For the lover of fantasy, there is no shortage of good reading. Those of us who are long-time devotees of such literature - and at its best it certainly merits that description - have found a pure and sparkling escapism in the pages of works too often scorned by otherwise intelligent people. Frequently have I come across annoying killjoys who have assured me that my predilection for tales of fantasy and horror and other forms of imaginative fiction is but the symptom of a pathological desire to avoid the harsh stings of reality. Like many such readers, I suppose, I have often found myself regarded thus, as a somewhat sad individual who has failed to achieve intellectual maturity. Quite why adulthood should require the abandonment of youthful wonder has always been beyond me, and if growing up means the loss of what has given me so much pleasure as a boy, then I am content to pass from puerility to senility, with no middle ground.
So much for grumbles. I do not intend to bore the reader more than is unavoidable. As you have probably gathered by this point, I myself am a reader rather than a writer, and I fear my prose style is neither elegant nor fluent. I hope, though, at least to convey my enthusiasm for the subject. As to the specific formof this piece, it is nothing ambitious: just a brief description of some books I have read which have made a particularly deep impression upon me. In other words, I propose to tell you about some of my 'favourites'.
Tanith Lee is the author of many fine and exquisitely crafted tales, ranging from short stories to novels. Of the latter, I would especially recommend Heart-Beast. A werewolf tale, and one of the most poignant and genuinely unforgettable books I have ever read, this is a story so hauntingly beautiful and sad that even Star Trek's Mr Spock might be moved by it. In common with much of Miss Lee's work, it deals largely in the workings of fate - destiny might be a better word - and is permeated by her characteristic melancholy glamour. On a second reading I found myself both delighted and surprised to find it every bit as marvellous as I remembered it, and I do not think it would be exaggerating to call this book a masterpiece. I encountered the works of Miss Lee comparatively recently - by which I mean, as an adult. Many of my favourite authors date from childhood, when I ought, perhaps, to have been engaged in more productive activities. To be sure, a period in my early teens was unduly clouded by a mental darkness occasioned by over-indulgence in Herbert Van Thal's Pan Book of Horror Stories series, which for some reason were stocked in abundance in my school library. Though most of the stories were eminently forgettable, they did conspire to create a cumulative mental malaise that did not fully lift for some years, and may indeed be partly responsible for my admittedly bleak view of the universe. However, among the dross I ghoulishly devoured, was the occasional truffle - including Eddy C. Bertin's The Whispering Horror, in the ninth volume. Strangely enough, that particular volume also contains an extremely short and wholly uncharacteristic piece by Tanith Lee - the only thing I have ever read by her that is less than prose-poetry.
The early promise of Van Thal's series soon evaporated in a miasma of such tales as are more disgusting than horrifying, of the sort I feel sure that you have come across at least once: something along the lines of "The hammer descended with a wet thud, shattering Snodworthy's reprehensible skull, and spattering grey lumps of brain and bone...." Some of them were amusing enough (to a rather ghoulish child) through being so obviously ludicrous. One, I recall, involved someone replacing the water in his swimming pool with acid and then encouraging an ignorant enemy to dive therein. Another, equally idiotic piece, involved someone having his arms and legs sawn off by a sadistic one-armed lunatic. Completely pointless: so much so that I can still remember much of the dialogue between the victim and the tormentor, which was excruciatingly bad. A friend's parody of that story, written for an English examination, was actually very much better than the original.
Anyway, I read a great deal of rubbish as a lad and many people might say I still do. But I also read some quality stuff. One author I discovered was H.G. Wells. As well as sniggering childishly at The Invisible Man, as he paced the room "ejaculating", I found a deal of genuine wonder in the pages of The Complete Short Stories, and in the more weighty romances of The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Sleeper Awakes and The War of the Worlds.
Of course, many of books I read as a child were actually written for children. The Narnia chronicles of C.S. Lewis gave me many hours of innocent pleasure, and I can never eat Turkish delight without being reminded of treacherous (but basically good) Edmund of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My favourite though, remains The Magician's Nephew, which was my first taste of Lewis, read out by a teacher, when I was seven and a half. I spent many happy hours then, constructing elaborate daydreams involving myself and the beautiful, cruel seven foot tall Empress Jadis. All, naturally enough, included her choosing me for her consort, and showing a generous lack of tyranny toward my friends and family.
In later years I discovered Lewis' non-Narnia work, as well as that of his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. On the whole I prefer the Narnia books to adult-oriented stuff. Of the latter sort, the 'Perelandra' trilogy - like the Narnia books - comprises a sort of Christian allegory. But it is neither as coherent, nor as aesthetically satisfying as its supposedly-juvenile sisterwork; and it is anything but subtle. Where the religious tone of the Narnia chronicles is gentle and elegantly put, its sister work is clumsily executed. Indeed, by the third and final volume, That Hideous Strength, I felt almost ready to turn to Satanism. Had there been a fourth volume, I am sure I might even now be sacrificing a black goat before the adoring eyes of my followers.
It was not until some years after reaching Narnia that I discovered the works of Sir Henry Rider Haggard and in the pages of She, the obvious prototype of Jadis. Unlike Jadis, who gains her immortality through eating a magic apple, Ayesha's immortality is the result of an encounter with a pillar of unearthly fire. Both Jadis and Ayshea are examples of the what might be called The Demigoddess, a female figure having a very strong appeal to many men (and boys!), as well as - I dare say - to many women. I do not think myself unusual in finding the idea of ruthless, powerful and amoral women extremely seductive - especially if, like Jadis, they are dazzlingly beautiful giantesses. Of course, if actually confronted by such a creature I should doubtless gibber helplessly or faint on the spot - assuming I were allowed to live long enough to do either.
Unlike Jadis, who, for all her woes, never allows herself to regret past actions, Ayesha is in many ways more human. She has abnormal physical and magical (or at least supernatural) powers, but she exists rather than lives, ever tortured by her past actions and as lonely as any mortal. With the arrival of a man she believes to be the reincarnation of a long-dead lover, her own fate is sealed, and there is a sense of nemesis in all that follows; and ultimately the cruellest form of dissolution for 'She Who Must Be Obeyed'.
In addition to Ayesha's personal tragedy, there is a poignant vignette detailing a young boy's infatuation with a mummified woman. Unlike the Egyptian mummies (with which the reader is doubtless familiar) the ancients of Kor were able to preserve their dead in such a way that they seemed merely to be sleeping. When the boy's mother discovers his obsession she burns the corpse, and he is reduced to salvaging a single small foot. I have always considered this episode to be one of the saddest episodes in any book - certainly as moving as the death of Ayesha. I remember appreciating how poor Billali must have felt, so cruelly robbed of his perfect woman. And how impossible it could be ever to feel such love again. What his silly mother could have been thinking was beyond me. This tale is told by an old man who was, of course, the boy in the story.
Haggard wrote a sequel, Ayesha, The Return of She. But although this is a fine novel, it is not, to me, in the same class as its predecessor. So I will not speak of it here, other than to say that anyone who enjoys the first book should not be too disappointed with the second.
I spoke earlier of children's books, which should never be disparaged as a class - unless they are of the most ultra-modern, politically-correct variety. One that made a very favourable impression upon me (though I read it as an adult) was Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. It tells how a boy discovers a peculiar clock which is actually a limited sort of time machine. Like most people, I have always been fascinated by the idea of gateways through time and space; and although the gateway which Tom discovers does not lead him to monsters, aliens or talking animals, it does lead to a somewhat nicer world than his own. As to action, there isn't a great deal, but the beauty is in the telling of the tale, which is very fine, and it is a wholly charming book.
The Girl in a Swing, by Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down, is not in the least charming. It is however, an adult book, so that is perhaps not surprising. What it is, however, is fascinating and horrible - in the same way that a pulsing jellyfish or a lethargic but highly-venomous serpent may be. The story of the doomed relationship between a fairly ordinary young man and a beautiful and strange woman, it is as fatalistic as Tanith Lee's Heart-Beast, though written in a less elaborate and more straightforward style. It is not a book for those of a nervous disposition, and is probably best described as a horror story.
I hope that my rambling monologue has not proved entirely uncongenial and that at least a few readers will be inspired thereby to seek out some of the aforementioned books, or perhaps something not too dissimilar. Best of all would be that those of you who have until now eschewed the realm of truly imaginative fiction be sufficiently stimulated to actually give it a try. The rewards, I promise, are great.
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