Friday, 18 December 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Four

The Body Snatcher (1945) - Part One

The Body Snatcher was made relatively swiftly in the midst of the interrupted shooting of Isle of the Dead. Boris Karloff had recovered from his back problems, but it took a while to re-assemble the rest of the cast. In the end, The Body Snatcher was both filmed and released before Isle of the Dead was completed. The film was the third of Lewton’s direct literary adaptations, following on from The Leopard Man, which had been based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, and Mademoiselle Fifi, a costume drama based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. This time, the source was a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and his title The Body Snatcher was considered eye-catching enough to keep. Stevenson had already had lines from his Child’s Garden of Verses poem The Unseen Playmate quoted in Curse of the Cat People. It’s also possible that his Suicide Club stories may have been an influence on The Seventh Victim. It would certainly appear that Lewton was familiar with Stevenson’s work in general. He remains faithful to the incidents in the story and lifts several of its lines of dialogue, but he significantly changes its structure, removing the retrospective framing which finds the once fresh-faced student Fettes mired in alcoholic dissolution. He stays true to the central motif which runs through much of Stevenson’s fiction, this short story included, and which is most famously exemplified by The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; that of the doppelganger which haunts the ‘respectable’ protagonist and which can be seen as an emanation of the divided self. If we take this film to be subsequent to Isle of the Dead in Lewton’s filmography, it marks a further step back in terms of historical period, a retrogression which would continue with its follow up, Bedlam, which takes place in the eighteenth century. The historical contexts of these films are important and Lewton evidently put a lot of effort into his researches, ensuring that the background would be as accurate as possible within the confines of budgetary restrictions. Given his concern with how social and historical circumstance affects human relations, this detailing is much more than mere colourful set dressing.

As with The Isle of the Dead, the film’s music, by regular Lewton composer Roy Webb, plays over the RKO radio mast, establishing the atmosphere from the outset. This elision of the studio introduction suggests that Val Lewton productions were taking on an identity of their own. His name was beginning to signify a guarantee of quality which raised the picture beyond the level of generic RKO product. Such small steps towards individual autonomy could prove dangerous within the context of a studio system in which the balance of power lay firmly with the heads of production and ultimately with their employer, studio boss Charles Koerner. After his unhappy experiences on two non-horror pictures, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, Lewton’s unit had been moved to a production unit under the management of Jack Gross, who had headed the horror department at Universal. It was he who had brought Karloff into the fold, and his obvious intent was to reproduce the success of the Universal formula. This seemed to seal Lewton’s fate at RKO as a horror producer. He had to continue to strike a balance between delivering what the studio demanded of him and adhering to his personal vision. The creative forces which such polar stresses brought to bear continued to prove fruitful with the relatively sympathetic Charles Koerner remained at the top.

Boris Karloff’s name is the first to roll up on the credits, emphasising the fact that the film, like Isle of the Dead, was marketed as a star vehicle. Karloff’s persona of gentile menace and the lumbering physicality of his presence was something upon which Lewton could play. He could exploit the audience’s familiarity with the roles in which Karloff was becoming increasingly typecast. He uses Karloff’s voice particularly well in The Body Snatcher, employing it in a highly mannered fashion which reflects the self-conscious performance of the character, Cabman Gray, as much as the actor. The archness with which Karloff delivers his dialogue tells us that this character is playing a role, an earnest masquerade disguised beneath heavy layers of protective sardonicism which is entirely in keeping with the social play of status and power which lies at the heart of the film.

Literary pedigree
After Boris Karloff’s name comes a title card which announces the film as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher. This privileging of the author presages recent horror films which dishonestly trail their literary origins: wholesale adaptations such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which depart significantly from the authorial impimatur to which they lay claim. The former at least is given further complication by its movie novelisation, which labours under a title which could read Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen based on a script by James V. Hart. The foregrounding of The Body Snatcher’s literary antecedent once more points to a striving to expand the confines of cinematic horror, although the fact that Stevenson follows Karloff in precedence assures us that certain generic convention will still be observed. Whilst he might have chafed against them, it was within such strictures, with their alchemical challenge to transform base materials into gold (or its nitrate compound) that Lewton seemed to thrive.

A picture of Edinburgh Castle looming dark and drear provides the backdrop to the title cards, over which Roy Webb’s music plays, incorporating melancholy echoes of a Scottish dance tune. The gloomy prospect depicted by this painting indicates that the Scotland we are to be shown will be one of gothic shadows rather than the tartan romance of Walter Scott. Val Lewton and Robert Wise each receive a separate full-screen credit. This was Wise’s second full directorial assignment with Lewton, the first having been the budget-straightened Mademoiselle Fifi. Wise had in fact made his directorial debut on Curse of the Cat People, having been promoted from editor when its director Gunter von Fritsch proved unable or unwilling to keep up with the tight shooting schedule. Wise proves adept at projecting Lewton’s world of darkness onto the screen. Whereas Curse of the Cat People had been a film of daylight as well as night (daydreams and nightmares), The Body Snatcher has almost as many deep black shadows beneath the arches of its city walls as The Seventh Victim’s metropolitan noir.

The historical context of the film is brusquely set up with a title indicating time and place; Edinburgh, 1831. Lewton eschews his customary opening quotation on this occasion, although he does oblige at the end. Perhaps he felt that the prominent use of Stevenson’s name had already sufficiently established the film’s literary credentials. The choice of the year 1831 is significant and its choice no doubt arose from Lewton’s scrupulous historical research. It is the year which preceded the 1832 Anatomy Act, which effectively put an end to the need for grave robbing by opening up a new supply source. The act was partly prompted by the notoriety of and outrage at the Burke and Hare case, which received a huge amount of tabloid-style publicity in 1828. Burke and Hare murdered seventeen people in order to supply the needs of the Edinburgh surgeon John Knox for bodies to dissect in his anatomy class. Their victims were the old, the destitute and the marginal, and Lewton focuses on the social divisions which the resurrectionist’s trade preys on. In Burke and Hare’s day, legitimate anatomical specimens were provided from the corpses of executed criminals. This failed to provide sufficient material for the blossoming of medical education within the city. Grave robbing, or resurrection, was not technically illegal, since the body after death was not defined as property. But the grave robber risked violent public opprobrium if caught. After the 1832 act, it was the bodies of those who died in the workhouses and who remained unclaimed, largely due to the inability of relatives to afford the costs of a funeral, which could legally be used by anatomists. This transition in the availability of cadavers for dissection from executed criminals to the institutionalised poor carried with it the implication that destitution was in itself essentially criminal. The ownership of the bodies of the poor in the workhouse seemed to extend both sides of the grave. The Anatomy Act was one more reason to dread the workhouse and the condition of poverty which would drive you there, and to fear that once in, you might never come out again.

Dr Knox was part of the Scottish Enlightenment which centred on Edinburgh at this time. He and his colleagues anatomised the human frame into its corporeal components, their invaluable work indicative of a shift towards an increasingly materialistic view of the world, and by implication of society. This trend would culminate in the explosive impact of Darwin’s revolutionary theories of evolution and the adaptation of successful species to their environment (and the extinction of those which failed to make this adaptation), but his ideas were already played out at the lower levels of society in the struggle for status and survival by any means available.

The idea of human beings as part of a wider Darwinian order is suggested by the presence of animals throughout the film, from Gray’s horse to the cat which he keeps at home to the terrier guarding its master’s grave. They would have been considered to be at a lower level of the medieval and renaissance theological concept of the great chain of being, which posited a divinely ordered stratification of existence. This ordering of the natural world, whether human or divine, in some senses anticipated the phyla into which modern naturalists place their compartmentalised classifications of life. It encompassed all levels of creation, from the mineral through the plant world, on to the ranks of animals and humans, before finally ascending to the different castes of angels and ultimately to God her/him/itself. The great chain of being differed in defining a static, divinely ordained system rather than one which was in a state of flux and dynamic evolution. It was further extended to the stratifications and divisions of human society and thus used to justify the status quo, with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The gradual repudiation of this worldview could therefore have profound social as well as philosophical implications. It would also dispel the notion that mankind was elevated and fundamentally separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. We may be the smartest monkeys, but common behavioural patterns still prevail.

The establishing scenes in the film are packed with incidental historical detail. Joel Siegel, in his book Val Lewton - The Reality of Terror, suggests there is too much detail on display here and quotes from the script in which all is laid out with great specificity. He has a point, but the detail is all packed into this one scene. The script doesn’t go into such detail again, and so the quotation given doesn’t really give a fair description of its overall tone. This is an establishment of historical context of which the details Lewton has provided are a condensed representation. They are there to be picked up by the viewer who is aware of Scotland’s history, but such recognition is not essential. They work equally well as background colour and as the constituent parts which go towards creating period atmosphere. It’s indicative of the care Lewton lavished on all of his work that he should be so concerned about the accuracy of the apparently incidental. Such depth of research and the thematic ends to which it was put is one of the elements which give his films the kind of multi-layered depth which rewards closer scrutiny.

Stock footage - ignore those cars!
After the titles, we see what looks like stock footage of the castle and the royal mile. The city is showing its better side here, offering the kind of views which would sell a thousand postcards. We swiftly move on to another face of the city, however, and one of the film’s main studio sets. This is a far grubbier and narrower street through which a pony and trap swiftly ride, as if this is a place which in which its occupants have no desire to linger. An old woman sells cloth from a cart at the side of the street. A soldier marches down the street to the beat of the snare rapped out by the drummer boy who follows him. Another boy runs alongside them, as if they are still a novelty, a object of curiosity in this southern city. Lewton specifies the soldiers as being from the Seaforth Higlanders, a native regiment composed of higlanders, many of whom would have taken the king’s silver as a desperate last measure following the massive population shift known as the clearances, which had swept away the pre-existing social order of the clans. The camera pans along the street until the soldier reaches a guard box, onto which he pins the recruitment poster which he has been carrying. There will be plenty of young men who have drifted down from the north who will be more than eager to take up this call to arms, even if it is for a monarchy which has done much to create the conditions for their displacement in the first place. The sentry box suggests a surreptitious form of military occupation, or at least a military presence which watches over the population as much as it guards the gates of the castle.

Singing for her supper
Besides the box stands a young woman in a tartan shawl who sings a street ballad in the old Scottish dialect. As the camera moves in on her face, the words of the song tell of ‘a time o’war’. This singer, a pure voiced beggar, will appear as a chorus figure bridging scenes in the by now traditional Lewton manner. She is a living as opposed to inanimate symbol such as those employed by Lewton as recurrent visual devices in previous films; the statue of Ti Misery in I Walked With a Zombie, the fountain in the Leopard Man and the magic tree in Curse of the Cat People. The presence of soldiers alongside such conspicuous poverty points to the aftermath of a catastrophic social upheaval. The highland clearances were still ongoing at this time and caused a massive population movement. Many emigrated, some resettled in small crofts, and many more came down south. A spinning wheel in a shop window points to the major new form of land usage, with landlords displacing tenants to make way for sheep. A man in a top hat and one with a shepherd’s crook both drop coins into the begging bowl. They stand for the two faces of the new Scotland, the forward looking age of urban industrialisation and the increasingly intensive farming of the landowner’s estates. The ballad singer is the voice of the streets and of the rural highlands, the embodiment of a notion of Scottish culture which is being condemned as an anachronism, disappearing into sentimental nationalist myth and the romanticised history of the defeated. Scraps of tartan folklore will crop up throughout the film and will duly be trampled into the dust of a harsh new world.

From this start, we dissolve to a house with castellated turrets atop round towers in the familiar Scottish style, even if this is only the Scotland of Walter Scott via Hollywood. Sheep are being driven towards a pair of grandiose gates, once more hinting at the changes in land use which had so drastically altered the balance of highland society. This is a more prosperous face of the city, and is in pronounced contrast to the poverty we have just seen. The camera moves on to find a church, and through the graveyard gates we get the first glimpse of our protagonist and ‘innocent’ witness of events. The following scene was placed as the opening one in the script, but was swapped around with the establishment of historical detail and context outlined above. Lewton sketched in the world of the film before placing his characters into it. We find the young protagonist sitting on a table-top tomb eating his lunch, the sustenance of the living beside the cold stone silence of the grave. He is immediately given an association with death, although his eager demolishing of his pie shows a relish which contrasts the worlds of the living and the dead. His acquaintance with questions of mortality would appear casual and unexamined.

Dining with the dead
He attempts to share his food with a terrier which sits atop the earth of a freshly dug grave, but his overtures are rejected. This is the first example in the film of kindness to animals, the compassion or fondness for ‘lower’ forms, a very un-Darwinian impulse. An old woman comes in to feed the dog with more success and reveals that this is Robbie, who guards the grave of her son. This is a version of Greyfriars Bobbie, the Edinburgh icon whose statue is an essential stop on any tourist trail. This wee doggie apparently kept guard over the grave of its master, John Gray, for fourteen years between 1858 and its death in 1872. The old woman talks of her son, ‘a fine lad…gentle with all little things, like Robbie here’. The value of compassion towards ‘little’ or lesser things is emphasised, and the young man’s treatment of the dog suggests that this is a quality which he possesses. The old woman brings up the question of a ‘grave watcher’, which she can’t afford. The young man expresses incredulity at the possibility of grave robbing in the heart of Edinburgh. Given the references to Burke and Hare throughout the film, this suggests a degree of naivety which hints at a sheltered upbringing far from centres in which news circulates. The voice of local authority sets out to disabuse him of his dangerous ignorance, telling him ‘they’re uncommon bold, the grave robbers…and the daft doctors who drive them on’. She shows a canny awareness of the two sides to the supply and demand chain, and that both bear equal responsibility for the acts in which they are involved. The young man lets on, in an airily casual fashion, that he is ‘something of a medico’, at least ‘until today’. Some decision has been arrived at, perhaps with the help of the perspective offered by the gravestones which surround him.

Graveyard occultation
As the young man gets up with a decisive air, our perspective is shifted to the road which passes outside the graveyard. He walks towards the gates. At this moment a black cab pulled by a white horse drives by. In the script, this cab was also to have driven down the street with the soldier’s sentry box, blocking out our view of the ballad singer. But perhaps due to the reshuffling of the opening scenes, it only makes its appearance here, where its juxtaposition with the graveyard gives it the appropriate symbolic charge. The cab is driven by the imposing hulk of a figure who is bundled up in a bulky cape, his head topped with a tall black hat. He leans forward with a carrion stoop, his head emerging from the hunchback of the cape like that of a vulture. The gates of the graveyard and the young man exiting it are occulted by this isolated piece of traffic, the horses hooves echoing on the cobbles. The cabman’s dark form has something of the bearing of death about him.

The kindness of Gray
There is a screenwipe and the same white horse and cab pulls up at the stone porticoed doorway of a handsome and luxurious house (‘an imposing edifice’ as it is described in the script). The driver gets down and opens the door of the cab for a woman before setting a chair down and lifting a little girl out. ‘Cabman Gray will see you through safe enough’, he reassures her, and takes her to see his horse. Gray will be associated with animals throughout the film. This both reflects his own lowly status and the dual nature of his character. He is capable of kindness and care as well as cruelty and offhand brutality. Here, he immediately strikes us as a kind and considerate man, who understands the needs of the little girl. ‘Someday, when you’re running and playing in the streets, he’ll nicker at you as we go by’, he tells her. When she replies that she can’t run and play, since she’s paralysed, he says ‘all the more reason then for friend here to give you a hello’. She smiles and pats the horse, and he puts her in her chair, ‘safe in your own wee cab’.

Speaking on the level
The equation of the wheelchair to which she is confined with his cab suggests a similar confinement on his part. He is restricted to his own cab as the means by which he must earn his meagre living, which he is driven to supplement through other channels. He bends down to be on her level and tell her ‘now you watch sharp, little miss, for my horse to give you a hello’. This exchange, conducted on the same physical level, contrasts with the treatment she will receive from Doctor MacFarlane. It will also provide the major psychological factor in her will to recover. It’s significant that Gray crouches down to address her, as the shifting patterns of power are indicated throughout the film by the level of elevation of those involved in conversational exchanges; sitting and standing, or looking down from staircases. The front door is opened by a woman in a tartan shawl, and the little girl’s mother asks to see Doctor MacFarlane. The woman glances at Gray, and there is a look there of recognition, a cognisance which encompasses dislike, wariness and possibly even fear. There is personal history here which remains to be uncovered.

Uneasy recognition

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Broadcast in Cardiff

Broadcast’s show in Cardiff on Monday took place in the intimate and welcoming surroundings of the Chapter arts centre, a venue some distance beyond the centre of the city. Perhaps such an out of the way interzone is appropriate for a band who exist between worlds, giving pop form to abstract electronic noise. The sense of a journey beyond was personally enhanced by the out of time trains (slam doors and views through the driver’s cab) taken from the Cardiff Bay station (complete with half-wrecked ghost station canopy) and the ensuing slog through driving rain which poured off the lowering forms of the stone beasts atop the walls of the castle park, looking crouched and ready to pounce in water-blurred vision. The chill of the night was soon eased by the excellent food and local ale (four different brews on offer!) at the arts centre café/bar. The vats and metallic pipework of the Brains brewery loom over Cardiff (local industry yet) and the many old-fashioned street-corner pubs, such as the recently saved Vulcan, tend to bear its logo and offer its beer. And very good beer it is too. But the Chapter eschewed its ubiquitous influence and offered ales from local microbreweries, a small scale and individualistic selection which seemed in keeping with its ethos. The tortellini and gnocchi were very tasty and hugely welcome on such a grim winter’s evening.

The homely, friendly feel of the place extended into the evening. Trish was to be found chatting at a table in the café. A merchandise stall was set up by the entrance, and copies of Microtronics 1 and the tour CD Mother is the Milky Way were on sale alongside vinyl copies of Tender Buttons, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, the America’s Boy 7” and t-shirts of Ha-Ha Sound vintage; all this proffered with free badge in Noise Made by People bag. The venue itself was a small cinema, with sink back in comfort chairs. The general hubbub was instantly silenced as Trish popped in from a side exit, only for her to urge us to carry on talking as she was only making an adjustment to some plug or other. The fact that she was wearing an anorak suggested that they were gamely waiting to enter from an alley outside. When they did unceremoniously make their entrance, they were wearing the same outfits they were pictured in for the Wire interview; James in his comfortable 70s Blue Peter presenter jumper, Trish in her ritual attire of white dress with flared sleeves. The show commenced with the Julian House film Winter Sun Wavelengths, for which they had first provided an improvised soundtrack at the Belbury Poly Youth Club night a year or so back. The form of this improvisation seems to have become fairly well established, with James setting initial sine wave drones into motion, which morph into keyboard arpeggiations and electronic sighs and screams emerging from thumping ritualistic drum loops. Trish layered vocalisations on top, which she modulated to a greater or lesser degree. The film itself was hypnotic on the big screen, firing off op art circles and flashing stars and flowers at the senses in between the lightning cut ups of winter woods and pools edited together for maximum impact on the subconscious.

This initial instrumental section (with the voice wordlessly used as instrument) segued directly into the second, song-based half. James and Trish remained to either side of the screen, onto which were projected abstract visuals which changed for each song. Most of the material was taken from the Focus Group EP and Tender Buttons. This made sense, as both were made by Broadcast in two-person mode, and therefore lent themselves to this lean live format. The song half was launched by the infectious looping bass line of Corporeal. Black Cat was the sole occasion on which James reached for his guitar, which produced a trebly slash of descending chords which gave the song a very 80s sound. Trish ventured centre stage for one number, the exquisite In Here the World Begins from the Mother is the Milky Way CD, with its gently pulsating drone background overlaid with warm keyboard lines from James’ Korg synth. There were selections from the Witch Cults album which reflected its rough-hewn, kaleidoscopic character. Perhaps the most obvious choice of ‘song’, The Be Colony, was passed over in favour of the Royal Chant, with Trish approximating the Valerie like chorus on the record, and the collage of musical fragments which end the album (The Be Colony/Dashing Home/What on Earth Took You?) with more warm synth runs and manipulated vocal sounds.

The one dip into the pre-Tender Buttons catalogue came in the form of Lunch Hour Pops from the Ha-Ha Sound album. This was re-cast with a lopsided rhythmic backing which sounded like the bubbling and hiccupping from the lab in The Man in the White Suit, or the mechanical clanking of a dubiously cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption. It was a good re-imagining of the familiar. There were two songs which I didn’t recognise; one a piece of dreamy psych-folk with a Piper at the Gates of Dawn organ sound; the other the number with which they ended the show. For this, Trish took up what looked like some kind of Mongolian lute, with a small triangular body and long, thin neck. Thrashing out rhythmic chords over a pulsating synth, this song carved a motorik Krautrock groove which seemed to have been transplanted to the Eurasian steppes. Trish sang what sounded like an anti-materialistic mantra, ‘what you want is not what you need’, with playful leaps into her upper register. It was a great way to end the show, and an exciting portent of the new LP promised for next year. After such a bewitching evening, I noticed on our way back (now under stars rather than rainclouds) a shop whose cheery purple letters spelled out Lovecraft. An emporium dedicated to the Rhode Island purveyor of cosmic horror? Or a strange concatenation of sex and knitting? I may never know, but its appearance (had it been there at all on the way over?) seemed strangely appropriate.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Gone Through the Gate of Horn

I was really sad to hear about the death of Robert Holdstock on Sunday. He was a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed ever since the publication of Mythago Wood in 1985. This is one of the great works of post-war British fantasy, and it is perhaps appropriate that it is set in the years immediately following the war, since it in part deals with the disconnection of the modern era from the continuum of the past. Mythago Wood was a fine novel in itself, but it also created a template for other works through its establishment of an imaginative device via which the mythic Matter of Britain could be explored and reflected upon. The sequence of novels which followed were not so much sequels as further expansions of the possibilities inherent in the original model. They include Lavondyss (1988), the title novella of The Bone Forest (1991), The Hollowing (1993), Merlin’s Wood (1994), The Hollowing (1997), Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997), and his recent return to the original story Avilion (2009). Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, the Hollowing and Gate of Ivory have been collected as The Mythago Cycle volumes 1 & 2.

Mythago Wood takes place in and around a small area of ancient woodland in Herefordshire known as Ryhope Wood. It is narrated by Steven Huxley, who returns after the death of his father George in 1947 to Oak Lodge, the cottage on the edge of the wood in which he and his brother Christian grew up. The father was a remote figure whose obsession with his study of the wood led to the neglect of his family and his wife Jennifer’s suicide (an event which is explored further, and to heartrending effect, in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). Sundered families and their conflicts are at the heart of all the Mythago novels, and the psychological anguish which such fragmentation causes is the catalyst both for the search for solace in the universalised stories of myth and for the unleashing of the unconscious energies which create the concretised myth images (or mythagos) from the woodland’s vortex. For George Huxley’s discovery, derived from a mixture of anthropology, archaeology and science, is that there really is substance to the flickering shapes darting from woodland shadows in the periphery of vision.

His scholarly speculations are conveyed, in the manner of Victorian and Edwardian literature, through journal entries, and also through the clarifications of his son Christian, who has returned to the Lodge directly after the war. ‘The old man believed that all life is surrounded by an energetic aura’, he says. ‘In these ancient woodlands, primary woodlands, the combined aura forms something far more powerful, a sort of creative field that can interact with our unconscious. And it’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing…The form of the idealized myth, the hero figure, alters with cultural changes, assuming the identity and technology of the time. When one culture invades another…the heroes are made manifest, and not just in one location!…When the mind image of the mythago forms it forms in the whole population…and when it is no longer needed, it remains in our collective unconscious, and is transmitted through the generations’. Steven voices his understanding of his father’s ideas: ‘and the changing form of the mythago…is based on an archetype, an archaic primary image which father called the Urscumug, and from which all later forms come’. The setting of the novel in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War provides the necessary context of national dislocation for the manifestation of such heroic mythagos. Think of the myths of the Blitz, the more modern mythagos of the city captured in novels such as Michael Moorcock’s Mother London or Graham Joyce’s Facts of Life (centring around the Coventry blitzkrieg). Or going further back, to the phantom archers of the First World War trenches, seemingly conjured from the pages of Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen.

But such heroes no longer emerge from the landscape of the ancient woodland, and the novel is more interested in the rediscovery of the ancient myths through conscious investigation and the violent disruption of individual psyches. The pain which Holdstock’s characters go through serves to highlight the more personal level of the matter of myth, the recurrent needs which these stories reflect.It is not the heroic figure of Arthur who is resurrected by Huxley and his sons, but that of Guinnevere, or Guiwenneth as she is here known (the etymological evolution of names is another important aspect of the Mythago books). As such, the novels are a reflection on the need of our psyches for stories which reflect and embody our own inchoate emotions, and of the way that we interact with them on a personal level. The imagos which the Huxleys conjure up from the woodland are not immutable. Their basic structure is further shaped by the hidden currents of the heart. Steven reads as much in his father’s diaries; ‘I found, in his erratic recordings, much that told me of his sense of danger, of what – just once – he called “ego’s mythological ideal”, the involvement of the creator’s mind which he feared would influence the shape and behaviour of the mythago forms’.

This sets up the idea of the interaction of the unconscious, at both its universal and personal level, with the specific spirit of place, the genus loci of the ‘oak vortex’. It is perhaps its density, its sense of a hidden interior separate from the world beyond which makes the ancient woodland such a perfect site for the manifestation of archetypal figures drawn from the deep wells of the subconscious. Finding a point of entry into the seemingly impenetrable thicket of Ryhope Wood offers a passage into worlds within worlds, a realm in which space and time expand. The further one journeys towards the heart of the wood, the further one penetrates the deeper recesses of the mind. The distortion of dimension which intensifies towards the centre is hinted at in Steven’s childhood memory of the brothers launching a bark boat along the stream entering the woods. When it fails to emerge on the other side they assume it has sunk or got caught in some tangle of twigs, but some six months later it does appear again, having navigated who knows what waters. The wood offers a sense of refuge from the battering complexities of the modern world, a sparsely populated place where a sense of solitude can be found. The retreat into its deeper spaces and the receding echoes of an ancestral past is part of the age old attempt to rediscover a dimly intuited Eden of lost innocence, to heal the fractures of time, both personal and cultural. Often, with Holdstock, this is represented by the attempt to make shattered familial connections whole again. The reconnection with the world of your ancestors makes this doubly meaningful. The family is the current shoot given flower by these lengthy tangles of roots. This notional space in which everything will be made whole once more is to be found at the heart of the wood, and one of the names by which it is known is Lavondyss, which is the title and subject of the second book.

People often look back on their childhoods as periods of lost innocence, and perhaps Holdstock was recalling some of his experiences of growing up as a self-avowed ‘man of Kent’ in creating the enchanted space of Ryhope Wood. Although nominally set in Herefordshire, perhaps in order to place the wood at the heart of England, Ryhope always had the feel of a Kentish locale for me, perhaps a reflection of my own upbringing as a ‘Kentish man’. There’s an important distinction between the two appellations; one indicates that you’ve been born below the Medway, the other above. Although essentially a London suburbanite, I did travel down into the weald of Kent on many occasions, and there were several stretches of ancient woodland which possessed a powerful atmosphere which lingers in my imagination to this day. They were then and are now more than ever bifurcated and sheared away by transport routes and commuter satellite developments which fill in all the ‘empty’ spaces of this overcrowded corner of the island, warped by the gravity well of London’s dense mass. I always laugh at the sign which greets you as you descend from the heights of the Dart Bridge across the Thames and crawl along the motorway with the other multi-lane traffic, past the bleak architecture of high-rise motels and supermarket storage hangers; ‘Welcome to Kent’, it says. ‘The Garden of England’. Well, the garden has been concreted over. The small clumps of woodland which are left (and lets not forget the depredations of ‘the great storm’ – or was it ‘the great wind’?) become an even more alluring haven, the need for a place to retreat from this choked landscape which screams of the tawdry cheapness of the bottom line ever more vital. The fact that Holdstock sets his novels at the dawn of this modern age is key to what makes them so much more than just another retreat into the mists of Celtic fantasia. They confront the need for escapism, but don’t allow their characters that comfort. He is intent on showing how these stories serve a purpose beyond ‘mere’ escapism. To this extent, they amount at times to an almost propagandistic manifesto for the importance of the imagination, and of the stories which it creates.

The notion of the mythagos developed as the novels progressed, and Holdstock himself had time to reflect on his creation. The Hollowing plays an interesting variation by having a boy with a damaged psyche lost in the woods, his disturbed state leading to the creation of mythagos beyond the standard ‘template’. And what could be more natural for a boy of his age than to people the woods with velociraptors. The cathedral in the trees amongst whose ruins he takes sanctuary is a powerfully resonant image, too. Again, I remember a stretch of woodland (Beaver Woods) which lay beyond the boundary of the busy Sidcup bypass (and was thus already imbued with a certain sense of danger – somewhere beyond the normal range of childhood territory) in the midst of which were the ruins of an old house (including a sundial). It is the kind of place which has no-doubt become amplified and distorted by memory and dream, to the extent that I would be reluctant to return for fear of dispelling the aura of slightly threatening enchantment which it has accumulated with what is no doubt a drab actuality.

Real people who have themselves delved into the collective experience of English landscape and memory occasionally make an appearance; there’s Alfred Watkins, the author of the 1925 book The Old Straight Track, which introduced the idea of ley lines, who corresponds with George Huxley in Mythago Wood; Vaughan Williams converses with the aptly named protagonist of Lavondyss, Tallis Keeton; and the name Huxley itself suggests the writer Aldous, who bridged the worlds of science and the arts, becoming the seemingly paradoxical figure of a rationalist mystic. Holdstock himself studied medical zoology to Masters level, and you can sense something of scientist’s need to classify in his explorations of the Matter of British myth, a filing of archetypes into their stratified phyla. Christian Huxley articulates the impulse towards pursuing scholarly speculation which provides one element of the Mythago books when his brother Steven questions his motives in continuing his father’s work; ‘Why, to study the earliest times of man…From these mythagos we can learn so much of how it was, and how it was hoped to be. The aspirations, the visions, the cultural identity of a time so far gone that even its stone monuments are incomprehensible to us. To learn. To communicate through those persistent images of our past that are locked in each and every one of us’.

Of course, he is lying. His motives are anchored in personal needs with no such loftily idealistic detachment. But the novels can do both. They can stray along interesting speculative byways whilst telling a story rooted in the traditional literary values of character and psychological verisimilitude. In many ways, he has created a confluence between the sometimes disparate qualities of literary and fantastic fiction, the latter of which has often been accused of neglecting character in favour of landscape and symbolic detail. Here these details actually emerge from the psyches of the characters, and so are emblematic of them. The mythagos, meanwhile, are emanations of the landscape and evolve a unique personality which diverges from their archetypal role according to the extent to which they interact with the ‘real’ characters who come into their realm and draw them forth. This creates a typically science fictional (for Holdstock’s fantasies have the worked-through rigour of SF) meditation on the nature of humanity. In an inquisitive aside of the kind which would seem out of place in a generic fantasy which takes its materials for granted, Steven wonders just how mythagos are created. ‘How did the generic process work, I wondered, watching this beautiful, solid, soft and warm human creature. Did she form out of the leaf litter? Did wild animals carry sticks together and shape them into bones, and then, over the autumn, dying leaves fall and coat the bones in wildwood flesh? Was there a moment, in the wood, when something approximating to a human creature rose from the underbrush, and was shaped to perfection by the intensity of the human will, operating outside the woodland? Or was she just suddenly…there. One moment a wraith, the next a reality, the uncertain, dreamlike vision that suddenly clears and can be seen to be real’. Ultimately, the characters will be absorbed in the coils of their own story, becoming mythagos themselves, their tales told to future generations. A grace which the lasting influence of his novels will also bestow upon Robert Holdstock.