By Mike Carey, author of THE UNWRITTEN
THE UNWRITTEN is all about the impact of stories on the real world. I’d hate to spoil what we’re doing by talking about the stories we’re going to feature (we’ve already touched on Frankenstein and Kipling’s Just So Stories), but I think everyone has a list of books that have changed their lives.
I should probably qualify that. I’m not talking about the situation that arises when you carry, say, a Bible in your breast pocket and it conveniently deflects a bullet. We’ve all been there, but it’s kind of infrequent. Try to remember the last time it happened to you.
What I’m talking about is the books that redecorate the inside of your head – the watershed books. The ones where, when you put them down, you discover to your vast surprise that you’re living in a different world.
Here are my top five:-
1. The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton.
This is the second in a series of three books, but it was the first one I got my hands on. I was maybe six years old – just starting to read by myself – and Miss Kilvington had said I could pick anything out of the book cupboard and take it back to my desk. I chose this battered-looking hardback because it had cool pictures in it: a guy with a face that was round and pitted like the moon, another guy with pots and pans and flat-irons hanging off his suit, and a fairy with wings who seemed to be hanging out with both of them. I took it back, started to read, and got sucked into this crazy world.
The plot: three kids find a tree in a patch of woodland near their home. It’s a magic tree. It stretches up much further than you’d ever guess if you saw it from the ground, and there’s a whole community of people living in its upper branches. Some of them have houses carved right into the trunk of the tree. Moreover, right up at the top of the tree, there’s a gateway into another world – Topsy-Turvy Land, say, or the Land of Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. The lands are constantly moving in a magical, poly-dimensional way: at any moment, the one that’s at the top of the tree could move on and be replaced by another. If you’re there when that happens, too bad: it’ll be a year before the land comes round again to the top of the tree and you can climb down and get home.
It has to be admitted that Enid Blyton’s writing style is penny-plain. She never bothered much with adjectives: she seems to have felt that verbs did a better job of keeping things moving along. She was a product of her time, full of fairly horrendous views about race and gender, and her characters struggled to be one-dimensional. None of that mattered, though. The stories lit up the inside of my head, and gave me the love of fantasy that steered my life towards writing. I never looked back.
Since then, I’ve read the entire series to all of my own three kids, who devoured them every bit as avidly as I did. The magic is still there.
(NB: if three books aren’t enough, The Wishing Chair is almost as good.)
2. An Alien Heat, by Michael Moorcock.
It was the Eternal Champion stories that first turned me onto Moorcock’s writing, but the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (An Alien Heat and its two sequels) stayed with me longer and affected me more deeply. Whereas the Eternal Champion books were written to a formula (hero seeks magical artefacts to defeat earthly representatives of evil gods), these more sci-fi oriented tales were whimsical and beautiful and unpredictable. They tell the story of a love affair that spans most of time and space. In the far future of Earth, only a few humans remain alive, but they’re immortal and have powers that could fairly be called god-like. Ancient and powerful machines buried in the crust of their world translate their every wish into instant reality.
Against this backdrop, Jherek Carnelian meet s Mrs. Amelia Underwood, a time traveller from the Victorian era. He decides to fall in love with her, at first as part of a game – like all the other games his bored, jaded peers play to fill the tiresome eons. But gradually he comes to feel for her more deeply, and the emotions he was play-acting become real. When Mrs. Underwood is abducted and taken back to her own time, Jherek determines to be reunited with her at any cost. But of course, the great reality-changing machines don’t exist in the Victorian age, and Jherek is powerless there. So begins the last epic love story in the annals of the human race.
These books taught me that there were no limits to the stories you could tell in a sci-fi or fantasy context: that sci-fi and fantasy were modes of storytelling rather than genres, and could subsume other genres without a stretch: if you could have a sci-fi romance, then sci-fi mysteries, thrillers, comedies, tragedies, westerns and war stories and travelogues all became possible. My eyes were opened.
3. Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett.
Not the first Discworld novel, but the first that my wife, Lin, offered to read to me while I was cooking dinner one evening. That started a tradition we’re still honouring. I never actually read Pratchett. I have him read to me, and I pay in the currency of food. One of the more bizarre side effects of this is that on the very rare occasions when I do open a Pratchett novel and look inside, I hear the words being spoken in Lin’s voice as I scan them. I have an internal Lin.
This was also the book where it all kicked into gear. The first two Rincewind novels, Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, are rollicking good fun: Equal Rites, Mort and Sourcery get progressively deeper and richer. Then along comes Wyrd Sisters, with its Macbeth parallels, its nebbish hero, its enduringly wonderful trio of witches, and suddenly what had been just a parody of post-Tolkien high fantasy became incomparably much more. There was no stopping the Pratchett juggernaut now – and thank god for it.
4. Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny.
Yeah, I know, Lord of Light is a better book. Maybe Jack of Shadows, too. But Nine Princes in Amber was the one that did it for me.
This was back when I was a snot-nosed kid (someone bought me a handkerchief about a year later). I would have been about fifteen or so, and to be blunt, I had less disposable income than your average sea cucumber. I got 50p a week pocket money, and books cost thirty-seven-and-a-half. So mostly when I wanted something to read I went to the library. One of two libraries, that were about a mile from where I lived in opposite directions – Evered Avenue and Spellow Lane, for the Scousers among you.
And since I favoured sci-fi, I looked for the mustard-yellow spines that signified books on the Victor Gollancz sci-fi list. Sometimes they wouldn’t be sci-fi: annoyingly, Gollancz used the same livery for their mystery thrillers. But usually, bright yellow meant paydirt.
One day, I picked up Nine Princes in Amber. And believe me when I say that was a good day. A city that casts shadows through space and time – and the shadows are all the other cities that have ever existed. A family that are like the Medici, only immortal and superhumanly strong. A pack of Tarot cards that function both as omni-dimensional cellphones and as gateways to other worlds. And that’s just the starting position. By the time you get to Ganelon, Dworkin, Oberon, the maternal unicorn and the Courts of Chaos, you’re in a mental space that can normally only be reached by going over the stated dose on your prescription medications.
Zelazny is one of those writers who starts where a lot of other guys would normally be clocking off. He takes an idea, makes it sing and dance and juggle burning torches, folds it into a paper plane, sails it off into the ether and then reveals the better idea he was hiding up his sleeve all the time. In the Amber books, he does it again and again: you don’t really know the whole story until the final battle, and even then there’s a twist.
And the fact that Nine Princes casually incorporates a wonderful Chandler pastiche is just icing on the cake.
5. Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake.
You can’t really read Titus Groan without reading Gormenghast – they’re the two halves of the same story. The third book in the trilogy, Titus Alone, is a different animal altogether, and it took me longer to love it.
Peake was an artist as well as a writer, and he writes with an artist’s eye. Some chapters in Titus Groan are set up as tableaux: Peake paints a still image for you in words, and then has some piece of action, often small and symbolic, disturb the stillness. You have to be prepared to immerse yourself in the sense of place. Gormenghast castle is a place where nothing much has changed in the past few millennia, and part of peake’s purpose is to make you feel the weight of that past – the dead hand of tradition and precedent.
Then he hits it with a wrecking ball.
Before I read Titus Groan, I’d never really thought all that much about the music of great prose. Most of my favourite writers weren’t really great stylists, and I was all about a good story, even if it was told in monosyllables. Peake taught me the power of language, more than anybody else I read in my teens. He built a whole world out of words, and gave it an infinite variety of flavours and nuances.
Also – and despite what I said earlier about stillness – the last two hundred and fifty pages of Gormenghast (the stalking of Steerpike) are the longest sustained edge-of-the seat read in the English language.
And now to reveal the cover to issue #9 by Yuko Shimizu!