“The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats
Reviewed in this column:
The City’s Son by Tom Pollock (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012)
Boneland by Alan Garner (Fourth Estate, 2012)
Celebrant by Michael Cisco (Chômu Press, 2012)
The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2012)
American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, 2013)
Samuel Johnson famously opined that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” On the other hand, William Cobbett, ever a man for contradiction, described London as the “great wen of all” and pondered the fate of “the metropolis of the empire”. London is probably the most storied of European cities, with a long history, stretching right back to its probable founding by the Romans, though I can’t help feeling there must have been some sort of earlier settlement at the river crossing. Over two thousand years, alongside a demonstrable history it has acquired a rich oral tradition, constructed layer upon layer, by generations of immigrants and settlers, and with that has another kind of history.
Welsh myths tell us, for example, that after his death, the head of Bran the Blessed was finally brought to the south of England and buried on the white hill, on which the White Tower, part of the Tower of London, was later built. The idea was that so long as Bran’s head remained buried, the country was safe from invasion, and it is, they allege, still there (though quite how this accounts for the Norman invasion is anyone’s guess). Others claim that King Arthur dug it up, saying that only a strong leader and a powerful army would protect the country, and King Harald so very nearly managed that. There are smaller stories, too – the dip in the line between two underground stations is, allegedly, to avoid cutting through a plague pit, though quite how anyone knew it was there remains a mystery. Covent Garden tube station is allegedly haunted, as are half the theatres in the area for that matter. If you go to the Embankment gardens, just behind Charing Cross, you can see the old watergate, and appreciate just how wide the pre-19th century Thames really was. For that matter, if the tides are absolutely right, it’s allegedly still just about possible for a very tall man to ford the Thames between Lambeth and Westminster. There’s a Chinese supermarket in Soho the upper rooms of which feature some of the best preserved Georgian woodwork in central London. Nothing is quite what it seems.
Every street has a story, or deserves a story, and many writers have recognised this. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, drawing on Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat, posited the idea that Nicholas Dyer, clearly modelled on Nicholas Hawksmoor, pupil to Christopher Wren, and architect of a number of striking buildings, most notably Christchurch, Spitalfields, was engaged in satanic practices, to whit building churches across London to a mystical pattern and carrying out human sacrifices. Nicholas Hawksmoor, a twentieth-century detective, is tasked with solving a series of mysterious murders carried out near Dyer’s churches. You can probably make a guess at what’s likely to be going on (and I still occasionally have to remind myself that the real Nicholas Hawksmoor, architect, was not a practitioner of the satanic arts, at least not so far as we know).
More recently, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere posited the idea of a London under London, a parallel city in which the names of the underground stations took on new life, while China Mieville’s King Rat similarly assumes the existence of a mysterious other London. Currently, Ben Aaronovitch is enjoying immense success with his DC Peter Grant series, beginning with Rivers of London (published in the US as Midnight Riot), although Aaronovitch’s novels are, by comparison with Gaiman and Mieville, more prosaic in tone, despite their subject matter. Paul Cornell’s London Falling, which I’ve not yet read, seems to head back towards Hawksmoor territory. But of the most recent crop of London novels, the one I currently find most interesting is Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012), first in the Skyscraper Throne trilogy.
Unlike most writers who take London as their topic, Pollock has not reached into the historic or the mythic past but has instead focused on how the weird might seek to manifest itself in the contemporary city. We meet it head on, in Filius Viae, the Son of the Streets. Is he a homeless teenager, or something more. If we are to believe Gutterglass, he is the son of a goddess, Mater Viae, but Gutterglass seems to be an animated pile of rubbish, able to alter his or her appearance at will, leaving the reader wondering whether this new London is not simply a figment of a teenager’s imagination. Yet if it is, what an imagination he has. We see him first in combat with a Railwraith, formed of ‘electricity: its memory, its dreams’, closely allied to London’s Underground system. ‘The rails are their conductors. They can’t survive away from them for more than a few minutes’. Except, of course, that this particular Railwraith was a long way from the Underground.
And thus we become aware of the existence of Reach, the Crane King. And when Filius and Gutterglass talk of cranes, they don’t mean birds. Anyone familiar with modern London will know that the chief distinguishing feature of its skyline is cranes, some of them enormous. New tower blocks are going up all over the place, and the city is dotted with building sites. It makes perfect sense that the ancient powers that lurk around the city should turn to cranes, these highly visible signifiers of modernity, using them, and the other symbols of technological progress, as a new way to exert their power over London. Reach, or so he believes, represents everything that is to come, and he is determined to take over London and destroy Filius.
We might regard this as nothing but an intense act of imagination on Filius’s part, a way of filling in the empty hours, were it not for Beth Bradley’s unexpected ride on something ‘train–like, but more animal somehow’, which leads her in turn to an encounter with the Railwraith and her first meeting with Filius, whom she memorably describes as ‘concrete-coloured’. Beth herself is something of a child of the streets. Neglected by her father, who is in mourning for his dead wife, Beth has nonetheless tried to maintain as normal a life as she can, while pursuing a fascination with making art on the walls of London. An act of revenge for the treatment of her best friend, Pen, by one of their teachers has forced Beth to leave home and school and try to make some sort of life for herself. Her intense feeling for the life in the streets might make her a natural companion for Filius; certainly, her delight in the new world she discovers as a result of their meeting is intense, even though Filius is burdened with the knowledge of what is to come.
How best to understand Filius? The alert reader will have already noticed several things. First, Pollock acknowledges the influence of Alan Garner in his work (along with Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and David Almond in particular). Second, anyone familiar with Elidor, the only one of Garner’s novels to feature, even fleetingly, an urban setting, will remember that when the children receive the treasures of Elidor, one of those treasures is a spear, which is given to Roland, the youngest child. Roland is the only person who doesn’t try to deny his own experience of Elidor, even while his siblings try to forget it. And Filius’s preferred weapon is of course a spear. The connections multiply – Garner referenced King Lear in using ‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came – ’ and it is tempting to think of that Dark Tower re-envisaged as a skyscraper.
Garner’s engagement with the city was driven by the tension between the seemingly unchanging countryside of Cheshire and the relentless post-war reconstruction of central Manchester. For all that his evocation of a city under siege from bulldozers is starkly memorable – and when tranformed into Elidor it becomes hideously Piranesian – one also has the sense that Garner is constantly seeking a way out, a return to the landscape with which he is most familiar, already lovingly delineated in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.
By contrast, Pollock willingly embraces the city of London, filling it with strange and wonderful characters. One delights in the presence of the Sodiumites, creatures who inhabit the older street lights and the Whiteys, the inhabitants of the new Blankleits. The Pavement Priests, the moving statues, even the mirror-folk, as well as the cast of human street-dwellers whom Filius recruits to his cause, as he battles to take control of London. There is a sly humour at work, too. The Mother’s cats, it turns out, are named for the old, lost rivers of London.
This is good, so far as it goes … and I admit to personally being a sucker for the idea of secret Londons. However, a ‘but’ hovers in the air. While Pollock has a wonderful eye for the ways in which aspects of London can be made as extraordinary as they are commonplace, and it is hard not to be caught up in Beth’s enthusiasm, the story itself remains as yet a little thin, a little more conventional than one might perhaps hope for. Yes, there are certain revelations late on which I imagine will significantly transform the story in the second volume but for now we are dealing with a story which is in some ways surprisingly banal. Pollock seems to me to be rather less confident in portraying Beth’s home life and that of her friend, Parva, Pen. Beth’s father’s sudden awakening to his daughter’s problems seems a little too sentimental, while Pen’s problems with a particular teacher, not to mention her difficulties living as a modern Asian girl with fairly traditional parents, though they dominate the first few chapter, all too quickly fade into the background, and when they do reappear, are handled in a way which seems somewhat perfunctory, given what they initially provoked. Yet the atmopsheric nature of Pollock’s London seems to offset this, and I look forward to reading the sequel, The Glass Republic.
Having mentioned Alan Garner, I have hummed and hawed about discussing Boneland (Fourth Estate, 2012) in this column. I keep putting this off, mainly because Garner is for me so very much sui generis it is difficult to imagine constraining him with terms such as ‘weird’, however capacious they might be. He simply overflows and defies definition. Nonetheless, if you haven’t already taken note of this novel, allegedly the concluding part of the Brisingamen trilogy, you should, though I do not advise pressing it upon eager children who have adored Weirdstone and Moon of Gomrath and are clamouring for more, not unless they are already sophisticated readers. Even then, I suspect elements of it will sail straight over their heads although I don’t doubt they will also quickly recognise the familiar rhythms of chanted place names and identify some of the connections.
In Boneland we once again meet Colin, but as a middle-aged man, an astronomer working at Jodrell Bank, in the heart of the Cheshire landscape that Garner has claimed for himself (indeed, it is situated almost literally at the bottom of his garden). This futuristic eye looks deep into the past, viewing events that have long since taken place, and stands as a usefully tangible metaphor for Garner’s own creative process in this novel, linking the present and the deep past.
The narrative focuses on Colin’s conviction that his sister, Susan, long missing, is trying to contact him again. Quite how Susan went missing, no one knows; indeed, most people Colin knows have denied that she ever existed. Colin himself does not remember how she was lost as he recalls nothing before his eleventh birthday, although after that he remembers everything in excruciatingly Borgesian detail. Colin himself lives on Alderley Edge itself and insists on returning there every night. He sees himself as its guardian in some way not fully articulated, the latest in a long line of guardians that might include the wizard Cadellin, the Green Knight, and reaching back further, deeper into the past to a mysterious shamanic figure who stalks Colin’s dreams, armed with a flute made from bird bones.
Is this entire novel a fever dream – as the novel opens, Colin has been in hospital for some unspecified procedure and has insisted on discharging himself rather than leave the Edge untended overnight – or should we take Colin’s experience at face value? Is he in fact surrounded by guardian figures who recapitulate the various aspects of his childhood experience s, preparing him for his sister’s return? It is almost impossible to tell: the novel resists easy interpretation, like most of Garner’s work post–Red Shift. The preoccupation with sound rather than word, with something so deeply felt it is almost impossible to articulate meaningfully through words is coupled with what might crudely be called a recapitulation of everything Garner has ever touched on in his writing. Familiar motifs resurface – the stone axe, the blue-silver combination, the playing with dialect – but suffused with bitterness and sadness. One is left with a sense that Colin represents the last bulwark against darkness, and he is not intending to go gently.
All of which is to make Boneland sound deeply trivial and of course it is not. It is, however, one of those novels that is better read than written about. And to some extent the same is true of Michael Cisco’s Celebrant (Chômu Press, 2012). This is a novel that makes perfect sense while one is reading it but which proves oddly elusive when one tries to pin it down on paper. This much we know: a man called deKlend is seized with the idea of going to the city of Votu. Why, he doesn’t know, but does there have to be a reason? Does Votu even exist? A series of encyclopaedia entries suggest that it does but given it seems to be deKlend who is reading these extracts can we be sure that the encyclopaedia has a physical existence beyond his mind? Indeed, one character insists that deKlend is actually in Votu already. Is it actually a place or is it instead a state of mind?
Of all the cities I’ve written about in recent reviews, Votu is the most elusive. It is present in every word of this text and yet the nature of the city is impossible to pin down, lost in the flow of words. So many words. And yet, at a sentence-by-sentence level this novel is perfectly intelligible. Only as the sentences gradually pile up into chapters does the reader begin to realise that the novel is somehow eluding her efforts to grasp it. Words ebb and flow, images come into focus and then recede from view again. Fragments make sense but how do they link together. What are the pigeon-girls and the rabbit-girls? How are they connected to one another. In the end, it’s simpler to let the story overwhelm one as a reader and then seek out glittering pieces of narrative as they catch the eye.
Or, to put it another way, one of my favourite things to do in a strange city is to sit in a coffee shop or bar, watching the city go by, trying to make sense of the patterns of the neighbourhood, observing as an outsider, telling myself stories. The bigger the city, the busier the neighbourhood, the more complicated the story. I might even imagine myself into the story while failing totally to understand what’s going on. In part, I think this is what Cisco attempts with this novel; if deKlend is, as he seems to be, some sort of homeless dweller of the streets, half crazed, then this is his experience of the city, doubled, because the reader almost certainly doesn’t have his frame of reference to work with. It makes for a heady brew, a novel that needs to be read more than once, and on the understanding that it probably won’t completely make sense with subsequent readings. We look for sense in what we read; Celebrant denies us that and reminds us that the world is not a structured, sensible place. It is strange, peculiar, only ever half-apprehended. To lose one’s concentration even for a moment is to be perhaps forever thrown out of kilter.
That sense of being somehow permanently adrift is caught again in Jesse Bullington’s The Folly of the World (Orbit, 2012), though in a rather plainer language than that used by Michael Cisco. The Folly of the World is one of those novels that displays a distinctly fantastical sensibility without, so far as one can tell, a truly fantastical act ever being committed (although there are odd hints that not all is what it might be). Yet neither can it be said to be a ‘historical’ novel – and of course the worry always persists that a novel set in a period or place of which one knows very little somehow acquires a fantastic patina simply by being unknown to the reader. This is not, to my mind, the most appropriate way to read things but there are novels and moments when it is difficult to do anything else.
Jesse Bullington has pinned The Folly of the World very firmly in time and place – 1421, Holland, the aftermath of a huge flood. A drowned landscape, people struggling to live, water, water everywhere, water, and mud, and drowned villages. And a man who is determined to claim his birthright by whatever means, even if that involves finding someone willing (or obliged) to dive into the ruins of an inundated house and recover a ring from the finger of its dead owner. Jan Tieselen has conceived this audacious plan, and now only needs an expert swimmer, who turns out to be Jolanda, the much abused daughter of a dye-maker, living in muddy squalor with her father and a clutch of brothers. Jan buys Jolanda from her father and sets out to tame her, as he thinks. Jolanda has dreamed of escape without really being certain what freedom might look like. Even now her freedom is limited but it’s infinitely better than what she had before. Even when things go wrong. Especially when things go wrong. Although the ring is recovered, the expedition goes horribly, bizarrely wrong, not least when Jolanda, seemingly half fish herself, is attacked by what seems to be a monstrous catfish, capable of heaving itself out of the water. Having gorged, so their guide suggests, on human flesh, it has turned man-eater.
There are two ways to do this. I can tell you about the European wels, which is indeed a monster catfish; it can grow up to thirteen feet long and is none too fussy about what it eats. Catfish have even been observed lunging at pigeons sitting on branches over the water so they are more than capable of adapting to the environment in which they find themselves and improvising. They are rumoured to be picking off waterfowl in the rivers around the Olympic stadium in London.
Or we can talk in figurative terms. Given the period in which this story is set, why not think about Jonah and the whale, about the leviathan which swallows humans whole, which is both monster and metaphor, embodying evil. What else swims in the muddy depths of this story? All three of the main characters emerge from water, vanish back into it, are somehow mysteriously swallowed by it and yet saved by it. Like eels, they squirm through the story, happy on land and on water, no one knowing where they’ve come from, where they vanish to.
As I’ve said, there is nothing overly fantastical about this story, other than the apparent capacity of Jolanda, Jan and Sander to keep on surviving. Their story is grubby for the most part, confidence tricksters trying to maintain their grip on Jan’s family fortune (though it is by no means clear that he is entitled to this). Sander impersonates Jan, Jan has vanished. Jolanda is keeping the show on an even keel and in many ways is the one who benefits most from this new life that has been wished upon them, skilfully steering her way through the shoals of social disaster.
Outside the bleak landscape of mud turns to ice. Bodies wash up in the rubbish, vanish under the ice, war comes, then goes again. No one really knows what’s going on. But we keep reading because the oddity of this story is so compelling. And it’s not the people, vividly drawn as they are, but the landscape that is so strange. It’s so grim, so dark, so utterly unrelenting. The grey skies, the black land, the drowned villages, they grind down the soul. one wonders how on earth anyone, anything, can survive. All that is light and beautiful seems to have vanished, replaced by the grotesque and the ugly, yet somehow hope continues to live, in tiny cracks and crevices, small moments of kindness.
Wink is a far cry from Holland. The greyness of European skies is replaced by the sunshine of New Mexico. It is a small town, quiet, pretty, not on any maps, the kind of place that immediately arouses suspicion in the mind of the experienced reader, assuming the mere mention of New Mexico, with all its connotations of strangeness, hasn’t already set off warning bells in the reader’s mind. One might already be suspecting that American Elsewhere (Orbit, 2013) is being just a little self-conscious, aware of the tropes it’s employing. Robert Jackson Bennett does, after all, have a certain form in this matter, as those who read my review of The Troupe may recall.
We both crave ordinariness and suspect it. The perfect town is a staple of horror films and novels, yet the thought of that quiet little retreat is difficult to resist. Mona Bright, the novel’s protagonist, craves peace and quiet after a difficult few years. After the death of her father, a man she loathed, Mona finds that she has inherited, among other things, a red Dodge Charger, which is useful as she has also inherited her mother’s house in New Mexico, and has only a few days to claim it. Given she is currently in Kentucky, this is going to require some serious driving.
Mona’s experience, as she attempts to locate Wink, this curiously elusive spot, seems oddly familiar. Caught in a maze of roads and research, she finally locates the town’s position when she discovers more about the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, situated on the edge of town, and the place where her mother, dead by her own hand, once worked. Again, it’s being heavily signalled to the reader that things are afoot. Does the author love to tease? I think so, indeed I hope so. We have, it seems, reached a point where the story can go one of several ways. To go one way is to read the story as a fairly traditional techno-thriller with scientific underpinnings – an experiment gone horribly wrong, a crossing between worlds and no obvious way back. To go another is to find a story of vaguely eldritch horror, insufficiently tentacular to please Lovecraft, I suspect – and the setting is anyway rather too sunny and conventional – but perhaps closer to Algernon Blackwood in some ways. The forests and plains are replaced by desert but there is that same uneasy sense of something lurking just out of sight, something which presses hard on the soul, as ancient presences gather.
And to go a third way is to find oneself in a story where the simple binaries of good and bad are insufficient to deal with what’s going on. Yes, there are ancient presences lurking beyond the boundaries of Wink, but there are equally ancient presences lurking in plain view if one only has the skill to notice them. It is the interplay between the traditional threat and a more ‘contemporary set of monsters which in part makes this story so rich and so unexpected, that and the reasons why the creatures are drawn to Wink in the first place. Without giving too much away, science has worn away the membrane between worlds, creating a bruise which acts like a beacon. It is a wonderful image.
Wonderful too is the way that Bennett allows the novel to unfold at its own pace. It takes six hundred pages to do so but they’re not dull pages by any means. Instead, Bennett represents the pace of life as it is lived in Wink, slow, thoughtful, with occasional flashes of violence. As Mona gradually uncovers the true nature of Wink she has the time to become acclimatised to the strangeness around her, to accept it, to face down her own demons and make peace with herself and the world. And as well for it takes a steady nerve to deal with sibling rivalry on a grand cosmic scale. I’ve yet to read a novel by Robert Jackson Bennett that I didn’t enjoy, and this is no exception. American Elsewhere is as different from The Troupe
I’ve yet to read a novel by Robert Jackson Bennett that I didn’t enjoy, and this is no exception. American Elsewhere is as different from The Troupe as chalk is from cheese and yet they show a similar relish for exploring those places in the world where strangeness breaks through, just to see what might be found.
Which in truth could be said of all the novels I’ve looked at this time around.
Maureen Kincaid Speller has been a fantasy and SF critic for over 25 years, contributing reviews to Interzone, Strange Horizons, Foundation, Vector (the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association) and The Zone, among others. She also has her own blog, called Paper Knife, from which her series of linked reviews of the 2011 BSFA Novel Award and Clarke Award shortlists was nominated for the BSFA Non-Fiction Award 2012. Two of her reviews were recently included in Speculative Fiction 2013, edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin. In 2011 the British Science Fiction Association produced a chapbook of her critical writings, And Another Thing: A Collection of Reviews and Criticism, edited by Jonathan McCalmont.
She earns a living as a copy editor and proofreader, and is partway through a Ph.D on Native North American literature and ethical approaches to critical theory. She lives in Folkestone, Kent, UK, with her husband, Paul Kincaid, and spends what’s left of her spare time growing vegetables.