Saturday, November 11, 2006

An Introduction to Charles Butler

Charles Butler started writing fiction long before he became a lecturer. He wrote his first full-length book when he was eighteen, the summer before he went to university. He says it was "a horrible example of Tolkien-Lite, complete with a faux-mediaeval secondary world, obscure prophecies, epic journeys across The Map, and many other fatty lumps from the fantasyland stew pot." By the time the third book Butler wrote was accepted for publication, in 1995, he had been working at a university for several years, teaching Renaissance literature and it was a few years before he realised he could bring the two sides of his life together, by teaching children’s literature as well as writing it. Butler says that his work has been influenced by the work of three British fantasy authors: Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones; for those readers who are familiar with the works of these three authors, the marks of their influence on Butler's books are visible, particularly their treatment of time as non-linear. He says that his novel, Death of a Ghost, was influenced by Garner's Red Shift, particularly by the way in which "Garner dispenses with the usual fantasy mechanisms for handling the relationship between different historical periods"; and the conclusion of The Fetch of Mardy Watt has the kind of multiple revelations and changes of identity he likes in Diana Wynne Jones' titles, such as Archer’s Goon. Butler also says that the novels of New Zealander author, Margaret Mahy, especially The Changeover, has influenced his own writing. (All quotes from Charles Butler come from my interview with him for The Edge of the Forest.)

Butler has so far published six stand-alone novels: The first, The Darkling (NB this is a spoiler review), was published in 1997. Since childhood, 15 year old Petra has loved to scare herself with the Darkling, a make-believe creature created from night time shadows on the wall. But what happens when the Darkling takes on a life of its own and when it reveals the tragic secret of nearby Century Hall and its elderly owner ? And why does Mr Century insist on giving Petra gifts ? No one, not even Petra, could guess at the terrifying events that will be unleashed by the Darkling, or the way they will change her life.

The second novel, Timon's Tide, was published in 1998. It focuses on 16 year old Daniel, whose elder brother Timon, was drowned six years ago. His body was found near the Bristol docks, bound with plastic cords. Or so Daniel has always believed. Yet Daniel does not doubt that the down-and-out who accosts him in the street is Timon. Daniel already finds his complicated family life, with a step-father and a step-sister, difficult enough, without the unnerving presence of Timon, and the guilt Daniel feels over his brother's death, which he is now uncertain took place.

The third book, Calypso Dreaming (NB this is a spoiler review), was published in 2002. The story is set on Sweetholm, a small island out in the Bristol channel, which is best known for its seal and seabird colonies. When Geoff and Hilary Robinson are offered the opportunity to look after a house there for the summer, they see it as a good opportunity to work at patching up their disintegrating marriage. Tansy, their teenage daughter sees it as a chance to put behind her the unnerving experiments she and her best friend Kate have been making in magic. Unfortunately trouble is not so easily outrun and Sweetholm is far from the idyllic retreat it appears to be.

The fourth book, The Fetch of Mardy Watt (NB this is a spoiler review), was published in 2004. Something is haunting Mardy Watt. It's been in her room, it's fooling her friends, and it's upsetting her home life. And the trouble is, nobody realises what is happening except Mardy herself. Exactly why the Fetch is picking on her, Mardy doesn't know – but she does know that she has to find out, before it takes over and replaces her completely. But whatever spell had been put on her is growing stronger. And suddenly, rather than fear, she feels a rush of burning anger. How dare anyone do this to her ! How dare anyone steal her life !

You can download a PDF extract of this book from Butler's publisher's website and read it for yourself. Personally, I was reminded of Alan Garner’s Elidor when I was re-reading The Fetch of Mardy Watt, with Uraniborg overlying Mardy’s everyday world, yet also lying separate from it.

Butler's fifth book, Death of a Ghost (NB this is a spoiler review), was published in early 2006. It is a timeslip ghost story. When 16 year old Ossian returns to Lychfont House from America with his artist father, he finds things are both familiar and yet oddly different. He reacquaints himself with the Frazer family, who live at Lychfont, and finds himself questioning the accuracy of certain of his childhood memories and wondering just why the place seems to hold such power over him. Of one thing he is sure, however: the ghosts are still haunting him. Whilst Ossian is puzzling over his existence, a Celtic goddess is searching for her lost love. Sulis calls in the scryer to track down her lover, wherever he may be, for their wedding must go ahead. After all, she and Ossian were made for each other ! But which Ossian is which ? There's the 15th century apprentice to a goldsmith/alchemist, the latter having a sideline in torture for the government of the day; there's the Iron Age son of a priest of Sulis; and then there's the 21st century son of an artist. But for whom of these three is Sulis searching ? This is a supernatural thriller that grabs the attention from the first page and refuses to let go. The twist in the tale is quite astonishing and chilling. Death of a Ghost reminded a little of Diana Wynne Jones' The Time of the Ghost, although Butler's "ghost" moves across a far greater time span than does Jones' ghost.

Butler's latest novel, The Lurkers was published in late 2006. It is a disturbing tale of a group of strange and dangerous beings who have no physical presence in our world, apart from one, named Galder, who is only half in our world. When Verity sees a weird semi-visible figure near her brother John, one day he tells her that it is a harmless Lurker. He likes Galder, who gives him everything he wants whether it's a bigger bedroom, Bristol Rovers winning a football semi-final 6 - 1 against Chelsea, or a host of school friends visiting and praising John. However, the Lurkers are far from harmless; they feed on the human imagination and Galder is using John's brilliant young mind to become more solid and independent. Galder and his fellow alien beings intend to take over the minds of humanity, so they starting infecting people with the belief that the End Is Nigh in order to take control of them. Only Verity can stand against the Lurkers, because she cannot lie, even to herself, as her name belies her nature. But is Verity's knowledge of what the Lurkers intend sufficient for her to save not only her brother, but everyone else as well ? You can read the first chapter at the Usborne website but be warned, one chapter will not be enough.

Butler writes totally believable characters and tense, intriguing narratives that make me want to sit and read non-stop. If you enjoy supernatural tales, be sure to read Butler's books.

You may also be interested in Butler's book Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper, which is a very readable scholarly study of the four fantasists of the title.

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