I am a few chapters into this 1926 classic fantasy novel, and am, as I’m sure no one will be surprised to hear as this is what it’s famous for, struck by how unique it seems, even after the very long time other writers have had to be influenced by it. (Though I did discover the inspiration for Pamela Dean’s Dubious Hills in its Debatable Hills.)

Lud-in-the-Mist is a town near Fairyland which is so determined to be normal that even the word “fairy” is an obscenity. But there’s still trafficking in addictive fairy fruit… and the young son of the mayor was fed some.

The vocabulary is exceptionally difficult. Not since Dorothy Dunnett have I tripped over so many words which I’ve either never come across, or only seen with different meanings. (I know “levee” as in “drove my Chevy to the levee,” but here it means “gathering.”) A lot of them pertain to the English countryside -- “burn” apparently meaning a body of water, “hornbeams” I guess are trees, and “pleached” seems to mean “roofed with branches” – but there’s also poncifs, opobalsum, and squills. The effect is of reading a document incompletely translated. It adds to the sense of oddness, of a story both familiar and alien, with the familiar bits making the alien bits seem even more weird and disturbing.

The first chapter, introducing the town and its mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer, is an unusual mixture of the cozy and the ominous, a tapestry of elegantly elaborated sentences describing pleasant rural things in a disquieting manner. The Guild Hall is “built of mellow golden bricks” which sounds pretty until the conclusion “like a rotten apricot.” Nathaniel’s experience of hearing a single note of fairy music haunts him all his life in dreams of ordinary life that twist into surrealism: his old nurse bakes an apple on the fire, then says, “But, of course, you know it isn’t really the apple. It’s the Note.”

I could go on, but the entire chapter is like that, image after image of pastoral charm that becomes dark in an understated way that gets under your skin. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it, though it clearly influenced Neil Gaiman, most visibly in Coraline. Pamela Dean’s Dubious Hills too borrowed some of the mood as well as the hills, though the creepy element there is more intellectual than visceral.

I assume the first chapter is a microcosm of the subject of the book: Lud-in-the-Mist pretends to be charmingly prosaic, even a bit kitschy, but it’s haunted by Faerie. The striking image of the rotten apricot is also a microcosm: the darkness at the heart of the pretty town, and the addictive fairy fruit which seem to symbolize Faerie as a whole: something irresistible that will ruin your life and make you beg for more.

On the other hand, the novel’s social satire and philosophy (like the whole thing about law being an attempt to rewrite reality) are not of particular interest to me. Hopefully those elements won’t take over. I am currently still near the beginning, when Ranulph has been sent away to a farm, ostensibly for his health but clearly so that he’ll be able to run off to Fairyland.

Check it out on Amazon: Lud-in-the-Mist


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