"There was a hill that ate people," begins the first story. Just like that. "Far away, and a long time ago, on a high mountain, without trees for shel...more"There was a hill that ate people," begins the first story. Just like that. "Far away, and a long time ago, on a high mountain, without trees for shelter, without body or arms for anything, on spindly legs, ran Great Head," begins another story. We are in the realm of folk tales, where we are told what happened, and we must simply go along with it.
There is something of the national treasure about Alan Garner. He has been writing excellent books for more than 50 years. He was, I suspect, the first person to write what now we would describe as urban fantasies. His prose at its best (and it is pretty much always at its best) seems inevitable, and pushes reviewers into using similes that compare it to rocks and gorges and unchanging natural formations.
As I read the Collected Folk Tales there was a feeling of happy familiarity from the first, a déjà vu, as if I knew these stories, some of them intimately. My assumption as I read was that I had encountered most of them in other forms and other places (folk tales are told and retold, after all), but then, when I finished reading, I looked at the copyright page, and realised that more than half the stories had been published in 1969 as The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins. I read it when I was nine, and reread it often. I could remember it in my local library, remembered taking it off to a quiet corner, remembered how much I had loved it.
It is peculiar to encounter a book half of which was assembled up to 40 years after the rest and not to be able to see any obvious difference in the writing or the writer. The prose in the old stories feels as inevitable as the new. The stories are written in a variety of voices, emulating the places the tales came from, but the prose is always spare and hard, not a word wasted, not a word out of place.
Here we have stories from Britain and Ireland and all over the world, retold with assurance. Some of the high points that were not in the original collection include "The Flying Children", a story of lies and sex and supernatural revenge and murder that I first encountered in Neil Philip's Penguin Book of English Folk Tales. It is a story that makes authors want to retell it (I shoehorned it into Sandman). Then there's a tale Garner calls "Iram Biram", which Philip called "The Pear Drum" when he collected it, and which is a curiosity in itself, because it began as a nightmarish Victorian short story by Lucy Clifford called "The New Mother". Garner strips it down to its elements. It's an act of literary ventriloquism that illuminates the oral and folk tradition. Two girls named Blue Eyes and Turkey are tempted by a wild girl to be naughty, with the promise of a gift of a mysterious "pear drum". They are not naughty enough to get the drum, but are still so naughty that their mother leaves, and a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail, takes her place.
Garner goes beyond the original ending, playing with the sound and the meaning of words:
There were no lamps lit, but in the glow of the fire they saw through the window the glitter glitter green glass of a mother's eye. They heard the thump; thump; thump of a wooden tail.
Iram, biram, brendon bo Where did all the children go? They went to the east, they went to the west They went where the cuckoo has its nest. Iram. Biram. Brendon. Bo. And the Wild Girl wept.
Garner makes up a poem, and adds the haunting image of the Wild Girl weeping as a way of closing the tale, thus moving it somewhere entirely new, away from Victorian nursery horror and into the realm of the twice-told tale.
The book itself has a core of goblin stories – but a goblin can be anything, and Garner's own preferences seems to be for moments of the inexplicable. So many of the tales lack explanation for the events in them, as if the stories were the lyrics of folk songs, and the true meaning is in the music. There is an essay in here on the roots of the fairy folk, and who they really were, or might have been. There are a few dialect pieces, written, Garner says, in the voice of his blacksmith grandfather. There are poems: some collected from "Anon" and the dead, others by Garner himself, my favourite being "R.I.P", which begins: "A girl in our village makes love in the churchyard. / She doesn't mind who, but it must be the churchyard," and continues, lusty and honest to its bitter-hopeful end.
There is a version of Valmiki's Ramayana. There are Norse gods, Algonquin revenge magic and a hero's odyssey from Ireland to a series of magical islands.
This Collected Folk Tales is, by definition and by temperament, a patchwork, and reading it is like entering a rag and bone shop in which every object has been polished up and repaired and made fit for use, while always leaving in the cracks and dents that show that the goods have had years of use already. With the exception of some of the poems, there is nothing new or shining here, and the book is all the better for it. If I had small children, or a class, I would read to them from it.
And if, by the time I have grandchildren, there are still public libraries, as I hope there will be, I trust that they will find this book themselves in one (for it will be all the better for not being given or suggested or recommended to them by an adult), and take it to a quiet corner and read.
(A review from 2002 and the Washington Post, written before Coraline was published.)
It is possible to look at the growth of the phenomenon of “crossov...more(A review from 2002 and the Washington Post, written before Coraline was published.)
It is possible to look at the growth of the phenomenon of “crossover” fiction – essentially, Children’s or Young Adult fiction which is enjoyed and consumed in quantity by adults – in several different ways. You could view it as a sad symptom of the creeping infantilisation of the culture. You could see it as a triumph of marketing. Or, more optimistically, you could view it as a need by adults for Story, without which children will not read. Engines of story drive the books of Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and the rest of the recent crop of crossover authors. Many of their books are, by any standard, good books, and perhaps adults simply needed to be told that it was socially acceptable to read them in order to be coaxed to pick them up.
I wonder though if there isn’t another phenomenon at work here. Fiction only seems capable of existing in one ghetto at a time, so if your book is in what used, rudely, to be known as the kiddylit ghetto, then it is children’s fiction no matter what else it might be (fantasy, historical, horror, SF, humour, romance, and so on.). As a result of the enormous success of authors like J.K. Rowling and Pullman, adults in their millions have now read and enjoyed fantasy novels without ever having had to browse the fantasy shelves. For the most part, after all, the crossover books tell tales in which the joy of story is also the joy of the fantastic without apology, a freedom of children’s literature that can be lost at adulthood, where metaphor becomes literal, and genre restrictions apply.
But whatever the reason, the former kiddylit ghetto has become fashionable, the cool people are moving in, and property prices are starting to climb.
It’s hard to get cooler than Michael Chabon, whose last novel, the Pulitzer prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay displayed a love for and perception of popular culture and an understanding of the engines that drive the teenage mind. In Summerland he uses that understanding to tell a very different kind of story,.
Ethan Feld is a terrible baseball player. His widower inventor father builds airships. Ethan plays baseball in Summerland, on the tip of Clam Island, Washington, where it never rains.
When Feld Sr. is kidnapped by the evil Coyote, in order to bring about the end of everything, Ethan and his not-a-girlfriend Jennifer T. Rideout, accompanied by their odd friend Thor and Cinquefoil (an Indian “ferisher” -- not quite a fairy, inspired, one assumes, by the Native American tales of tribes of very small, magical people) have to follow him across the many worlds while putting together a baseball team.
The first hundred pages of set-up are less assured, in tone and style, than the rest of the book. But as soon as the kids flee Summerland, and head off into a great beyond to put their team together and save the universe, the story finds its game. That they will succeed is never in any doubt. That there will be reverses and alarums, setbacks and treacheries and fine lessons to be learned is also a given from the off. Ethan must learn to save himself and, ultimately, the world.
Coyote, whenever he appears, which is too seldom, steals scenes with ease and aplomb. He’s Coyote, sure, and he’s Loki and Prometheus and probably Bugs Bunny and the Squire of Gothos as well: a force unto himself, who is having too much fun trying to bring about Ragnarok – delightfully Hobson-Jobsonned by Chabon into “Ragged Rock”.
Standout sequences include a magnificently gory chapter involving some unfortunate werewolves and the queen of the shaggurts – frost giants with “appetites vast and bloody” [p 410], and a storyline set within the Tall Tale tradition, where Ethan and his team meet the Big Liars of Old Cat Landing, the tall tale people, all “lies and legends made flesh...[who] hung around Old Cat landing, haunting its bars and brothels” [p 346], now sadly shrunken by time and disbelief: Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan and John Henry, Annie Christmas and the rest of them. It’s the place that Chabon comes closest to a genuine American mythopoeia and it is very fine indeed.
As a reader I sometimes felt shortchanged. It’s a thick book, but it could comfortably have been thicker: I wanted the better setpieces to go on longer, and to get more of a sense of what made the other members of Ethan’s baseball team tick -- with the exception of Ethan, Jennifer and the tragic she-sasquatch, Taffy, they seemed sketched, not painted. I wanted to see the games they lost. I wanted more.
But the engines that drive Summerland are real story engines, and they work hard to deliver: it’s a fantasy with a young protagonist, which fuses baseball, Native American tales, Norse myths and sundry shaggy god stories into a tasty, quest-driven stew. Whether this is enough, as the marketing material that accompanies the book trumpets, to make it “clearly and indisputably a classic” is much harder to judge, and one that time and popular taste will decide, not I. But it’s a rollicking and fine tale, well told and with moments of real magic, peril, adventure, terror and triumph in the mix, not to mention what is, I am certain, the most delightful sound of a window breaking in all of fiction. And that ought to be enough. (less)
(This review was originally published in the Washington Post in 2001.)
Black House is a novel of slippage. We learn about slippage (a secondary definit...more(This review was originally published in the Washington Post in 2001.)
Black House is a novel of slippage. We learn about slippage (a secondary definition of which, we are told, helpfully, in the text, is the feeling that things in general have just gotten, or will shortly get, worse) at the beginning of the book as we travel, invisibly through the town of French Landing, Wisconsin, early in the morning, winding up in an abandoned shack where “limp flypaper ribbons hung invisible within the fur of a thousand fly corpses” and it is here that we encounter the mutilated body of ten-year-old Irma Freneau, and watch a dog attempt to eat her severed foot out from its running shoe.
Irma is the latest victim of a serial killer whom the local paper has taken to calling the Fisherman, after Albert Fish, a real-life child-killer and cannibal. Not far from the shack, down a road, behind a no entry sign, is a house all painted black; and that house is a gateway to somewhere else.
Slippage is what happens on the borders of things and places, and the town of French Landing is on many borders, one of which is the border between Stephen King country, and Peter Straub country.
The plot itself will revolve around the struggle between two men: the murderous Fisherman, and our hero, Jack Sawyer, known locally as “Hollywood”, a retired homicide detective from LA. Jack Sawyer retired young and came out to Wisconsin in search of peace and quiet. It is a truism and a genre obligation that retired cops in novels, even novels with slippage, must come out of retirement for their last case, and Jack does, although, as we know from the off, this will not be a simple police procedural or even a whodunnit (the identity of the Fisherman is given to us early in the text -- the “hook of his nose” followed by the “wormy lips” are a dead giveaway, if we’ve missed the hints about his awful deeds and secret pleasures); and it will have its roots in a previous novel.
Those who remember The Talisman, Straub and King’s first collaboration, have already met Jack Sawyer as a 12 year old boy who travelled a long way, across the US and across a distorted, magical version of America called the Territories, to find the Talisman that would save his dying mother’s life. The Talisman was a fantasy with dark elements: a fat book that could comfortably have been even fatter, with a winning young hero named after Tom Sawyer.
Black House is a sequel of sorts to The Talisman, although it also draws upon the mythology that King has been building in his Gunslinger sequence, and which surfaced most recently in his Hearts in Atlantis. It is a book that exists on the borders of genre – it’s not a serial killer romance, although the Fisherman is unquestionably a superhuman serial killer possessed of (and by) strange powers. It is too dark to be a fantasy but too light, too deeply sunny, to be, at its heart, a horror novel. Here also we experience slippage.
It can be a mistake to play hunt-the-author in any collaborative text. Collaborations work when two authors find a single voice for a story, and fail when they do not, and King and Straub create a mutual style that is clean and effective. It is knowing without being arch, and it does not read like either King or Straub. That there are dead giveaways in the text – the obscure jazz references that Straub delights in, for example, or some splattery scenes with a hedgeclipper that could only have been penned by King – is no help in the who-wrote-what game. (In fact I’d be willing to bet that most of the jazz references come from King, out to amuse his co-author and confuse reviewers, and that Straub took his turn at wielding the clipper.)
Initially, I found Jack Sawyer uncomfortable in his role as the book’s hero as he is in his retirement: surrounded by a magnificent supporting cast of colourful characters, Jack comes off as almost too pure, too perfect; he might have wandered into this July Wisconsin-Hell-on Earth from a better place. But as I read on, I began to realise that in many ways Black House (only one vowel away from Bleak House, the foggy opening of which is quoted in the text) is a Victorian novel. The authors cited, quoted from, glossed, in the book are popular writers who once were read and are now both read and respected, particularly Dickens, Twain, and Poe. The characters, too, have a Dickensian quality to them. They are the forces of darkness – The Fisherman, Wendell Green the grasping newspaperman, Lord Malshun (Sauron as used-car salesman); forces of light – Jack Sawyer himself; Henry Leyden, the blind man with the many voices; the magnificently filthy brewer biker gang who call themselves the Hegelian Scum; brave Judy Marshall, who is being driven mad by her visions of the truth, and her son, Ty, who will become the Fisherman’s victim, and on whose rescue the fate of the universe, quite literally, depends. And the plot, which roller-coasters forward through the Wisconsin July, has the easy comfortable quality of something built by two authors who are perfectly well aware of how good they are, even to the point of referring to themselves as a couple of “scribbling fellows” in the text. (“Always scribble, scribble, eh Mr. King?”)
Sometimes the collaborative process has its downside; on occasion the characters feel like counters being pushed back and forth across a board, and there is a final plot twist which smacks less of inevitability than it does of the authors checking off the last item on their to-do list. The use of the present tense, which could too easily get wearing over 600 pages, for the most part keeps the narrative voice supple, informal, and fresh, although it can, on occasion, make one feel as if one is reading a film script – and there is a sequence when Irma’s body is found, and the authors retread the same half hour from a number of points of view, in which it actively becomes a handicap.
Such quibbles aside, in Black House one is watching two master-craftsmen, both at the top of their game, collaborating, with every evidence of enormous enjoyment, on a summery heartland gothic. The book is hugely pleasurable, and repays a reader in search of horror, adventure, or of any of the other joys, both light and dark, one can get from the best work of either of these two “scribbling fellows”.
Whether King and Straub will reconvene for a final installment in another fifteen years, or whether Jack Sawyer’s tale has been subsumed into King’s Gunslinger series only time will tell. Either way, it is hard not to look forward to the eventual outcome.(less)
Novellas are an odd form of writing, and there is no love for them in publishing. They are the wrong size. You need about four of them to make a standard-sized book.
It has been almost 30 years since Stephen King's first set of four novellas, Different Seasons, four stories written in the golden dawn of his career. They were mostly fantasy-free, and three of them were filmed (as Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil). They were sharp, smart, dark stories of a perfect length to film – longer than the short stories King had written for men's magazines early in his career, shorter than the blockbuster novels he had started to carve out, following the success of Carrie (which was itself a novella, padded out to novel-length with commentary on the events of the book). (less)
A beautiful conclusion to the series. (I assume it's the conclusion, only because it also concludes a dangling plotline from the first book.) The comp...moreA beautiful conclusion to the series. (I assume it's the conclusion, only because it also concludes a dangling plotline from the first book.) The complete Tales of the City cycle is an astonishing one, good-humoured, great-hearted, and written with wit and humanity. Maupin makes you turn the pages because you care about the characters and you want to spend time with them, which may be the best way there is.(less)
Caveat: This book is dedicated to me, so I may well be immediately biased in its favour.
It's an epistolary novel. Very dark, very strange, dislocating...moreCaveat: This book is dedicated to me, so I may well be immediately biased in its favour.
It's an epistolary novel. Very dark, very strange, dislocating and dream-like. An ex-prisoner has inherited (or has he?) an abandoned house, containing a were-fox, a ghostly butler, and, possibly, the contents of the Tarot. Twins occur and reoccur, identities are exchanged, people are not what they appear to be...
I'm loving it, but am reading it only a few pages at a time, to make it last.
Right, I finished it. And now, more than anything else, I want to read it again. Some of the twists, yes, I guessed, but the full way the book opens out made me start to reread immediately. I think the book, like the house, is bigger than it first appears.
As a side note, I have a mad theory that you can always find a Wolf in a Gene Wolfe book, and it will always be the key, or a key, to the text. This book does nothing to disprove my theory.
Am now rereading. I love the patterns in the book. (I spoke about the tarot earlier: the book consists of two sets of 22 chapters, a doubled set of trumps). I love that a lazy reader would read a book that is not as good as the one that Gene Wolfe wrote, while a reader who is working gets a book that, like the Sorcerer's House itself, appears small and straightforward, and then grows on the inside.
Gene Wolfe once defined good literature as (I quote from memory) something that can be read with pleasure by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure, and this is one of those.(less)
Really beautiful, smart and heart-touching story of an architecture professor who, when he is 50, learns better.
It ought to be a five star review, bu...moreReally beautiful, smart and heart-touching story of an architecture professor who, when he is 50, learns better.
It ought to be a five star review, but I kept feeling like the moment the whole thing came together it would be one of the best graphic novels anyone had ever done and one of the finest stories ever told... and it reached the end and left me feeling that had it all come together - perhaps had it been much longer - it would have been amazing, and as it was it was simply astonishingly good...(less)
JACOB and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to entertain children, not at first. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who almost two centuries...moreJACOB and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to entertain children, not at first. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who almost two centuries ago assembled German fairy tales as part of a life's work that included, Maria Tatar points out, ''massive volumes with such titles as 'German Legends,' 'German Grammar,' 'Ancient German Law' and 'German Heroic Legends.' '' (''Jacob Grimm's 'German Grammar' alone,'' we are told helpfully, ''took up 3,854 pages.'') They published their first collection of Märchen, ''Children's Stories and Household Tales,'' in 1812, with a second volume in 1815 and an expanded and revised edition in 1819; folklorists who became, of necessity, storytellers, they reworked the tales for years, smoothing them while removing material they considered unsuitable for children.
The Grimms' fairy tales are inescapably, well, grimmer than the courtly, sparkling 17th-century ''Cinderella'' and ''Tales of Mother Goose'' of Charles Perrault. The Brothers Grimm toned down bawdier content -- in their first edition, Rapunzel's question to the enchantress was why, after the Prince's visits, her belly had begun to swell -- but not much of the violence and bloodshed. Occasionally they were even heightened. ''The Juniper Tree'' is a treatment of death and rebirth, just deserts and restoration, that feels almost sacred, but the child murder and cannibalism make it untellable today as children's fiction.
''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' gives us a sample of the 210 tales in the authoritative version of the seventh and final edition of 1857. Tatar, dean of humanities and professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University, has newly translated 37 of the 210, as well as nine tales for adults, and annotated them, drawing on the commentary of the Grimms themselves and of writers who have reused the Grimms' material, from Jane Yolen and Peter Straub to Terry Pratchett.
Annotating fairy tales must be different in kind from the task of annotating, say, a Sherlock Holmes story or Lewis Carroll's ''Hunting of the Snark.'' Sherlock Holmes stories don't have a multiplicity of variants from different cultures and times; Red Riding Hood exists in versions in which, before she clambers into bed with the wolf, she first eats her grandmother's flesh and drinks her blood; in which she strips for the wolf; in which, naked, she excuses herself to use the privy and escapes; in which she is first devoured, then cut from the wolf's stomach by a huntsman; in which. . . .
Tatar's book, with its annotations, explanations, front matter and end matter, illustrations and biographical essay and further-reading section, is difficult to overpraise. A volume for parents, for scholars, for readers, it never overloads the stories or, worse, reduces them to curiosities. And as an object, it's a chocolate-box feast of multicolored inks and design.
The annotations are fascinating. Tatar points out things so plain that commentators sometimes miss them (for example, that ''Hansel and Gretel'' is a tale driven by food and hunger from a time when, for the peasantry, eating until you were full was a pipe dream). In the introduction to ''Snow White,'' we learn that ''the Grimms, in an effort to preserve the sanctity of motherhood, were forever turning biological mothers into stepmothers,'' while an annotation tells us that in the 1810 manuscript version ''there is only one queen, and she is both biological mother and persecutor.''
Only rarely does Tatar note the blindingly obvious. When the heroine of ''The Singing Soaring Lark'' (the Grimms' ''Beauty and the Beast'') sits down and cries, we're told that characters often cry when things are going badly: ''The weeping is emblematic of the grief and sadness they feel, and it gives the character an opportunity to pause before moving on to a new phase of action.'' Well, quite.
The assemblage of stories -- Germanic tales that have become part of world culture -- parades an array of nameless youngest sons and intelligent and noble girls. As both A. S. Byatt (who wrote the introduction) and Tatar point out, the heroes and heroines triumph not because they have good hearts or are purer or nobler than others (indeed, most of the young men are foolish, and some are downright lazy) but because they are the central characters, and the story will take care of them, as stories do.
The ''adult'' section contains several murderous cautionary tales, along with the nightmare of ''The Jew in the Brambles,'' a story not much reprinted since 1945, in which the hero tortures a Jewish peddler using a magic fiddle, making him dance in brambles; at the end the peddler is hanged. Three of the Grimms' tales contain Jewish figures; ''the two that feature anti-Semitism in its most virulent form were included in the Compact Edition designed for young readers'' (1825), Tatar tells us. ''The Jew in the Brambles'' casts a long shadow back through the book, leaving one wondering whether the ashes Cinderella slept in would one day become the ashes of Auschwitz.
AND yet most of the stories, no matter how murderous, exude comfort. Rereading them feels like coming home. Tatar's translation is comfortable and familiar (the occasional verse translations are slightly less felicitous); several times I found myself reading right through an unfamiliar or forgotten tale to find out what happened next, ignoring the annotations completely.
Illustrations are an important ingredient of fairy tales. The variety and choice here are beyond reproach: among them, Arthur Rackham, with his polled trees that gesture and bend like old men and his adults all gnarled and twisted like trees; the elegance of Kay Nielsen; the lush draperies and delicate fancies of Warwick Goble.
''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' treats the stories as something important -- not, in the end, because of what they tell us of the buried roots of Germanic myth, or because of the often contradictory and intermittently fashionable psychoanalytic interpretations, or for any other reason than that they are part of the way we see the world, because they should be told. That's what I took from it, anyway. But fairy tales are magic mirrors: they show you what you wish to see.
I interviewed Willie Donaldson when I was a young journalist. He was fascinating, and the single best recounter of scurrilous anecdotes I've ever met...moreI interviewed Willie Donaldson when I was a young journalist. He was fascinating, and the single best recounter of scurrilous anecdotes I've ever met -- very few of which were printable.
The book is odd -- it seems haunted by the ghost of Terence Blacker, who wrote it and knew and worked with Willie, making it both more personal and less authoritative than I'm used to in biographies -- and I started to long for interviews with people who didn't think Willie was a harmless rogue or a genius -- the Richard Ingramses or Clive Jameses or whoever.
But the lop-sidedness, as with Willie Donaldson, is part of the charm.(less)
I bought this from Amazon... it turns out to be a book where someone has taken the Project Gutenberg text and printed it, "typist's note' and all. And...moreI bought this from Amazon... it turns out to be a book where someone has taken the Project Gutenberg text and printed it, "typist's note' and all. And demonstrated that simply Print on demanding Project Gutenberg text does not give you a book, especially when nobody's bothered to lay it out. Every paragraph double spaced. no publication info. Avoid. Sorry.(less)
Wonderful interviews with Chinese people, reminiscent of Mayhew's "London Labour and The London Poor". The accounts of life during the cultural revolu...moreWonderful interviews with Chinese people, reminiscent of Mayhew's "London Labour and The London Poor". The accounts of life during the cultural revolution and the starvation that followed the Great Leap Forward are chilling, but the people are never less than fascinating.(less)