A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
First, the confession: I don’t read a lot of books. The day job is demanding, and I’ve got my own stories to worry about. Also, most of the books I do read aren’t very good, so I’m under-incentivised.
During 2017 I slogged through two recent Booker Prize winners. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was just one joke dragged out beyond human endurance — rather like that bloke who does the London Marathon in a deep-sea diving suit, lead boots and all. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was, I suppose, some sort of tour de force; it was also the most eminently skippable book I’ve ever read. And then there was Philip Pullman’s inescapable La Belle Sauvage, which didn’t have a story that I was aware of (plucky boy meets cute baby; plucky boy rescues cute baby… nah, not enough, really).
So did I enjoy anything?
I first read Shirley Jackson (1916-65) many years ago. Recently Penguin have re-issued most of her novels and short stories and, during 2017, I did a complete sweep.
The Bird’s Nest (1954) has several central characters, all fragments of a multiple personality. The first half of the book is gripping and disturbing, initially as the ‘official’ personality falls apart, then as one of the hitherto buried personalities seizes tenuous control and goes out into an alien world, whose rules she struggles to understand, in a desperate, futile search for her mother.
The second half of the book is a little disappointing, as if, having pulled everything to pieces, Jackson struggles to stitch it all together again. But even when she doesn’t quite pull it off, she is witty, engaging and deeply unsettling.
As an example of the sheer quality of her writing, here is the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House (1959):
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
This is the definitive old dark house story. Four people set out to investigate a notoriously haunted house. They have been promised a few creaks and shivers. What they actually get is the full tasting menu of cold spots, terrifying crashes and bangs, phantom hands, messages scrawled on walls…
But behind these chilling pyrotechnics, Hill House is, like The Bird’s Nest, a complex account of mental instability. Eleanor Vance — depressed, achingly vulnerable and desperately in search of somewhere she can feel at home — comes to believe that the house recognises and wants her. This can’t end well…
Sadly, Hill House, again like The Bird’s Nest, loses its way. These two almost-great novels serve as a salutary reminder of the importance, even for one of the finest American writers of the last century, of a strong editor prepared to alert the author when she’s losing the plot.
Thankfully, Jackson’s last book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published in 1962, is pretty much perfect. Maybe she’d finally figured out this novel malarkey; maybe she was more attentively edited…
Like its predecessors, Castle focuses on the desperate need of a vulnerable, disintegrating mind for refuge and security. It is six years since Constance Blackwood, now 28, was acquitted of the murder, by arsenic, of almost her entire family. She now lives in isolation, in the old family home, with the two other survivors: her invalid uncle Julian and her younger sister, Merricat (Mary Katherine), the book’s narrator.
All three are deeply and obsessively attached to their refuge from a hostile outside world. Merricat practices sympathetic magic to protect them from any incursion, or from anything that might change their teetering, self-deluded day-to-day existence.
The inevitable, fatal disruption comes in the form of their cousin Charles. Aware that there is a huge stash of money in the house, he sets about worming his way into Constance’s affections. Merricat fights back with all the magical tools at her disposal: burying things, breaking mirrors, marshalling magic words:
I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word — melody — in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of the spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one third safe.
There are no supernatural elements. Castle is more profoundly unsettling than any horror story, transcending mere catastrophe to arrive at an appalling, terminal desolation. Jackson draws us inside a mind so fractured and disoriented that it threatens our sense of our own physical and mental integrity.
I can think of no other book where style and content are so closely and artlessly matched; where the uncanny creeps so disturbingly from the gaps between the words. Nor can I think of any book — except, perhaps, Charlotte Bronte’s similarly demented Villette — that so rewards re-reading. Every time I revisit it, I find hitherto unnoticed corridors leading to rooms that threaten not just the characters, but me, the reader; and I shiver.
It also, by the way, has the best cat in literature.
Donald Hounam grew up just outside Oxford. He toyed with medieval history at St Andrews University, and wrote a PhD thesis on apocalyptic beliefs in the early Crusades. He threw paint around at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then found himself in Dublin where he threw more paint around and reviewed films until his flatmate set the building alight one Christmas, whereupon he scuttled back to England and started making up stories.
He is guilty of two novels featuring forensic sorcerer Frank Sampson: Gifted (2015, published in the US as A Dangerous Magic) and Pariah (2016).