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The Late Review: The Ragthorn

22nd Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Written in the form of journal entries and winner of the 1992 World Fantasy Award in the Best Novella category, The Ragthorn (infinity plus pb) is a collaboration between writers Robert Holdstock and Garry Kilworth. This edition from infinity plus contains additional material and was first published in 2015.

The son of an archaeologist believes that he has uncovered clues in ancient texts that reveal the secret of immortality, rebirth through the auspices of the ragthorn tree. He is determined not to make the same mistakes that his father William Alexander made in attempting this ritual, but of course it won't be that simple. This is a compelling jigsaw puzzle of a story, with the authors piecing together an intellectual exercise of sorts, adding a degree of verisimilitude through the wealth of esoteric learning on display. As backdrop we get a clear picture of the rivalries that occur in archaeological and academic circles, with other experts demanding the return of the so called "Alexander Stone", which in turn touches on respect for cultural artefacts and history. The mind state of the protagonist is depicted with conviction, showing his obsession and the reason for it, the lengths to which he will go to reach his goal. And similarly the atmosphere of isolated Scarfell Cottage, with its peculiar lintel and almost symbiotic relationship with the chilling Ragthorn tree is powerfully evoked on the page. All in all this was a wonderful story, rich in ideas and suggestions of the numinous, the power to be found in nature and lost wisdom that man can harness to his benefit, albeit the ending of the story seems to imply that fate will find a way to correct the hubris of human beings.

By way of bonus material, each of the authors contributes a solo story. Kilworth's 'The Fabulous Beast' takes a minor character from the first story and gives him his own quest. David Wilkins is determined to find the pieces of hide of a unique creature hinted at in mythology, folklore, and occult learning, but the stretches of skin bond together and the creature is reborn. It is capable of giving birth to other creatures, mythical beings such as unicorns and dragons, with the last monster the most alarming of all. The story is highly readable and with an attempt at a similar depth to 'The Ragthorn', but doesn't use ancient documents as adeptly, by comparison feeling slightly superficial in its backdrop. However the central conceit, of a creature that is the mother of monsters, is a fascinating one and sufficient to hold things together, and reservations aside this was an entertaining and fun story, one with enough ideas to delight and engage the reader's attention fully.

Finally we have Holdstock's 'The Charisma Trees' which comes with the sort of blue sky thinking readers of speculative fiction should adore. To protect them from human predation certain ancient forests have been cut with the DNA of especially charismatic human beings. The idea is audacious, and Holdstock has a lot of fun showing how various hybrids play out (I took particular relish in his development of a Thatcher forest - snigger). Written as a series of letters, it develops the idea with aplomb, introducing along the way the kind of people who despoil ancient sites with their crass commercialism (and in their justifications there seems to be a tilt at the double thinking of capitalists). The real crux of the narrative though lies in the nature of a particularly foreboding stretch of woodland and the revelation of whose charisma is in effect. I loved it from first word to last; as an exercise in taking a wild idea and just running with it to see how far you can go without stumbling over your own two feet it was pure magic.





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