Another year ahead: the prospect before us. Dennis Hamley

Yes, it's my birthday. They seem to come so frequently lately. I chose the 14th as my posting day because the date is to me so iconic that there was at least a reasonable chance that I wouldn't forget to blog on it. And, though the year it heralds is a little further up the chain than I would like, I certainly feel very good about it. For at last, at last, I'll have ebooks up and running very soon and won't feel such a blogging fraud. But in a sense I still am. It's late at night and the cover images I've been preparing won't seem to load and, sweating with frustration I've decided to go to bed So further down the page you're going to find a lot of descriptions with no images to go with them. I'm so sorry about this. We've tried and tried - and last time it seemed so easy.
More about that later. First, I must tell you about a remarkable circumstance which harks back to the old world of publishing and has cheered me and several other people up mightily. An actual, real and ambitious children's publisher has set up its new editorial headquarters ten minute's walk away from where I'm sitting now. Barefoot Books has arrived, in a slightly eccentric, impressively refurbished building on the Banbury Road. Oxford, and particularly Summertown, is the better for it. They don't just bring the city's fourth significant producer of children's books. They are also a real public resource: if you've got kids to look after, take them there because they will have a great time in a beautiful place. A good deed in what we now have to accept is a fairly naughty world. I went to last week's brilliant opening party, met great people, including Author Electric Linda Newbery, learnt a lot and came away feeling all is not lost after all.

Last time I chuntered on about possible ebooks and promised covers. And so far none of it has come to pass. But now they will. First up is Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick: Four Slightly Weird Stories which I talked about last time. I suppose you could say that this is a shameless piece of bookmaking and you'd be right. And I'm not ashamed in the least. The cover is home-made and I hope it passes muster. Perhaps you'll see it by the end of the day.
The next book is the first in The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay sequence, Of Dooms and Death.The covers for these books are tremendous. They are the work of Anastasia Sichkarenko, who I think is a dizzyingly good designer with a fine eye for horror and mystery and a sense of the macabre which I think these books need. After all, Jan Mark, in her review for Carousel, called them a 'macabre series of page-turners.'

When I saw Anastaia's cover I gulped. The image really hit me between the eyes. But I immediately saw what it meant. Joslin has landed in England to start his quest. He trudges inland to find shelter. He sees a village in the dusk and stops to find shelter. But it is deserted. Cottages and church are ruined. Being by now lost, he resolves to sleep there, bury his belongings for safe keeping and next day make for the nearest town. So, overlooked by the ruins of the church, he digs with his dagger.

His blade came in contact with something hard. Not a stone. A bone, buried by a dog years ago?...Out of curiosity he dug out more earth to see what it was - a mutton bone perhaps, long since picked clean. And then his stomach churned and he was cold with fear. He was holding a human skull. He dropped his dagger. Yes, the round eye sockets, the grinning, mocking mouth. No, he would not bury his money. He fled from the hole, into the church...

Now dusk was here, the inside of the church was dark, eerily silent. He nearly picked up everything and ran. Then he calmed down. A skull cannot hurt me. There are enough skulls lying in these ravaged lands of Christendom which will harm no-one ever again. And I have nowhere else to go.

He lay down on his grass bed and listened to the silence. Why were there no owls, foxes, creatures of the night? Nothing seemed to stir. It was as if, from the hole he had dug, a fog, a miasma, rose to choke him. And he knew what it was. Death was in command of this place. Golgotha, the place of the skull. That skull had kept watch on him. And there could be more skulls. What awful place had he come to?

No prizes for guessing. But I hope the words do justice to this stark, resonant image.

When I first saw Anastasia's covers for A Pact with Death and Hell's Kitchen I was just as impressed. For A Pact with Death there's an alarming absence of skull. Here is where we first see the void. Alfred of Ware is watchman at Ludgate. At dead of night two men approach. One seeks entry; the other, he assures Alfred, is drunk. But...

Alfred looked at the silent man’s face under his hood. But there was nothing. A deep black void where eyes, nose and mouth should be. He felt, just for a moment, a cold terror. This was something evil, beyond human knowledge A man with no face. Devil’s work.
But Alfred was an old soldier. He had faced danger many times and he knew how to think calmly and get himself out of it. His reason told him that such things as this could not be. So he pulled himself together and shone his lantern under the hood. This time he did indeed see a face. He saw younger, finer features, this time a face he would never forget – why, if the stranger had not said “he” and “him” Alfred might have thought this was the face of a woman. Well, if there was a bit of you-know-what going on, who was he to interfere?

But those eyes - so big, open in a fixed, unblinking stare. That gaping mouth, lolling tongue. The way the head dropped forward. Even by his weak lantern light he saw the face was so pale… He shivered, recalling sights best forgotten in battles years ago. This man was dead. He was sure of it. The cold terror came again.

For Hell's Kitchen there's a skull again - but is it? Is it human or vegetable? Are those bones or roots? Whose are those supplicating, doomed hands? It's an extravagant arabesque on something which had an ambiguous influence in the Middle Ages, an influence connected with fear, soaked in death and yet producing a sort of good. Perhaps not such an easy thing to guess.

But, oh dear. Better luck next time. Perhaps I'll be allowed two blogs on the same day!

One last thing. A sign of hope? On Tuesday I'm doing my first school visit for over a year. I shall enjoy it, never fear.


Dan Holloway said…
I've been past Barefoot Books on the bus a few times and it looks absoluetly magical - a fabulous edition to literary Oxford (who knows, maybe something else to bolster our 2014 World Book Capital bid!)
Linda Newbery said…
Excellent extracts, Dennis - and I love that title, COLONEL MUSTARD IN THE LIBRARY WITH THE CANDLESTICK! Looking forward to seeing the covers.

And have a great birthday!
Jan Needle said…
In barefoot days, when we were just a couple of kids. we used to bellow that out drunkenly in the press club in the early hours - i wonder if that's where the bookshop name came from? oh dear, i'm rambling. hallo dennis, and many happy returns. try and get the covers up somehow, though, they sound fabulous. loved the extracts, too.

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