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The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1863)

Let us understand a man by creating him.

The Water Babies
The Water Babies

We'll need a work space. A busy street-corner will do. There we'll study him as he studies others. London, why not. In the mid 19th century. Popular enough to easily picture; distant enough to give perspective.

Cobble together the corner of Fleet and Bridge. Drop St. Paul's Cathedral down the road. Thump! Spray the stench of the sewer-river Thames. Add a touch of horse shit, man-shit, fire-smoke, fresh bread. Now add noise! Wheels rattling on brick, hooves clattering on cobble, costermongers shouting, dogs barking, trains rumbling. Don't forget the church bells, the glorious church bells.

Excellent. Now we begin our Adam. Shape him on the curb, don't put him in cart traffic. Mold a tall thin fellow, leaning against a tall thin lamppost. Mutton-chop whiskers, sardonic smile. But that's mere container. What fills our man in? His stuffing must suit the time and place.

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Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Howls Moving Castle
Howl's Moving Castle

I didn’t discover Diana Wynne Jones (DWJ) when I was a kid. Perhaps I got my timing wrong; DWJ’s first children’s book was published in 1973, but many of her works were quickly out of print, only returning decades later on the back of JK Rowling inspired popularity for all things wizard. Which, given JK and many other writers, including Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, cite DWJ as inspiration, would be ironic if it didn’t show how publishing skews the very markets it creates.

Howl’s Moving Castle (published in 1986, by which time I had already moved on from fantasy to science fiction and, um, Agatha Christie) did slow business on its initial release, winning the Phoenix Award twenty years later, a couple of years after Studio Ghibli turned it into a box-office success as an animated film.

I am only now making amends, with the lame and utterly transparent excuse that my teenage nieces are the real audience I’m eagerly snapping up DWJ’s books for.

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"Peter Pan" (1904) by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan
Peter Pan

In “Peter Pan,” J.M. Barrie merged two realms of expertise. One was the games of make believe he played with the Llewelyn Davies boys, whose guardian he later became. When an adult is immersed in such role-playing, characters may evolve who endure as archetypes long after the children outgrow them. It was under these conditions that the world-building for “Peter Pan” took place. One's inner critic might balk at having Red Indians, fairies, mermaids, and pirates in the same story, but children lack such inhibitions, switching from one role to the next without breaking stride.

Barrie's other realm of expertise was in writing theater plays. During the rehearsals for “Peter Pan,” Barrie noted, “a depressed man in overalls, carrying a mug of tea or a paint-pot, used often to appear by my side in the shadowy stalls and say to me, 'The gallery boys won't stand it.'” But by this point in his career as a playwright, Barrie had a good idea what his audience could take.

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The Dark is Rising Sequence (1965 - 1977) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising
The Dark is Rising

I discovered Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence as an adult and immediately loved it. Imagine if one of Blyton’s more adventurous stories tumbled into a cauldron with Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and brewed a hybrid offspring. That’s Cooper’s unique voice: at turns cosy and comforting, eerie and vast. Like her golden-eyed Herne, Cooper is a hunter herself, setting traps for the unwary. Enjoying a bit of mild peril on the Cornish riviera, you turn the page and snap – epic fantasy has you in its jaws. Suddenly Cooper’s young heroes are pursuing the Grail itself, unravelling ancient manuscripts, and trying to grasp the fact that they are the only ones who stand in the way of the Dark.

The endless struggle between Light and Dark (read Good and Evil) is the backbone of fantasy. While it would be easy to fall into conventional descriptions of these polar opposites, Cooper’s language is, above all, humanist. Rarely do the creatures of Light and Dark outwardly resemble their nature. The Rider of the Dark is no horned demon, but a man with red hair and blue eyes. Similarly, the Old Ones of the Light come from all nations and walks of life. The one thing that unites Light and Dark is their unflinching dedication to their respective causes no matter who is hurt along the way. This is an important indicator of Cooper’s central argument: that absolute good and absolute evil are inflexible binaries. Neither can inherit the earth. It is why the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, are needed.

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Where to begin with Shirley Jackson?

The Haunting of Hill House

[She's not British, but she is the best. In honour of 'Shirley Jackson Day', we wander across the Atlantic to celebrate one of the true greats.]

Come in! 

‘After you, my dear Alphonse’, as the Jackson story goes. One of my favorites. Mind if I lock the door? Or the draft will push it open. Sit, and let us talk of Shirley Hardie Jackson. Born in the days of radio-soaps and silent movies, she extends her voice past the age of TV and The Bomb. Remember ‘The Bomb'? Sounds like a bad 60's movie. But it chimed a constant note of background anxiety through daily life. A writer like Jackson picked that up, sure as a medium catching spirit-vibes in a horror fantasy.

But you ask, is Jackson a fantasy writer? Good question. Let’s divide fiction’s empire in halves. 'Real world’ narratives where all exists in accord with what we agree is observed. And that step-child dream-land of ghost and shadow: fantasy. Is there a border? Of course. The eye. Fantasy takes place on your side of the eyelid. Reality is out here on our side. Is it always clear where the writer turns the gaze? Easy if you see elves and orcs. But city traffic, phones and rent-bills have their icons within our heads. Consider that stain on the floor. In 'realistic' fiction it is mere chemical memory of blood on old wood. In fantasy it is foreshadowing, giving uneasy recognition. I see a face in the stain, rather like your face.

Have more tea.


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Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946-1959)


I am Mervyn Laurence Peake, author of Gormenghast. Ask me anything!

A bit about me. I was born in 1911 in central China. My parent were British missionaries. Alas, their faith did not stick. I was friends with Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas. Missionaries of a very different gospel.

Q: If you were stranded on a desert island, what books would you want with you?

A: "Life is a peninsula", one of my characters says. Ergo death is an island. I'd want the books that life did not allow. The fourth book of my own trilogy: Titus Awake. Never finished. Followed by a gloriously printed (leather bound!) picture book containing my proposed works for a sarcastic exhibition of mock art pieces by Adolf Hitler. The war department turned my proposal down. The fools! Would have been hilarious, in a gruesome way.

Q: You were a successful painter, poet, and playwright. Now remembered for your three Gormenghast novels. Do you consider those books 'fantasy'?

A: If your definition of fantasy requires wizards throwing fire, heroes questing for fairy-queens, then no. But if a vast castle encompassing bizarre peoples and ancient ritual can be considered 'fantastical', for their absurdity, their beauty, their dream-like reality of infinite age and significance... then put Gormenghast on the map between Earthsea and the Shire, just south of Anhk-Morpork.

Q: The Times named you one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. What do you cite as your primary influences?

A: I was an artist. I taught life-drawing. Consider that I did illustrations for Alice, for Coleridge, for Stevenson and Grimm. Now consider the strong visual description in Gormenghast, where every stone and trembling ivy-leaf achieves sharp shadow and tone. Conclude that I painted with words using for life-model all that was truly dream-like in fantasy. Not the dragon, but the boy thinking about the dragon. Not the wizard in the tower, but the tower itself. There is nothing quite like Gormenghast in modern fiction. Manners and madmen, old castles and plotting servants: these are common props stored beneath the stage for a thousand fantasy plays. But the tale of Gormenghast is unique.


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The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (1922)

The Worm Ouroboros

We call it world-building; no unified field-theory covers all observed data.

Most models require one Grand Map pairing with one Encyclopedia; these collide to spin off races and faces, languages, currencies, histories and customs down to table placement for royal dinners. Success by this model of world building is measured by (quantity of books times quantity of characters) to the nth story-arc squared. A clear and fair formula.

But sometimes world-building is something different. It is the evocation of another reality. Soon or late, this feeling comes to most lovers of fantasy. Not often enough; but it drives them to wander story-wastelands, seeking the italicized thrill again.

The sensation is evoked by descriptions of scenes, conversations, ways of thinking and acting by characters who seem strange, absurd, impossible; and yet immediately recognizable. Like music you never heard before, yet you know the coming notes.

Eric Rücker Eddison (1882-1945) was a British civil servant when the sun dared not set upon an ordered Empire, and servants knew how to set a proper tea. A scholar of Old Norse, he wrote one fantasy book of note. It is a world in a book. Not an easy read. Not a believable world. Yet it has evoked that ‘other-place’ feel in so many notable authors, it ranks as a major inspiration to fantasy's desire to give readers that shiver again.

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The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson (1950)

Repulse boarders
Art by James Boswell

There are few things less Gothic than vigorous physical activity, so the very idea of writing a series of linked short stories that combine the motifs and props of the horror genre with those of sports journalism must surely be the endeavour of an author who hungers for obscurity. The two literary traditions are in opposition and don’t blend at all. Yet Maurice Richardson made the unnatural collision work in the 1940s. More than anything else, his ‘Engelbrecht’ stories are funny, and their oddness never seems awkward. I am at a loss to find much, if anything, to compare them to, either before or after they appeared in the pages of Lilliput magazine and then in a limited edition hardback issued by the legendary Phoenix House.

The Exploits of Engelbrecht is a work of fiction that fitted into no known category back then and has subsequently inspired few imitators. It is perhaps the ultimate definition of a ‘cult book’, a work read by only a small number of people who grow wildly enthusiastic about their discovery and try to spread the word. The word falls mainly on deaf ears but occasionally a new convert will be won, and that is how the cult perpetuates itself, slowly and inefficiently. Some illustrious figures are proud members of this particular cult. The most vigorous, Michael Moorcock, was the one who first alerted me to the existence of Richardson and his book. In one of his essays, Moorcock made the startling claim that no other writer, not even Borges, could much the density of invention of The Exploits of Engelbrecht. In the days before online bookshops it took me many years to track a copy down. I searched in vain in second-hand outlets for a copy. I knew it had been reprinted once, in 1977 by John Conquest, but no bookseller I approached had heard of the title.

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Where to begin with Tanith Lee?

The Dragon Hoard
What’s the word for a gang of silly princes? Let’s call it a ‘prance’.

In Tanith Lee’s first novel, The Dragon Hoard, a prance of princes sit trapped at a magical feast. A mad wizard declares they must tell a story. When the story stops, they’ll plunge to their deaths. The hero rushes into an absurd Once-Upon-A-Time about a princess named Soppy… till he stutters. Writers block! What now? Cleverly, he passes the story to the next prince. Who adds an enchanted elephant, then hands the narrative to the next prince, who tangles the plot with twins, then the elephant comes rushing through, Princess Soppy on his back…

The Dragon Hoard was fairy-tale riffing to make kids giggle, grownups smile. The first of 90+ novels, hundreds of short-stories by Lee. Some for smiles; others for shivers. Some for dark dreams, others for bright amaze. Her dragon-hoard of tales spark every reaction words can send down the spine, across the cortex or below the belt. Masterfully composed pieces in every key of the fantasy voice. I say it plain: no other writer hits every note across the fantasy musical-scale from comic to epic, horror to erotic, lyrical to classical, and yet keeps the level of quality achieved only by the genre specialists.

Let’s use that mad feast of tales as model for Ms. Lee’s books. Pass on to the next prince! Lee’s second novel: The Birthgrave. Just the title evokes eerie recognition. A child-woman awakes in a tomb; flees as it collapses. She has no memory of who or what she is, only the heart-breaking conviction she is a lost thing, cursed in soul and face. Veiled, she wanders a world exactly like herself; cruel, mysterious, and haunted by the spirit of a vanished race, a forgotten face.


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Where to begin with Andrew Lang?

The Violet Fairy Book

While some come to reading later in life, many of us have our roots deeply implanted as children. For me, it all started in supportive parents and amazing librarians and one spectacular independent bookstore owner, all of whom fed the imagination of a young child by mostly letting her hang out in their spaces and read all the books.  Indeed, one of the great thing about libraries is how many older books you find and how easy it is to get a wide swathe of influences because of it.

My hometown library in the middle of nowhere Washington state (USA) had a fantastic children's section with more classic children's lit authors than you can shake a stick at, including the magical "Rainbow" fairy tale series compiled by, I thought, Andrew Lang.  I can't tell you how many times I checked the various colours out, but it was definitely double digits.

Imagine my surprise when I went to learn more about Andrew Lang - and discovered that he probably should have been credited second.

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