Pocket Books, 1957, 238 pages
ON THE BANKS OF THE MAGICAL MOUNTAIN...
was a land of flying Satyrs and humanlike fairies--a battleground, where the two tribes of the Mountain fought for power. Brought here by her cousin, the Earthling Judith lived in the tranquility of the fantasy world.
But, as an Other-worldly being caught between warring peoples, Judith was destined to die...until she discovered the Evil driving her cousin's enemies to fight to regain their power, now and forever!
I do not know why I followed a recommendation from China Miéville. I've never even read China Miéville (though I keep meaning to). But apparently this long out-of-print fantasy novel was put on his list of the top 10 examples of "weird fiction":
"The book was written when Gaskell was 14, and though it suffers from all the flaws her youth would lead you to expect, it is a staggering achievement. A fraught fairyland full of sexuality, and containing the most extraordinary baddy in fiction." - China Miéville
Mildy intrigued by this, and by the idea of a novel published by a fourteen-year-old author, I acquired a copy.
It starts with an almost apologetic preface from the publisher:
...we think Strange Evil is, in itself, a strange, arresting, and beautiful book. That it has faults and immaturities we know; revision has deliberately been kept to a minimum and has been carried out only by the author herself, for we felt that the youthful sparkle of her writing should be at all costs preserved.
I'd like to say that I found Strange Evil charming and precocious and wonderful, but mostly, I just found it to be a badly-written fantasy novel that's pretty much what you'd expect from a fourteen-year-old. A talented, imaginative fourteen-year-old who no doubt went on to write much, much better than this (I've never read -- or, honestly, heard of -- Gaskell's Atlan series, but apparently it has a following), but it's awfully hard to review without being really, really snarky.
That blurb up top? That's from the back cover, and it's pretty much how most of the book is written. Here's the opening:
The man stood there, quite still, for a moment.
He was looking down the street as though momentarily uncertain of his direction. And Judith had time to notice his face.
Her impression was one of great strength of will. She felt that he was some man who was of moment in the world. His whole air was of someone manifestly important and yet she could not place him, could not recollect seeing his likeness in any of the newspapers or even the society magazines.
His face was pale and oval and his eyes, at present expressionless, were large and of all things, purple - like those of a beautiful child. He was very fair.
For some time previously she had been aware of him in front of her as she threaded her way through the lunch-hour crowds. The glimpses she'd had of the back of his head fascinated her - he was carrying his hat. He wore the standard suit of the man who was something in the city, but his black jacket and striped trousers, his hat, and everything about him quietly but emphatically bespoke expensiveness.
The writing does not get any better than this. In fact, it gets considerably worse in places. Fourteen-year-old Gaskell wrote like most young authors, with a conviction that no verb cannot be improved by an adverb, and no noun should not be decorated with an adjective.
Here's the start of Chapter 11:
In the morning an early but hot yellowness flowed in upon her through the window.
Judith stirred and awoke, then rubbed her eyes at the really unexpected brightness.
To be perfectly honest, I wrote better than this at age fourteen. Maybe not a lot better, but Jane Gaskell wasn't some child prodigy of a writer who wrote publishable fiction as a ninth grader.
The plot, briefly, is this: Judith, working as a nude model in London (I imagine 14-year-old Gaskell writing this in 1955 thought she was being quite racy) is suddenly visited by her long-lost cousin Dorinda and Dorinda's fiancee Zameis. Her unwanted houseguests are very strange, and through various misadventures reveal themselves to be faeries from another world (or "the Fourth Dimension" as Dorinda uses the term once, never to be mentioned again). They are visiting Earth because there is a magical conveyor belt that carries people from their world to Earth and back, and since the planets' atmospheres touch, the faerie folk are quite worried about the development of nuclear weapons, which they fear could affect their world.
After this, Judith is compelled to go with Dorinda and Zameis back to the faerie world. Which she doesn't object to much, because she's become totally infatuated with Zameis, and has some lolzy internal debates about whether or not it's wrong to be plotting to steal her cousin's man. When Zameis later does come on to Judith, Judith is outraged that he'd so easily cheat on Dorinda and loses all interest in him. There is quite a bit of sexual subtext in the story, but it's fourteen-year-old girl sexual subtext. Jane Gaskell probably would have loved Twilight.
Arriving on the other planet, Janet, Dorinda, and Zameis are captured by a group of satyrs and primitive humanoids, and Judith learns that her cousin and her fiancee are "Internals" from inside the Mountain who worship "The Baby"; their captors are "Externals" who left the Mountain to practice the Old, Old Religion -- they worship "The Sword." But having been trapped outside the Mountain, they don't have access to some mysterious source of life and immortality inside the Mountain, so they are getting sick. They hope to trade hostages for access to the Mountain.
It's quite a bizarre setup, but the two societies turn out to be complex and very puzzling to Judith, whose sympathies go first one way and then the other. Eventually, a war breaks out between the Internals and the Externals, with Judith caught in the middle. The climax was probably the best part of the book, and here is where Jane Gaskell's imagination really shined, because I wasn't expecting the dark, almost Lovecraftian twist the story took.
That said -- I'm sorry, I keep harping on the fact that it was written by a kid, but everything about this book screams "juvenile author." Inappropriate word choices, prose you could squeeze into grape juice, grammatical errors, story elements that come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, abrupt and inconsistent characterization, telling, telling, telling, uneven pace... I very much doubt this book would be published today, and it would never have been published at the time if it had been written by an adult.
It's not a terrible story... as compared to, say, 99% of what's on fanfiction.net or Smashwords. I'd give it an 'A' if written for a creative writing class, but it really wasn't ready to be published.
Verdict: This novel was written by a fourteen-year-old girl scribbling in notebooks, and it shows. I won't say it's without its merits. It's a quick read and it is indeed "strange, arresting, and beautiful." It's an imaginative and interesting story with some very creative worldbuilding -- the sort that any well-read teenager with a vivid imagination could come up with. If you like strange fantasy and are tolerant of juvenile writing, you might find it entertaining if you come across a copy, but with all due respect to China Miéville, it's not really worth seeking out.