Tales Of The Weird

The British Library’s Tales of the Weird series does a great job preserving the rich heritage of the fantastic in literature, digging up long buried stories from obscure authors (and many famous ones) and presenting them to a new audience.

Here’s the first from my subscription – one book a month, with a couple of art prints and a bookmark thrown in – Doomed Romances – Strange Tales of Uncanny Love. The familiar authors here are Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins and Sheridan le Fanu, but there are plenty more I haven’t heard of.

There’s been something of a move in recent times to say past works from dead genre authors have no relevance in the modern world. But all students of literature know that everything builds on what’s gone before, even if unconscious, however revolutionary.

You can’t truly know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

Many of these old stories still stand up today, creepy, unsettling, imaginative, and it’s a slow-burning revelation to realise that what disturbed people in the past still does so today. There’s something of humanity in that.

It’s good to see this book series has been such a huge success because the British Library is going through a bit of a crisis right now. It came under a massive cyberattack from the ransomware group Rhysida in October.

Entire systems were destroyed, staff and book data stolen and sold on the Dark Web.

So devastating, in fact, that the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ intelligence service, is still fighting to get everything back to normal. Authors waiting for their PLR payments this year may have to wait for a long time.

So far there are 39 books in the Tales of the Weird series, with a new one coming every month, excavated from the library’s archives. For anyone interested, you should be able to get on the 3-for-2 sale now running.

The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke

The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke by Richard Dadd

For those who missed it first time, here’s Neil Gaiman’s introduction to my novella The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which picked up the British Fantasy Award. Posted here because I’ll be getting the story back into print shortly, after multiple requests (it was a limited edition collectors’ book) and once again to thank Neil for taking the time to write it.

Read it here.

The Wind In The Willows And The Voice Of Old Gods

Memories are strange.  When I look back on my childhood, I remember scenes from books as potently as the real, mundane things that happened to me, as if I lived them with the characters, walking a few steps behind.  The groves of Middle Earth.  The coal-dusted backstreets of Swadlincote.  I swear they were on the same map, and I wandered in and out of both.  I recall the smell of them both, how things tasted, the quality of the light.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is a book that I now realise had a big, big influence on my life.  It was less the story of Mole, Ratty and Toad, I can see now, and more the world they inhabited.  A rural idyll long-lost to the modern industrial world, a bucolic landscape where it was still possible for the uncanny to exist only a step or two away.

And the key chapter was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where (and…sigh…spoilers) Pan appears to the animal characters.

‘Oh Mole! the beauty of it!  The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!  Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!…’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed.  ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

As a child, I found that chapter haunting and strange.  Strange because it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet there it was.  And strange because even though it was a narrative cul-de-sac it affected me so deeply.

Animals had their own gods?

And yet it wasn’t even that oblique revelation.  It was the feeling that magic could intrude on the world I knew.  That it was there, in the woods, under the hedgerows.  A power in nature.  Something very old, and alien, and entrancing, and sometimes frightening.

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I enjoy the urban life.  But I still get a frisson when I visit the wild, as I regularly do.  The moors, the coast, the mountains, even the lanes that wind around my home.  Those are my cathedrals.

And clearly I wasn’t the only one to recognise the power in that chapter.  At infant school, when our class read through The Wind in the Willows, we skipped The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  My nine-year-old self was baffled.  I tried to get some sense out of my teacher, a man who loved books and encouraged my wider reading.  He hinted at the reason, but seemed incapable of giving me a full explanation.  Now I realise it was a Church of England school, a state school where the church was allowed some influence in the education.  The Church didn’t want the children reflecting on that chapter at all.  I guess, in their own muddle-headed way, they were right: words have an alchemical  power.

But I do wonder if we hadn’t skipped that chapter, and if it hadn’t been flagged up to me that here was something potentially…dangerous?…the Great God Pan might have stayed with Mole and Ratty.

As it was, those authorities made sure his voice rang through clearly.  And I can still hear the pan-pipes today.