it’s about a woman who becomes a witch, you may get the wrong impression: you may assume that it’s about exuberant rebellion, wild midnight dances, the exultation of passionate sexuality and occult powers, but it’s not like that at all. At the beginning Laura Willowes (the name Lolly is thrust on her as a badge of her spinsterhood, a suitable sobriquet for an ageing maiden aunt) assumes she’s part of an unchanging story, the comfortable quasi-aristocratic life in a large house at the turn of the twentieth century – a house to which she literally holds the keys. But the narrative changes: her father dies, a move takes place, she finds herself no longer the protagonist of her own quiet drama but a patronized nanny-figure, lady companion and family servant in her brother’s Bloomsbury household, inhabiting a world of urban polite society she despises, and cut off from the seasonal ebb and flow that delightfully shaped her early years. Her sudden decision to move to the countryside in her late forties – and the way her forties creep up on her in this book is brilliantly observed, as startling as the arrival of The Victorian Age in Woolf’s Orlando – is prompted less by rebellious feelings than by a not wholly understood urge for something very specific, a place, a name (the village she moves to is called Great Mop, itself illogical since there is no Little Mop that anyone’s heard of). And this urge, which doesn’t conform to any of the conventional narratives by which women of her time are expected to explain their motives, becomes the theme of the rest of the book.

Laura doesn’t make ‘friends’ in Great Mop, though she is charmed by the inhabitants. She doesn’t find it beautiful – some of the parts she spends most time in are decidedly ugly. She doesn’t fall in love – the one man she likes there is instantly forgotten as soon as she’s out of his company, and she finds his hens more interesting than he is, since carrying them makes her feel like that magical figure, the ‘henwife’, in old tales. Even when she makes the discovery that most of the inhabitants take part in a nightly Witch’s Sabbath, and is invited to take part, she fails to find that social event any more amusing than her brother’s Bloomsbury parties (though she’s temporarily attracted to some of the participants, which didn’t happen in London). Her powers as a witch don’t work conventionally – and it’s not a witch’s powers that interest her in any case, so much as the witch’s capacity to ignore or forget what others think of her. Finally, when she meets the Devil, patron of witches, her response to him is deeply ambiguous. After all, he’s a powerful male, and powerful men have been a nuisance to her – though she was clearly strongly attached to her powerful father. We’re left at the end of the book not entirely sure what to think of her situation. It’s precarious. She’s liberated in one sense, yet still bound to a male potentate; freed from limiting narratives apart from the most terrifyingly limiting narrative of all, that of the Devil’s right to take eventual possession of her immortal soul. She comforts herself with the thought that neither she nor the Devil have any idea what happens after death (how can he know, since he’s immortal?). But the sense of precariousness remains after you’ve read the final sentence.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was Townsend Warner’s choice of the Devil as the presiding genius of Lolly Willowes’s ambiguous liberation. It would have been easy to choose Pan instead, and it’s clear that the Devil in this book is very Pan-like. On both occasions when she meets him he adopts the appearance of a rustic man, especially at home in the woods (and for him woods are everywhere: ‘Once a wood, always a wood’, he insists at one point, which explains for Laura the strange feelings she has sometimes got from certain places in the city). Pan was everywhere in fiction between about 1895 and the 1920s: sometimes terrifying (Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890-4)), sometimes unsettling (Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912), Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan (1928)), sometimes comforting and cuddly (Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908)); and he could be used to refer to what was otherwise inexpressible (Forster’s story was about the awakening of homosexual desire, while Stephens’s Pan helps a young woman to free herself from the Irish church’s contempt for the desiring body). But Pan belongs to a dead religion, and from this point of view was a safe figure, safely fantastic, safely impossible, and with an impeccably classical pedigree to justify his inclusion in a respectable middle- or upper-class narrative.

The Devil, on the other hand, is part of a narrative that still had a fierce hold on early twentieth-century British society. He is democratic, in that people of any background may be afraid of him. And he is scary even to non-believers, since the practitioners of Devil-worship have had a universally bad press. Laura’s decision (or is it even a decision? It seems to be thrust on her without her volition) to commit herself to him is therefore disturbing because we genuinely don’t know, as readers, what to make of it. Has she been trapped into making a terrible mistake? Will she free herself from her contract, and if she doesn’t, will she suffer the consequences? Townsend Warner clearly wanted these questions to live on in the reader’s mind after the book has ended, perhaps precisely because the question of women’s freedom and equality with men had not yet found an answer, and wouldn’t find it in 1928, despite the official declaration that they were free at last to participate in the democratic process. The Devil is in the details of such declarations, she might have said (whose definition of democracy were women being invited to collude with?). And it’s in the beautifully observed details of the book, especially of Laura’s always unconventional reactions to the things, events, and people she encounters, that its brilliance lies.

lolly willowes6

Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the Mist as Fantastic History

I wrote this piece for a Festschrift for Peter Conrad. I’m sure he won’t mind me posting it here, with affectionate thanks for the inspiration he’s given me down the years.

tumblr_mzlxx9IVKk1s6h2wzo1_500I’d like to write a book of the kind Peter Conrad writes: nimble, quizzical, funny, learned, surprising, audacious, drawing together a vast range of heterogeneous material, brimming with passion for literature, and saying something clear and precise about the world from which literature emerges, the artefacts, arts and actions with which it intersects. I’m conscious, of course, that this wish of mine may well remain what it is – a beautiful fantasy – and that if the book ever comes into being it will hardly merit even one of the adjectives I’ve used to describe it. All the same, I’d like to give the dream some substance here at least, in connection with Peter, who has given life to so many strange dreams.

My book, then, will be called A Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century, and will take as its premise the notion that the best way of writing about the century just past is through its fantasies: the literature that turns its back on what really happened, or might have happened, and focuses instead on what certainly did not happen and never could, foregrounding the impossibility of what it represents, its flamboyant violation of the laws of physics, biology, history, reason, economics, or any known earthly culture. This is because during that century more writers than ever before discovered that the fantastic was the only mode by which they could frame an adequate response to the cataclysmic events and transformations they had experienced or encountered. The passage from my non-existent book that follows presents Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the Mist (1926) as a prime example of how fantastic fiction can write the moment of its composition with uncanny accuracy. In it, Mirrlees discovers a strange new voice that perfectly articulates the mood of the unsettled decade that followed the First World War; and by reading it we can lift the veil that obscures that time, learn something new about what we have lost and gained as we move steadily away from its complications.

Lud-in-the-Mist flamboyantly repudiates its writer’s historical moment, locating itself in a non-existent country called Dorimare which has undergone no industrial revolution, suffered no Great War, but remained an improbably stable bourgeois republic – an anti-monarchist Merry England whose interregnum has endured for two or three hundred years – since the revolution that ousted its final monarch, the ‘laughing demon of destructiveness’ Duke Aubrey. Dorimarite culture is ‘baroque’, that is, closely related to the culture of seventeenth-century Europe, when Richard Corbet wrote his celebrated ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ in nostalgic recognition that a new age of science had come into being: an age in which the machinery of the world was understood in radical new terms, so that the world itself began to operate differently, as John Crowley has shown us in his haunting sequence of alternative historical novels, Aegypt. At that point in time, the Dorimarites too said farewell to their fairies. Duke Aubrey fled to Fairyland, which borders Dorimare, and since then all contact with the fairies has been cut off, their names reduced to imprecations and insults, their staple diet – the fairy fruit that got slathered over the heroines of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ – banned as an illegal substance because of its unsettling effects on its consumers. Fairy fruit intensifies emotion: eating it in excess has ‘tragic results’, leading to ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon’. Even the mention of the stuff causes acute embarrassment to the placid, pragmatic burghers of Lud-in-the-Mist, the country’s capital. By banning it they congratulate themselves on having banished tragedy too from among their ranks, along with the excesses and illusions of all other forms of art. Freed from fairies and the narcotic consumables they traffic, the bourgeoisie of Lud-in-the Mist settle down to a life of comfortable and slightly self-mocking respectability, very much like the middle classes of 1920s England.

Except that like the middle classes of England, the Dorimarites are living a fantasy. Fairy artefacts are everywhere in Dorimare, as an anonymous antiquarian has the temerity to point out in a potted history of the country, which is burned by the censors as soon as printed. Fairy fruit continues to be smuggled over the border, and can be obtained by anyone who wants it; and the law that forbids it is a tissue of fabrications, alluding to the fruit as contraband fabric, a kind of silk, as if to symbolize the veil that the Luddite burghers have chosen to draw across their own eyes, a voluntary intensification of the mist from which their city takes its name. The chief deception to which they subject themselves is the belief that things don’t change. They encapsulate each other’s characters in oblique little inside jokes that get trotted out on each social occasion, as if to preserve the citizens in verbal amber, safe against the ravages of time. They practise annual rituals, such as parties to welcome the famous Moongrass cheeses every April, as if to impart regularity to the wayward seasons and guarantee their own continued prosperity. And when they die they have themselves buried in the Fields of Grammary, a picturesque urban cemetery whose stones eulogize the careers of the graves’ tenants in amusing epitaphs, reducing their long lives to a few short rows of carven platitudes much like the jokes of the burghers in their complacently self-effacing tone.

But the fantasies by which they live have a way of exposing what they are designed to conceal. The names and oaths of the Luddites – so the anonymous antiquarian assures them – derive from fairy originals; and if this embarrassing etymology may be suppressed by destroying the antiquarian’s potted history, the names remain: Pugwalker, Pyepowders, Mumchance, Gibberty, Leer; funny, suggestive, embarrassing to their owners, and highlighting for the twentieth-century reader the fictionality of what she’s reading, its silliness, its kinship to the realm of childish fantasy from which serious modern adults, like the Luddites, are so keen to divorce their activities. And although the ancient oaths of Dorimare may be controlled by a strict adherence to the conventions of good manners (although one of the commonest oaths in the book turns out to be a fairy password, opening doors to illegal secrets concealed behind hidden doors and old silk arrases); and if books can be burned by the hangman (although Mirrlees’ book contains its own etymological clue to the target of its satire in its title – King Lud was the founder of London, says Geoffrey of Monmouth – so that the resources available to the unknown antiquarian are clearly available to Mirrlees’s readers as well as the Luddites); there nevertheless remain the wordless languages spoken by the Silent People which figure so largely throughout the text, and which expose the relentless changes that suffuse the Luddites’ apparently stable universe – its interwovenness with death, desire, disease and the pervasive dread of some unidentifiable disaster – in ways that can never be suppressed.

The Silent People come in many guises. Fairies are the Silent People, and their banishment has made them yet more silent. But the dead too are the Silent People, and they refuse to be kept down or rendered dumb, whether by cosy epitaphs or other respectable methods of cleaning up history. They come back as decrepit labourers who can only speak in riddles, or as visions of the dead Duke Aubrey brought on by fairy fruit. A murdered farmer speaks by way of a pair of embroidered slippers, a set of old lawcourt records, a printed herbal and a herm; and his murder is exposed by a former Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist who has been declared ‘officially dead’ – the means by which the city corporation passes a motion of no confidence in its highest elected official – thus becoming one of the Silent People himself. And there are other kinds of Silent People too. Houses, for instance, which hide and yield so many family secrets. The working classes, who maintain an imaginative bond with the fairies long after the bourgeoisie have severed all ties with them, but whose insights into fairy business are never heard in official circles. Children, too, who must be seen and not heard, and who are therefore Silent People, at least in theory. Yet children keep bursting out with obscene or nonsensical exclamations throughout the novel; and they also keep bursting out of the bonds by which Luddite society seeks to restrain them. After eating fairy fruit, the pupils of Miss Crabapple’s Academy dance away to Fairyland, which for the Luddites is tantamount to dancing themselves to death. Young Ranulph Chanticleer evades the attentions of the chaperone set to guard him during a convalescent sojourn in the countryside, where the boy has been sent to recover from the effects of his own consumption of fairy fruit. He too runs away to Fairyland and death. And in both cases – those of the runaway girls and the convalescent boy – the loss of the children is regarded by the bulk of the Luddites as an embarrassment more than a catastrophe, an exacerbation of the young ones’ habitual rudeness in saying what should be left unsaid, and in changing persistently, unfazed by their elders’ commitment to perpetual stasis. Tragedy, after all, was banished along with the fairies, to be replaced by more mundane reactions to a loved one’s death, such as queasiness (one mother vomits repeatedly after her daughter’s departure) or blushing (the families of the Crabapple girls seem more disconcerted by the shameful cause of their disappearance than by the disappearance itself). To respond to the children’s elopement as one would to a tragedy would merely aggravate the disgrace they have brought on their families, not cathartically exclude it.

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But if children can be ignored, the countryside cannot, and neither can those little patches of countryside the Luddites tend within the city limits, their formal gardens. Both are filled with Silent People in the form of vegetation, whose seasonal cycles provide, with the changing moon, the favourite subject-matter of the vanished fairy artificers whose products survive throughout Dorimare in attics and forgotten corners. And the language of vegetation speaks out on every page of Mirrlees’s novel about the things the Luddite burghers wish to deny: change, desire, disgrace, betrayal, self-deception, approaching death. Trees, for example, remain silent or ‘dumb’ except for two great explosions of chromatic articulacy in spring and autumn, when the leaves come out (‘those of the birch are like a swarm of green bees, and those of the lime so transparent that they are stained black with the shadow of those above and beneath them’) and later decay. And in the early morning when flowers first emerge from the darkness, they announce the ubiquity of transience and illusion, stained as they are with ‘a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colours so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white’. No wonder if after watching the slow revelation of these evasive plants – and noting that ‘a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth’ – the adolescent Ranulph is seized with a sudden passion and runs off to Fairyland, where such things as transience, illusion and passion are, he thinks, unheard of. He wants to escape from ‘things happening,’ he tells his father, such as ‘summer and winter, and days and nights’. His wish to escape from these things by going to Fairyland, however, seems misguided; its people may be silent but they dedicate themselves to making things happen in the present and exposing the happenings of the past.  The proof is in the Fairy Fruit, whose consumption is what made him aware of the seasonal mutability that surrounds him.

Nathaniel Chanticleer, Ranulph’s father, shares the boy’s susceptibility to sudden passions. In his own adolescence he heard a Note accidentally struck on a fairy instrument, like Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord, and ever since has lived in a state of intense anxiety about the prospect of imminent change. It has generated in him, in fact, ‘a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed… as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands’. Nathaniel suffers, in fact, from what fantasy is often accused of over-indulging in its readers: continuous nostalgia, against which he braces himself by frequent visits to the cemetery, where he reads about the lives of dead citizens who have succeeded in evading catastrophe (if their epitaphs are to be believed) and now rest in peace. But Nathaniel cannot be comforted by false visions of the past; it’s nostalgia for the present that infects him. His nostalgia is in fact an acute form of realism, a consciousness that catastrophes have happened – the famine that killed the family of the labourer Diggory Carp, for instance, and drove him to suicide, or the murder of Farmer Gibberty – and may happen again. It’s this awareness that ensures he is well prepared for the great catastrophe of losing his son, and does not merely accept it, as the other Luddites accept the loss of their daughters. Instead he chases after the boy into Fairyland, another Orpheus chasing his Eurydice into the land of the dead.

When he gets there, he is confronted by two alternative visions of death. The first is the image of an eternal, changeless Dorimare, whose vegetation is frozen in enamelled perfection, like a painting of the way the burghers of Lud would like their land to be: a place where everything ‘had the serenity and stability of trees, the unchanging peace of pictures’. The second is a ‘black abyss’, a nothingness into which his son has plunged, and into which the father throws himself in a desperate bid to save him. In doing so he throws himself out of the text, as it were: that abyss exists in the reader’s world just as surely as it does in Dorimare. There have been few more convincing depictions in English fiction of a heroic resistance to fantasy, a refusal to immerse oneself in the narcotic dream to which the bourgeoisie have collectively capitulated. And it’s nostalgia, the sense of imminent loss, that gives Nathaniel the courage to stage that resistance, to confront the abyss, and to snatch something from it against all the odds: a child of his to grow to maturity and take his place when he faces death for the final time.

It’s also Nathaniel’s peculiar brand of nostalgia that enables him to stage a second revolution at the end of the novel, when he rides back from Fairyland in triumph with his rescued son, having previously liberated the Crabapple girls too from their captivity among the dead. The fairies march into Dorimare beside him, as does Duke Aubrey, triumphantly reclaiming the land that expelled them – although there are hints that the new regime may take a more democratic form than the old ones (fairy fruit, for instance, will be available to all; in the Dukes’ time it was food for the elite, and illegal in the time of the republic). Is this a reactionary revolution, a peculiarly English inversion of the events that took place in Russia less than a decade before the book’s publication? Hardly. The historical Luddites attacked the new mechanized looms that threatened their livelihoods, and it seems harsh to accuse them of conservatism. Mirrlees’s Luddites, on the other hand, the fat and prosperous citizens of Lud – she calls them Ludites as if to emphasize the ludic wit of the comparison – seek to destroy the hand-crafted tapestry of their own past in the interest of permanent prosperity (for themselves, that is, not the working classes they despise). Nathaniel’s revolution forces on them the recognition that the past is always with us, physically, emotionally, breaking through the flimsy screens and veils by which we strive to obscure it – just as the blood of a murdered man was once believed to burst out of his corpse when the murderer passes. And the humiliation of the bourgeoisie that this recognition entails opens the way for open dialogue between themselves and the Silent People they have tried to ignore: intermarriage with vagrants and workers, exchange of cultural artefacts such as songs, the legalization of narcotics, embracing the dead. Open dialogue of this kind seems a radical concept even now, so many decades after Mirrlees was writing.

130761_1We cannot repress our tragedies, our desires, our bouts of lunacy without doing ourselves serious harm – so Freud assures us. And even when we seek escape in literary fantasy, the sort of charming, whimsical fantasy this book embodies, we cannot long rid ourselves of the consciousness that we live at the edge of the abyss; especially when the fantasy ends with a quasi-Brechtian warning: ‘the Written Word is a Fairy […] speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice’. This Cretan paradox sweeps away the land of Dorimare in an instant, returning us to the moment when the book was written, less than ten years after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu. No middle-class urban idyll, no matter how charming, could bury those historical maelstroms in genteel silence, or restore the world that followed it to pastoral stability. Lud-in-the-Mist is startling because of the directness with which it discloses these discomfiting facts to its reluctant readers, while seducing them with passages of unparalleled loveliness and subjecting them to occasional peals of derisory laughter. That’s why I shall choose it as the cornerstone of my fantastic history.

 

 

 

 

Kirsty Logan, The Gracekeepers (2015)

51-ajQT1ggL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ursula K. le Guin created an archipelago – drew it first, then wrote about it – as a means of exploring what divides people from each other and how fractured parts can be made whole. Her wanderings through the map of Earthsea, from book to book, exposed a world of cultural differences between its inhabitants. Kirsty Logan’s archipelago in The Gracekeepers, by contrast, seems homogenous. Throughout her world there is a single entrenched division between island-dwelling ‘landlockers’ (who hold the keys to dry land and refuse to let non-landlockers near it) and seagoing ‘damplings’. The former never leave the earth, the latter set foot on solid ground with reluctance and difficulty. The same military vessels police land and sea; the same religious revivalists trawl the islands and waters for converts; apart from the revivalist cult, their faiths don’t vary much (the landlockers worship tree-gods, made bitter and vengeful by the loss of their habitat, while all the damplings bury their dead in maritime ‘graceyards’). The islands don’t have names: they are labeled like the outlying districts of London, North-East 19, South-East 11, North-West 22, as if they have been reduced to suburban uniformity. And though the climate of these islands seems to vary (the Southern ones grow pomegranates and bananas, the Northern specialize in animals) the impression is that they don’t cover a great area; or if they do, that the small amount of land they add up to – and the constant communication between them by means of merchants and messengers – has erased distinctions between them. The same attitude to gender, for instance, prevails from North to South: ‘as ever on the islands, the men and women were separate, with all the children on the women’s side’. There is too little earth left after the deluge to make extremes of difference possible. Everyone conforms.

Life is short, too, especially for damplings. The dangers of a seaborne existence are many, and deaths frequent; few adults live much past forty, and the rituals associated with death have become correspondingly formalized, the length of a family’s grieving process being determined by the number of days a caged bird called a ‘grace’ can live without being fed. The graces are kept by Gracekeepers: landlockers who live alone on islands so small they are almost boats. A Gracekeeper is an exile, cast out by an island’s people for some transgression large or small to spend her life in solitude serving the despised seafaring communities by burying their dead. In their solitude they commit many more transgressions – mostly small ones – safe from the prying eyes of their fellow islanders, unvisited by military men or revivalists. Existing in suspension between land and sea, the rules of either don’t much matter when you’re faced with daily evidence of how briefly they apply.

Everything has shrunk: the amount of land, the range of cultures, the length of a person’s life, the duration of grieving when a life ends. This is a book about smallness, full of small houses, small boats, small minds, small islands, small transgressions. Even the myths of the past have shrunk: a dilapidated circus boat is branded Excalibur, home to a small troupe of only thirteen individuals. One of its occupants calls herself Avalon, after the island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur went to recover from wounds sustained in his final battle. The name Arthur derives from a Celtic word for bear, or from the Greek Arcturus, ‘guardian of the bear’. The circus ringmaster is often likened to a bear, but he’s a depilated specimen with bad skin, burdened with an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful son, just like the original Arthur. Husband and wife address each other as ‘king’ and ‘queen’, but they only have ten subjects besides their son, and their demesnes get steadily smaller as the book goes on.

The ringmaster, known as Red Gold, has a rival for the title of bear guardian: the girl North, who dances or acts in the ring with a nameless bear, and who is destined, in Red Gold’s eyes, to marry his son and re-establish his family line among the landlockers. All the profits of the circus have been sunk in a house on an island where North and Red Gold’s son will live out their days, surrounded by children. North, meanwhile, dreams of the impossible. She is pregnant, and wishes only to keep her child, to keep her bear, to stay unmarried and to go on living in the circus. Red Gold’s dynastic pretensions imperil the baby and North’s place in the floating troupe; Avalon’s hatred of the bear puts its life at risk. North’s dreams are hardly transgressive, but the rigidity of Red Gold’s plans – and of the homogenous culture that dominates Logan’s global archipelago – means that for most of the book they seem inaccessible.

At the same time, she lives in a quasi-transgressive environment, like that of the Gracekeepers. The floating circus troupe ekes out a precarious existence by embodying the fantasies of rebellion and non-conformity the landlockers dare not practise. The acrobats – who pose as an incestuous brother and sister – execute terrifying leaps, soarings and plunges to demonstrate their mutual attraction, in defiance of gravity as well as the law. The equestrians balance on powerful moving animals like pretenders to royalty. The clowns mock the military – the most shocking of their acts, since the military of the archipelago is more or less all-powerful – or offer themselves up as scapegoats to the landlockers’ wrath, dressed as the capitalists whose greed is blamed for the inundation that shrank the world. Maypole dancers writhe in ribbons, performing promiscuity. And the girl North dances or cavorts with her bear, miming a cross-species sexuality which flies in the face of any recognized religion. The circus breaks the rules, and even its king and queen – the hot-tempered Red Gold who decides the programme and issues the orders, the dampling Avalon who dreams of becoming a landlocker – even they don’t conform, as the secret of Avalon’s own pregnancy reveals. Red Gold’s dream of settling his son and daughter-in-law in a cottage on dry land is a transgressive one, challenging the rigid division between land- and sea-dwellers that supposedly defines his world – just as he himself did when he chose to move from his original home on land to become a dampling.

The circus is not homogenous, either. Each member of the troupe has her or his agenda, from the clowns who yearn for anarchy to the self-absorbed boy Ainsel, Red Gold’s son, who dreams of ruling a kingdom on a wooden throne. The differences between the performers are emphasized by the fact that each group or act lives in a separate coracle, attached by chains to the circus boat Excalibur. And Logan neatly embodies their divisions by devoting separate chapters to each performer’s point of view. Even the clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, Red Gold and the seemingly empty-headed Ainsel get their own chunks of narrative, so we can see at first hand how slant their aims are.

In fact, despite the cultural homogeneity of Logan’s archipelago its inhabitants are as divided from each other as the people of Le Guin’s Earthsea. The isolation of the banished Gracekeepers, who live each on a tiny island seeing nobody but the mourners who seek them out to perform the ritual of the dead, is shared by the landlockers and damplings we encounter in the other chapters, who sometimes yearn to make connections with friends, neighbours, lovers, but invariably fail to do so, or find those connections arbitrarily snapped by the force of circumstance – a sudden storm, a misunderstanding, a drastic mistake. The two central characters in the book, the circus dampling North and the Gracekeeper Callanish, are so obviously fellow spirits that the reader expects them to fall in love as soon as they meet. But they meet only twice, and fleetingly, before the end of the book – first as children and then as a Gracekeeper and her client; and for much of the narrative they can only dream about being together, not imagine it as possible. Judging from readers’ comments online this has been a problem for some of them, who wanted something more like a traditional romance. For me, though, it underscores the point of setting the story in an archipelago. A meeting of minds and bodies isn’t easy, such a geography tells us; it needs a good sense of direction, strength of will, and a generous helping of sheer luck to bring people together. Living separately, on the other hand, is a piece of cake. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t need effort, because protecting one’s own boat or island is simply a matter of repelling all boarders without troubling to consider things from their point of view.

North and Callanish represent a possible future for Logan’s island world, through their mutual association with the mysterious sea-people: webbed and gilled humanoids of the ocean whose sex is ambiguous, like seahorses. The circus people specialize in gender ambiguities, which links them, too, with the sea-people; but despite their regular performances of dissidence they are necessarily conformists, subject to policing by the military and locked from land by the customs of the islanders. North’s and Callanish’s attraction to each other and to the sea people breaches the boundaries of land and sea, overcomes rule and ritual, and points to a possibility of limitless movement which is also a feature of archipelago stories. Islands may be divided from each other by water, but they’re linked by it, too, and the image of a submerged city that recurs throughout the narrative – its bells tolled by currents – makes the sea into a potential three-dimensional living space rather than a wasteland. The ocean is linked to death; it kills damplings and terrifies landlockers; but the bells that ring beneath its surface, the people who emerge from it to impregnate human women, make it a source of life, pleasure and potential too. North and Callanish, when they finally converge, work out a new relationship with the sea which promises to serve as a model for communities of the future. The community they form is a tiny one, surrounded by enemies. But the fact that children like them are being born and raised on land and sea, against all the odds, suggests that they will eventually and inevitably inherit the land, the sea, and even the deep waters which are currently forbidden to human beings by biology as well as custom.

This is a novel about the world; but it’s also a novel about Scotland. Callanish is named for a village on Lewis famous for its ring of standing stones; her name makes one think of Logan’s islands as a vastly extended version of the Western Isles. The rigid rules that govern them recall the hackneyed view of island life as governed by an austere Calvinism – a view that neither does justice to the vibrant communities that inhabit them, nor to the rapid changes they have been undergoing for centuries, nor to the diversity of their history as represented by the stones. (The oversized ‘coracles’ in which the circus performers live recall another aspect of island history: the saints who sailed from Ireland to bring God’s word to the people of the far North West.) Other names in the book invoke other aspects of Scottishness: the boy Ainsel, for instance, has his narcissism exposed by the fact that his name means ‘my own self’ in Scots. Red Gold’s full name is Jarrow Stirling, dividing him between one border – the boundary between Highlands and Lowlands where the City of Stirling stands – and another, the Scottish borders (Jarrow is located in north-east England). North’s name insists on the northern orientation of the novel. In one sense, then, it’s a meditation on the state of the North today, the second such fantasy I’ve read in recent months – the other being Neil Williamson’s weird extravaganza The Moon King, set on an island whose annual social and political cycle is governed by the waxing and waning of the moon that’s tethered to the titular ruler’s palace. The connections between these two Scottish fantasies are fascinating, and surely not coincidental.

By this I don’t mean that Logan is indebted to Williamson – the time of a novel’s gestation makes this unlikely, and in any case the two books have very different tones. But the fact that both represent their imagined Northern civilizations as caught between change and rigidity, anarchy and dictatorship, conformity and rebellion, and that both adopt the idea of islands cut off by seas inhabited by sinister and alluring merpeople as a central premise, makes one see them as arising from a similar analysis of the current state of Scotland. Simultaneously inward and outward looking, servile and attracted to radicalism, rule-bound and endlessly inventive, passionate for self determination and afraid to take the political steps that might lead to independence, the inhabitants of Scotland find themselves haunted by mysterious forms of alternative life – represented in both novels by the people of the sea, whose very existence ridicules the notion of rigid borders and national identities – without knowing quite how to react to them beyond the usual human response to otherness: unthinking violence. Both books are not altogether complimentary to the nation that spawned them; after all, like everywhere else it’s got plenty of bigots, thugs, exploiters and narcissists. But both books also offer in the end an exhilarating vision of hope: of expanded horizons and the potential for a strong egalitarian community, whose new self-confidence will make it willing to explore the unknown as well as treasure the familiar. And both books make one quietly proud of the current state of Scottish fiction.