A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The joy of children’s literature is its infinite variety; it is a microcosm in which all the adult genres are reflected. Here you can find the commercial thriller, the literary thriller, the sci-fi, the chick-lit, the commercial-literary crossover, the historical novel, and the literary prose stylist. This last is not so easy to find nowadays, but there’s a good example in the work of David Calcutt, especially his first novel, Crowboy. In his second novel, Shadow Bringer, he also proves himself to be a master of the uncanny.
Both David’s books are frightening, in very different ways. Shadow Bringer is perhaps the most accessible to young readers: a horror story full of the ancient power of evil. Nathan is out walking the dog when he sees something – a black, amorphous, threatening thing – appear over a clump of trees and then descend into them. The dog runs towards the trees and he has to follow. In the trees: a flooded pit, an old rope tied to a branch, and at the bottom of the pit, the monster. In a wonderfully written passage, he wrestles with his own mind, relentlessly questioning himself in an attempt to give concrete form to, and thus defuse, his fear:
He looked up to where the sky showed through the gap in the treetops above the pool. It would have come down through there.
What would have?
What had come down?
What thing? What was it?
He saw it again, twisting in the sky above the trees. Then he saw it fold and drop. He watched it come down through the gap in the trees, saw it floating gliding winding coiling down to touch the water, and rest on the surface of the water, and then –
And then what?
To float glide wind coil down through the water and come to rest on the bottom.
There now, down at the bottom. In the cold dark.
– Shadow Bringer
The stage is set. As tension builds and the monster grows in strength, we move between Nathan’s point of view and that of the shaman girl Rasha, who has come from another world, to fight the monster. But she cannot defeat it without Nathan.
There’s an uncompromising darkness about Shadow Bringer (and about Crowboy, for that matter) that commands respect. Just like any good horror story, it flows inexorably to the point where the hero walks towards the trap-door, or the wardrobe, or the front door, while the reader or viewer hides behind the sofa, crying ‘Don’t do it!’ But they do do it. They have to. Nathan tries to escape, but he has to confront the monster. Shadow Bringer thus emphasises what humans can do, and what they can’t, and must accept. You can defeat the demon. You can’t destroy it wholly, for it is as much part of the world as you are.
Crowboy has a similar message of qualified hope. Bolder and more experimental in prose and voice (multiple narrators, present tense, first person), it follows a group of children as they struggle to survive in the brutal aftermath of a war that sweeps across the world with no obvious meaning or purpose save to destroy. The Crowboy, a strange, mystical child who has visions, seems to offer hope not only to Mal, who has followed him from another city, but to warring gangs of teenagers who see his power and fight to gain control of him. But can Crowboy really save them? The tension builds to a dramatic ending.
What I love in David Calcutt’s writing is the refusal of sentimental wish-fulfillment, the clear-eyed honesty and lack of comfort. His books aren’t easy reads for children, or indeed for most teenagers. But that doesn’t lessen their value, nor cancel out the few child readers who will be transported by them in a specific way that few children’s books manage nowadays. For nowadays contemporary children’s literature is rich in humour, adventure, story but less so in technique. David’s writing stands out for its poetic approach to language (which is not to say flowery, but powerful and precise), its concentration on mood and atmosphere, and its willingness to experiment.
I recently read a book review by a teenager (I forget which book she was reviewing: not one of David’s). She said she didn’t enjoy it much, mostly because of the ending, because she preferred happy endings. On the other hand, she added, she had thought about the book almost constantly since finishing it, mostly because of that troubling ending. There is room in teenagers’ lives for books that challenge them, that they may not enjoy, but which, when they go back to the books they do enjoy, remain in their memories as another option, something else a book can be. To grow, you need something to wrestle with, something that gives you a sense that there is more to this nut if you can only crack it.
Shadow Bringer and Crowboy are more than worth reading by adults, not just as a token nod to children’s books, but as works of art which stand head and shoulders above most novels of any kind. C.S. Lewis said he was: “almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s book”. Any adult reader who has enjoyed Russell Hoban’s cult novel Riddley Walker, the novels of Cormac McCarthy, or Alan Garner’s most pared-down books, such as Red Shift or The Stone Book, will very likely enjoy David Calcutt’s novels too.
Shadow Bringer: OUP, 2009. ISBN: 9780192728807
Crowboy: OUP, 2008. ISBN: 9780192727497