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“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”

“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”

“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.

He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”

Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.

Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.

Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.

I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.

Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished,  most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.

Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.

The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.

Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador  M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.

It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.

I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.

A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.

“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

I have read Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales, as well as Sigmund Freud’s take on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jung on mythical archetypes – do you ever suspect that they are missing the point? That on a basic level these are stories to be enjoyed by an audience looking for a little magic and whimsy in their lives, not psychoanalytic metaphors for our unconscious desires. If you ever have the chance, read the original French version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is a horror story really, taking an almost malicious delight in the tragic fate of Little Red Riding Hood. That feeling of dismay evoked by the final line of the storyand gobbled her up’, is the goal of the story. As entertainment it holds greater meaning than a desiccated moral imperative.

This is something that Linda Medley understands. Castle Waiting mixes and matches different fairy tales into a large jumble, a story containing many other stories, without pausing to consider the metaphorical meaning of each symbol, or archetype employed. What I find most interesting is that the title actually identifies the main character of the series (this large and beautifully presented collection is only volume one of an ongoing comic book) – the enchanted castle itself from the Sleeping Beauty story. Characters come and go, but it is the castle itself that remains constant.

Originally the king and queen of the castle ruled over a town known as Putney. They were both wise and fair and the inhabitants of the town were content. Unfortunately no royal heir had yet been produced and so the king travelled to visit a wise woman, who was in fact a white witch. Promising to help the royal couple conceive, the good witch Mother Medora and her dozen or so sisters (who all have names beginning with ‘m’, alliteration is a recurring theme in this book) set about making the necessary arrangements.

Medora had yet another sister, an evil black witch named Mald, who was insulted by the king’s slight. Accompanied by her demon familiar Leeds she sets about avenging herself on the royal family and so the tale of Sleeping Beauty plays out as in the familiar way. The castle of Putney is surrounded by impenetrable vines for a hundred years and the people of the town eventually leave. An handsome prince arrives at the appointed time, wakes the slumbering princess and then, to the dismay of the castle’s surviving inhabitants, she just takes off with her handsome lover!

Bereft of king or queen, the people of the castle try to go about their affairs as best they can. As the years pass they are joined by other adventurers and wanderers, such as Adjutant Rackham (who resembles a stork in a suit), Sir Chess (a well-built knight with the head of a horse), Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine (a most unique nunnery, whose history occupies the latter half of this volume), the plague-obsessed Dr Fell and finally Jain, who escapes from a loveless marriage seeking out the legendary Castle Waiting, known as a place of refuge.

Jain identifies herself as the Countess of Carabas and much of her past remains a mystery, including the parentage of the green-skinned infant she gives birth to at the castle. While the story of a pregnant lady travelling alone across the countryside looking for a place of legend might be thought to have an inevitable bad ending, Medley acknowledges the dangers faced by Jain on the road, while also relating her adventures with gentle humour. This has been described as a feminist retelling of fairy tales, which it obviously is, but it is also quite an affectionate and loving one. The principal characters are mostly women who have faced hard times, yet still laugh at their lot in life.

Slowly but surely Sister Peace becomes the centre of attention, with her stories of life with travelling performers, religious orders of bearded ladies and her flirtatious rivalry with the demon Leeds confirming her as a vivacious and bemused woman of God.

Medley’s art resembles the style of Jeff Smith, whose book Bone is a particular favourite of mine, perfectly accompanying the warm storytelling. Castle Waiting is also comparable to that series due to its use of contemporary dialogue, but Medley goes even further, introducing many aspects of our world into her fantasy concoction. Jain is even shown reading a copy of The Wonderful World of Oz at one point.

A beautifully captured fantasy world.

I sat there, chest damp, exposed and chilled. The room was entombed in darkness: the hour of night when not so much as a squeaky brake disturbed the silence. But I had seen something in an instant, a single flash. A child lying next to me in the bed. Grinning, eyes narrowed in mischievous glee, chewing its fingers, wondering if it would be caught in a naughty, practical joke. I sighed. Of course – it had been my Friend.

“Are you there?” I whispered. “Are you there?”

For years I had an interest in therapy, the theories of Freud, Lacan and Jung. It’s no accident that one of my favourite writers is Slavoj Zizek, himself a Lacanian. The relationship between an analyst and a patient is an interesting one. Freud talked about the phenomenon of transference, how the analysand will often attempt to circumvent the process of therapy by attempting to become involved with them emotionally.

Today I find aspects of blogging culture, which of course I am a part of, interesting for how its plays with notions of inviting strangers into our personal lives. This blog, the circumstances of my application for residency in Australia and the lengths I am willing to go to while waiting by reviewing a book each day, is itself a function of this new culture. How honest are we to our blog readers though, to the people in our lives, to the care professionals who sit with us to discuss our issues? As a part of society we are so practiced in the art of playing roles that it is difficult to relinquish them, even when our honesty is essential.

Justin Evans’ book rests on the question of a child’s honesty. George Davies is still recovering from the loss of his father, who died mysteriously after a trip to Honduras. With academics for parents, George never really had a chance in the schoolyard. His vocabulary is overly developed, he can speak German and Latin and his conversation is more suited to a discussion of scholarly pursuits than the aggressive banter of the boys of his age. In short, he is desperately lonely and needs a friend. Then one night George spies a face starring at him, suspended in mid-air. Shortly after that he begins to hear voices calling his name and finally the spectre of a boy comes for him to show him visions of the afterlife.

George’s new friend tells him many things and hints to a conspiracy lying behind the death of his father. He alleges that a family friend, Tom Harris, is responsible for convincing Paul Davies to travel to Honduras. This was all part of a plot to steal away George’s mother and kill her husband. Slowly but surely the young boy becomes convinced and sets about trying to prove that his father was murdered.

Justin Evans begins this story with the adult George Davies entering therapy following the birth of his own child, years after the events described during his childhood in the early 80s. He feels a strange sense of revulsion at the thought of being close to his son, one that deeply alarms his wife. George’s therapist encourages him to write about what happened to him following the death of his father. She argues that the things he heard and saw where the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed eleven-year old. However, the exercise of writing allows George to revisit his feelings from that dark period of his life, including the suspicion that maybe he was not a troubled boy in need of medication. Perhaps he was possessed by a demonic doppelganger.

This is a gripping debut from Justin Evans. He gives equal attention to the development of the psychiatric perspective of the events, as well as the mystical interpretation. The question of whether George is indeed mad, possessed, or simply a compulsive liar remains ambiguous. The character of George’s sceptical mother is well-realized, a liberal feminist whose studies into critical theory are curtailed by the glass ceiling in the academic system. Her son’s resentment of her growing affection for another man is cleverly drawn out. I just felt the ending slightly predictable, but overall this is a very interesting novel.

Think William Blatty’s The Exorcist, with a stronger understanding of psychology.

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