Saturday, October 19, 2002
I finished reading The House Called Hadlows, by Victoria Walker, a couple of nights ago. I�d never read it before.

It�s a fascinating book. Better than The Winter of Enchantment, which is a book I had read a couple of times in the library when I was a boy, and first reread as an adult several months ago.

The two books are pretty straightforward � they share a kind of plot, and they share a weakness. They also share a mystery.

And they are both, pretty much, unknown. If the books had been picked up by Lin Carter for his Ballantine Adult Fantasy line back when they were published, back in the early seventies, I suspect they would have become seminal for a generation of Fantasy Writers, or at least part of the ongoing dialogue of fantasy. Instead, they were published, went out of print, and are now not quite forgotten (if they were completely forgotten I wouldn�t have had to pay about $300 a book to read them -- but readers who read them years ago haven't forgotten them, and still seek them out).

The Winter of Enchantment is set about a hundred and fifty years ago, in Victorian Times. A boy named Sebastian encounters a magical mirror and a mysterious cat, which lead him to a house beyond time which belongs to an evil enchanter. The house is inhabited by a girl called Melissa, who looks slightly older than Sebastian, but was taken prisoner by the enchanter a hundred years before. To win Melissa�s freedom and bring down the enchanter, they must find the enchanter�s power objects across time and space, aided by the seasons and some rudimentary magic.

The writing goes from the lovely to the clumsy, often in the same paragraph. The plot, well, it�s basically plot coupons (collect a set and redeem them for the end of the story) but they are fine plot coupons, and Plot Coupons are a great way to for a young writer, or an unsure writer, to begin. (The first Sandman arc, More Than Rubies, is a Plot Coupon story. So is Neverwhere.)

The House Called Hadlows, set a couple of years after The Winter of Enchantment, kept reminding me of another author, and it took me a while to realise that it was me � it was something about the cavalier blending of mythologies, in which elves, ghosts, Greek Gods and The Devil rub shoulders, along with the leavening of humour, and the way she wasn�t afraid to borrow motifs she loved from other books (the cat Mantari�s appearance as a lion is as close to C.S. Lewis as the end of Game of You).

In it Sebastian and Melissa are sent to a house (called Hadlows). A mysteriously deformed and ageless butler tells them the story of the house � a ghost story, in which the ghosts and the house can be redeemed by Sebastian and Melissa obtaining the earth, air, fire and water objects that once comprised a magical elixir and have been scattered through the mythscape. And again, we go after the plot coupons � but this time in set pieces closer to short stories, and in which there is a cost. Nothing comes free.

Each story has similar problems � there�s a jerkiness to the way the books move, for example. And they share a huge weakness in that the villains of each book are peculiarly absent -- while the Enchanter in the first book is barely seen, except in flashback, the Evil One in the second is pretty much offstage the entire time, even during the flashback. (It�s odd, as, particularly in Hadlows, Walker demonstrates that she can craft fine villains � the Devil, for example, and Ares and Hephaestus, in the fire and the air sections.) I wonder if she�d read Lord of the Rings between the two books and decided that her Evil One would be as unseen as Sauron.

Victoria Walker has some remarkable strengths � her imagery is excellent, her imagination feels boundless: you can feel someone enjoying imagining. There�s a real narrative drive. And her weaknesses are the weaknesses of youth and inexperience. The Winter of Enchantment is a good book with several astonishing scenes. The House Called Hadlows is a significantly better book -- you can see her learning as she goes. Each book is better written at the end than it is at the beginning. Each book is a journeyman effort by a journeyman of astonishing talent and potential. There�s an excitement in wanting to see what she did next � a certainty that over the next book or two she would have stretched her wings and really started to fly.

But there weren�t any more books. And she didn�t.

Which is the mystery. As far as any of us know, she never wrote another book. The last address we have for her is in January 1973, when she was 25 (she listed her occupations back then as farming and writing). She�s not listed as having died anywhere. The author photos show a young (early 20s), pretty, dark-haired woman, smiling happily at camera, and tell us she spent time in a Sussex windmill.

And while I�m tempted to write to the various 30-year old addresses that are on file for her, I won�t. Privacy should be sacrosanct, and mysteries are more interesting than explanations any day.

(The US rights to The Winter of Enchantment are held, for term of copyright, by the Macmillan company, inherited from Bobbs-Merrill company on its dissolution. Not sure about Hadlows.)


Saw a couple of colleges with Holly today. She liked Vassar best.