ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘The Magician’s House’

Magician's House

Then: I have one particularly prevailing memory of The Magician’s House. When I was in my first year of secondary school, the TV show of the book came out. I managed to watch a few recorded for me on VHS by friends (my parents permitted a video player, but not actual television signal). One particular morning, a succession of us were called out of an IT lesson to be cross-examined by our Head of Year about incident involving the bullying of a pupil on our school bus. As it turned out, none of us had anything to do with it, or in fact had any clue what the incident was, but the truth didn’t seem enough, and thus we developed a complex lie about how we hadn’t seen anything because we had been together at the opposite end of the bus (which end was that? No idea! Lie, quickly!) discussing television.

“Oh yes?” says my Head of Year, tightening the thumbscrews and preparing the water torture. (He was a very nice, mild-mannered man, actually, but I was eleven, shy and terrified and never been in trouble before. I might as well have been in Guantanamo.) “What was that?”

I, the only pupil in the school actually without a television, and thus completely unqualified to answer, supplied the only show I knew: “The Magician’s House.”

“Oh okay!” he said. “I’ve heard it’s very good.” Not that it was any help in the situation, but he was quite wrong about that.

I’m well aware that this doesn’t really have any bearing on the book itself. In fact, it’s not even about the book, but about a sub-par television adaptation. But I am of the psychological make-up that minor embarassments from twenty years ago can still wake me up in fear in the middle of the night, and thus when my re-read copy of The Magician’s House arrived, I found myself moist-palmed, experiencing flashbacks. Thus, consider these paragraphs therapy, so I can enjoy the books on face value.

Now: I read the books from the library in a beautiful hardback edition that I couldn’t find when I came to re-reading. I remember the cover illustrations vividly, specifically the second volume, The Door in the Tree. All the versions I can find now are childish and heavy-handed, but the ones I remember were curious and wild, much like the books. That is my predominant memory of them; I read them when perhaps a little too young, and thus the plots are vague and probably confused, but I have a strong sense of what it evoked. The isolated wilderness; the darting, unpredictable nature of inhabiting animals minds; the skittering filth of the rodents: The Magician’s House was not a book that suited cartoon covers. I have never forgotten a particular scene in which the children inhabit the mind of a badger who is being hunted down. It was primal, and frightening.

The Magician’s House remains so. If you boil it down to a precis, the plot is fairly standard: a mystery from the past threatens to invade the future, and only the children can stop it. But in his execution, Corlett layers so much more over it. His world seems cut-off and fragile (something the TV shows fails utterly to evoke, with nintendo games and jeeps), and crucially, the three siblings have a complex and believable relationship with both themselves and the partner of their uncle with whom they are staying. (Partner is a relevant choice of word: a plot point is the children failing to understand why the couple do not marry when they are having a child, but what might have come off like a deliberately educational sermon on modern relationships plays instead as subtle character drama that doesn’t play to any moral issue. Likewise, there are shades of oddness – such as the older of the sisters flirting with any man, including her uncle – that lend a more adult, nuanced tone to what might otherwise be stand children’s fantasy fare.) The siblings do not always like each other, and not in a learn-to-love-each-other-by-the-end-of-the-book sort of way either, and consequently the characters are immediately sympathetic and engrossing.

The book retains the wild strangeness I recall, although it doesn’t venture fully into that realm until the conclusion in which the children realise they can cross into the mind of animals, and the past begins to bleed into the present. I imagine the sequels take this and run, although I’ve yet to re-read them. It’s perhaps interesting that these books so specifically captured my imagination, for two reasons. One is the aforementioned atmosphere; I hesisitate to repeat the words wild and strange yet again, but when I look at the books that have stuck in my memory, this feeling is something that they share (see: Brendon Chase.)

Secondly, it turns out that William Corlett is also the author of two minor lost gay classics, and knowing this it was hard not to look for some form of queer subtext in The Magician’s House. Frankly, there is none, but at the same time there isn’t an assumption of heteronormativity (I’ve talked before on this blog before about the children’s books that leave the sexuality of their male protragonists deliberately unstated, thus allowing all us soft proto-queers to map ourselves onto them) and Corlett clearly has some desire the undermine the traditional gender roles of children’s literature that has gone before.

Some of my re-reads have withered under adult inspection, some have stood up, and a few have surpassed my memories, and Magician’s House is one of those. Just, for the love of god, do not watch the TV show. It has some wonderful moments (Ian Richardson as the wizard, for example) but otherwise is simply an exercise in rendering the magical mundane (and making terrible character choices like making the older sister an American cousin.) Which is nice for me, really: now I can associate my traumatic cross-examination with the TV show, and leave the books to grow their own roots.

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