Emma Schofield introduces the category of ‘Life, Death and Other Worlds’ in the next instalment of our 100 Page Turners of Wales series, Wales Arts Review’s exploration of the riches of Welsh fiction.
Writing this at a moment when over half of Wales is under local lockdown restrictions, notions of other worlds, or even delving back into the past, might feel like an appealing prospect right now. Certainly if it’s escapism you’re looking for the ten books which make up our ‘Life, Death and Other Worlds’ category have plenty to offer.
The list kicks off with a classic example of weird horror thanks to Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella The Great God Pan. Machen’s tense and unsettling thriller follows the story of a young girl who is cursed to become a strange, part-human creature. It’s a supernatural tale likely to stay with readers long after the covers of the book have been closed. Written and published over one hundred years later, but equally unsettling in its plot, Sarah Waters’ award-winning novel The Little Stranger continues the supernatural theme with its gothic imagery and the story of a family haunted by the past and a presence which they cannot escape. Chilling and completely engrossing, both works are ideal reads for an Autumn evening.
Naturally not every entry in this category is quite as other-worldly; the themes of life and death featured just as strongly in the judges’ nominations. Catherine Merriman’s State of Desire and Fflur Dafydd’s Twenty Thousand Saints both explore the impact of loss and grief on the identity of those who live on after experiencing the death of someone close to them, and the choices they make as a consequence. Meanwhile, Tristan Hughes traces themes of loss, identity and acceptance through the eyes of his teenage protagonist Zach in his novel Hummingbird. Of course, the books in this category are not only geared towards adult readers, Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron offers a fantasy story aimed at young-adult readers with her story of a futuristic prison and the inhabitants confined there. Also targeting young-adult readers, Eloise Williams dives into Victorian Cardiff in Gaslight, to weave the tale of Nansi, a girl who finds herself drawn into a murky world of thieves and psychics as she searches for the truth about what happened to her mother. The tension builds throughout the novel as Nansi uncovers secrets and eventually ends up on the run in her quest to gain answers.
This is, without doubt, one of the most eclectic categories we’ve had so far in the series, so what ultimately connects all of these books? The answer lies in the human stories at the heart of each book; whether they adopt a Sci-Fi, mystery, supernatural or historical setting, each of the books nominated here hinges on the way in which the central character reacts to the events which happen to them. Regardless of their genre, these are stories of human resilience in the face of loss, of determination to uncover hidden truths and of characters coming to terms with how the people and events in their past have shaped who they have become in the present. They are stories packed with emotion, determination and hope. What more could you want from literary escapism?
Life, Death and Other Worlds
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (1894)
Synopsis: Arthur Machen was a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s. This novella first published in 1894, is arguably one of the greatest works of the weird horror and decadent genre. The Great God Pan is a mystic tale of a young girl cursed by her unnatural parentage to become a creature of shape-shifting, polysexual, demi-human evil.
‘Of creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few can hope to equal Arthur Machen.’ H. P. Lovecraft
‘What can I say about a writer whose influence has been acknowledged by H.P.Lovecraft, Peter Straub, T.E.D.Klein, M.John Harrison and Clive Barker? Perhaps that he managed to communicate a sense of the inexpressibly and awesomely supernatural with more power than he ever knew.’ Ramsey Campbell
Among Others by Jo Walton (2011)
Synopsis: Jo Walton was born in Wales and now resides in Montreal. Among others tell this story of Fifteen-year-old Morwenna who lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother who spins dark magic for ill. One day, Mori and her mother fight a powerful, magical battle that kills her sister and leaves Mori crippled. Devastated, Mori flees to her long-lost father in England. Adrift, outcast at boarding school, Mori retreats into the worlds she knows best: her magic and her books. She works a spell to meet kindred souls and continues to devour every fantasy and science fiction novel she can lay her hands on. But danger lurks… She knows her mother is looking for her and that when she finds her, there will be no escape.
‘Never deigning to transcend the genre to which it is clearly a love letter, this outstanding (and entirely teen-appropriate) tale draws its strength from a sold foundation of sense-of-wonder and what-if.’ Publishers Weekly
‘Walton’s fairy folk – ugly, uncivilised, unpredictable – as experienced by teenage narrator Mori, are superbly realized.’ The Guardian
The Island of Apples by Glyn Jones (1965)
Synopsis: Glynn Jones was a Welsh poet, novelist and literary historian and a prolific figure within Welsh writing in the twentieth century. The Island of Apples is a brilliant study of a pre-adolescent boy’s romantic imagination and dangerous enthralment, set vividly between the industrial heartlands of Methyr Tydfil and the rural landscape of Carmarthenshire in the early twentieth century. The life of Dewi Davies is suddenly altered by the appearance of a stranger in his town, a youth from a seemingly glamorous background who possesses all that Dewi finds lacking in his own restricted existence.
‘The theme is the departure of youth, and Glyn Jones has translated it into despairing action and marvellous natural imagery which convey, as strongly as I have ever experienced it, the sense of loss.’ Irving Wardle
The Island of Apples | UWP
Gaslight by Eloise Williams (2017)
Synopsis: Eloise Williams grew up in South Wales. Gaslight, set in 1899 tells the story of Nansi who’s mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. She can’t remember anything else. Now, with no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother.
In Eloise Williams’ wild, desperate world, with its unforgettable cast of characters, Nansi is a brave, complex heroine who will break your heart and make you cheer.
‘An absolute firecracker of a book – gorgeously raw, dark and Dickensian.’ Lucy Strange
‘A darkly delicious romp through the backstreets of Victorian Cardiff. I loved it!’ Emma Carroll
State of Desire by Catherine Merriman (1996)
Synopsis: Catherine Merriman is an English novelist who moved to South Wales in the 1970s. State of Desires tells the story of Jenny Parson who as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of her husband, her friend Sal suggests that fighting the powers of British Coal against a proposed opencast mine near her house in South Wales could be just the thing into which she could channel her energies.
‘Much as women like Roberts and Gallie remembered evaluatively the industrial world they had known, Catherine Merriman, in State of Desire, retains positivity from the industrial past.’ Stephen Knight, ‘Industrial Fiction’, in The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)
Synopsis: Sarah Waters was born in Wales and now lives in London. In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners – mother, son and daughter – struggling to keep pace. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.
‘Sarah Waters’s masterly novel is . . . gripping, confident, unnerving and supremely entertaining.’ Hilary Mantel
‘It’s a gripping story, with beguiling characters . . . As well as being a supernatural tale, it is a meditation on the nature of the British and class, and how things are rarely what they seem. Chilling.’ Kate Mosse, The Times
‘Waters writes with a firm, confident hand, deftly building an atmosphere that begins in a still, hot summer and gradually darkens and tightens until we are as gripped by the escalating horror as the Ayres are.’ Tracy Chevalier, Observer
Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes (2017)
Synopsis: In his fourth novel, Tristan Hughes returns to the landscape of his youth in this vivid and poetic coming-of-age story about death, life, and the changes they bring. Set against the harsh, unforgiving beauty of the forests of northern Ontario, Hummingbird unravels a moving tale of loss, absence and redemption. Beside a lake in the northern Canadian wilderness, fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely and isolated life with his father. His only neighbours are a leech trapper, an eccentric millionaire, and an expert in snow. But then one summer the enigmatic and shape-shifting Eva Spiller arrives in search of the remains of her parents and together they embark on a strange and disconcerting journey of discovery. Nothing at Sitting Down Lake is quite as it seems. The forest hides ruins and mysteries; the past can never be fully understood. And as Zach and Eva make their way through this haunted landscape, they move ever closer towards an acceptance of what in the end is lost and what can truly be found.
‘An absorbing and composed tale, providing the perfect escapism.’ Buzz Magazine
‘Hummingbird is a triumph of compression, almost occupying a place somewhere between a novella and a more fully-blown novel. The narrative control and sense of scale it takes to make everything neither too long nor too short inform its structure…its evocation of eternity, the ever-deferred destination of the ever-changing, just perfect…this novel has scarcely any faults.’ Nigel Jarrett
Twenty Thousand Saints by Fflur Dafydd (2008)
Synopsis: Fflur Dafydd is a Welsh award-winning novelist and musician. In Twenty Thousands Saints Archaeologist Deian returns to the island of his childhood, where his mother disappeared without a trace. Sister Viv, closet heretic and host of the annual conference of hermits, has erected a gold plaque in her memory, declaring her official sainthood. Meanwhile, documentary-maker Leri is keen to portray the island’s inhabitants as anything but saintly, pursuing a story that has less to do with birds and saints’ bones than with real bloodshed. During this hot August week, a writer-in-residence observes lives colliding, as Bardsey Island twirls once more for the cameras… A black comedy about finds, losses, secrets, privacy and intrusion, and how the most important things always happen off-camera
‘The most compelling novel I’ve read in years; a love-story, a thriller, and a profound meditation on language and identity.’ Peter Florence, Director of the Guardian Hay Festival
‘A wild, exhilarating read.’ Catherine Taylor, The Guardian
‘Pick of the Year. Compelling.’ Prospect Magazine
Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (2007)
Synopsis: Catherine Fisher was born in Newport. Incarceron is a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology – a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber – chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here.
‘One of today’s best fantasy writers…readers can look forward to a deliciously dark and scary ride.’ The Independent
‘Complex and richly imagined.’ New Welsh Review
See How They Run by Lloyd Jones (2012)
Synopsis: Lloyd Jones lives on the North Wales Coast. See How they Run tells the story of small-minded academic Dr Llwyd Mcnamara who has a grant to research Wales’ biggest hero, rugby star Dylan Manawydan Jones – Big M. But as he plays with USB sticks in his office, the gods have other plans… Lloyd Jones retells this Third Branch of the Celtic myth cycle the Mabinogion with his usual wit, imaginative intelligence and love of language.
‘Lloyd Jones’s novella has the epic scope of the novels of Umberto Eco… the quirkiness and attention to details of John Irving.’ New Welsh Review
‘Jones captures a magic largely absent from the modern world.’ Wales Arts Review
‘Lloyd Jones’ retelling follows the original closely and is lively, eventful and very contemporary in the issues it examines.’ The Bay Magazine
The Guardian | See How They Run by Lloyd Jones – review
Wales Arts Review | Journey of the Mabinogi: See How They Run by Lloyd Jones and Tree of Leaf and Flame by Daniel Morden
View of Windows into the Myth: A Pictorial Reading of Lloyd Jones’s See How They Run
Life, Death and Other Worlds part of a larger series highlighting Wales’ rich literary tradition, you can find the whole series here.