"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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Fantasy Fridays


Tomorrow night, Forbidden Planet are hosting a small bevy of authors for a 'meet and greet'. Next week, they've got a similar legion of young adult authors coming along.

FantasyCon ticket prices increase on 1 August, so pounce quickly if you're intending to join in the fun in Glasgow (October 18).

...and WorldCon - in Dublin this year - inches closes to announcing the full whack of programming. Keep your eyes peeled.

Fascinating interview with Jeanette Winterson on the origins of Frankissstein:

Wounds don’t heal. They scar over, but they are always the place where you can be hurt. It’s not the same as craziness or madness, it is knowing that you’ve got vulnerabilities. You try and work with them. And I think that makes you more receptive to the world and what’s going on.

Tade Thompson scoops this year's Arthur C Clarke Award with Rosewater.

Heads up: Malorie Blackman at the South Bank Centre - coming September.

Warhammer 40K TV show in the works. That'll show 'em what grimdark really is!

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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Fantasy Fridays

John Ruskin
The King of the Golden River

A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, on the psychology of magic.

And the 'Beasts of London' at the Museum of London.

And a fascinating John Ruskin exhibition in Sheffield.

The Mirror looks at the history and myth of King Arthur.

An encounter with Tolkien.

This year's line-up for the Edinburgh International Book Festival includes 800 events! (And four of them are SF/F!)

...not too late to get your fantasy fix in Dublin for WorldCon though. Or, if you hurry, you can still join us in Bradford this weekend.

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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BOBF 2019 - Call for Submissions

Mervyn Peake Jabberwock
'The Jabberwock' by Mervyn Peake

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is now open for submissions.

Please read all the details carefully before sending your work.

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is scheduled for publication next spring, from NewCon Press. As is the (new) tradition, a 'recommended reading' list will also be published alongside the final selections.

The series also has a companion website at www.bestbritishfantasy.co.uk, which will continue to host an ongoing discussion of iconic works of British fantasy, with reviews and reading guides written by authors and fans.

Details on how to submit stories to the anthology and how to contribute to the website are available here.

Finally, please do share this link broadly.

I'm keen to cast a wide net, and have the BoBF series represent the full spectrum of British voices, talents, backgrounds and experiences.

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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