Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hope Mirlees' LUD-IN -THE-MIST

Of course, I come to this novel via Tim Powers, who quoted it quite tantalizingly and memorably in Last Call as one to which Scott Crane and his late wife often referred to in their intimate shorthand with one another. At one point Susan's ghost, or at least the chthonic spirt-of-alcohol that is impersonating Susan refers to "a blackish canary" ("canary" as in the sense of "a shade of yellow" rather than that of the bird of that name) as a way of commenting on Scott's refusal to grasp what is really going on and his dismissal thereof as really pretty unimportant anyway... Such a strange phrase, that, I've always wanted to see it in context and see where it came from.

Well, now I know. And its source is just as intriguing and maddening and wonderful and mind-bogglingly cool as I had hoped it would be.

Lud-in-the-Mist is one of those open secrets by which real fantasy fans of a certain wistful, thoughtful, poetic type know each other, I think. Originally published in 1926, it dates from the same era that gave us H.P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, and shares some of the dreamlike qualities of the best of those writers' work, but has none of the menace and horror. At least not overtly, though, and I rejoice to say it, Mirlees' version of fairies and Fairyland is quite, quite uncanny.

At first the book reminded me more than a little of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast works, the first of which, Titus Groan, I am about halfway through reading but may not ever finish not so much out of dislike as exhaustion with Peake's "fantasy of manners" and its glacial slowness and hypnotic stolidity* and its near lack of action. But soon I realized that this was an altogether sprightlier work, for all its early chapter concerns with a politically and socially powerful father who regards his son as a mere adjunct or appendage of his own identity.

But then the book comes into its own just as Nathan Chanticleer's young son is suddenly revealed to him as a whole 'nother human being when he stumbles into confessing that he has broken the city of Lud-in-the-Mist's single greatest taboo: he has eaten fairy fruit. Fairy fruit being something between a narcotic and a food exported by the nation that borders Chanticleer's own, that being Fairyland. You know, where fairies are, and magic and stuff. Stuff that has been expunged as thoroughly as possible from memory and consciousness by the middle class of Lud-in-the-Mist as part of their socio-political coup that rid the city of its irrational hereditary aristocracy and its feudalistic ways.

Of course, in ridding the city of its old masters and replacing them with rational, vaguely meritocratic,profit-minded new ones, much was lost, and many did not give it up lightly. Thus a sort of cult in which the last Duke, Aubrey, is basically an avatar of the Green Man, still quietly flourishes in Lud-in-the-Mist and its environs, and lots of secret doings can be traced back to this cult and its adherents, witting and un-. Which is how, of course, the youngest Chanticleer winds up eating fairy fruit and in so doing turn everything possible on its head.

The rest of the plot winds up being almost a cozy mystery as Nathan tries to track down how this unspeakable thing has happened to his (belated) pride and joy. A cozy mystery with truly wonderful grace notes, including astonishingly lovely prose and wonderful insights into the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the limitations of reason. ""Reason, I know, is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent" says one city father to another. "But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief."

A lot of Lud-in-the-Mist deals with just that kind of careful construction of reality in which each of us is constantly engaging in our heads, construction that involves careful choices about what to let in, what to ignore, and what to abhor as impossible or otherwise unreal. The nature of the Law comes in for special scrutiny; as the most unusual and interesting variety of consensual delusion, it is the perfect foil for the delusions and unrealities of (pardon me for using such course language, but sometimes one must, to get one's point across) Fairyland.

If at times Lud-in-the-Mist feels a tad too allegorical, the effect is of short duration. One is quickly distracted from this jaundiced view of the book by the characters and their surroundings, that glow with vibrant color and come to such vivid life one might think one has been slipped some fairy fruit onself. Or wish to have been.

*If anyone ever tries to make a feature film of these books (I understand there was a BBC miniseries early this century), I insist Werner Herzog get first crack at it, and that he hypnotize his cast every shooting day like he did for Heart of Glass and has them perform so entranced. But we don't need that to happen, really, because we have Heart of Glass.

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