I have known Alan Garner’s books since I was small. My big brothers had the Puffin paperback of The Weirdstone of Brisengamen and even before I could read, I loved the mysterious, evocative cover. As soon as I was able to read it, I was sucked in to the world of Alderley Edge, where Garner’s family had lived for centuries. History, myth, legend and folklore intersected with the present-day in a wild, swirling fantasy. I loved it.
And I loved the idea that our modern, everyday landscape has another, ancient and potent one barely hidden under the surface. The adventures of Colin and Susan seemed quite possible.
I think I stopped reading Garner after I studied The Owl Service for my degree in 1981. His later work seemed darker, not really for children. And, in its bare-bones and stripped-down style, challenging and difficult to read. I liked my fantasy a little softer and more accessible.
So Treacle Walker is my first Garner for more than 40 years; I was alerted to it by Kate Constable. And what can I say? It’s unique.
Eccentric, mysterious, understated. No need for all that exposition, all that explaining and describing that most of us do. The elements of the story are spare. Joe Coppock, a lonely boy with a lazy eye. An old house, and Joe’s collections of comics, birds’ eggs, marbles. Treacle Walker, who arrives one day in the guise of a rag-and-bone man. A strange, fantastical, mythical struggle involving birds and eggs, comic book characters, marbles and stones and a yearning ancient spirit of place who’s been aroused from sleep, but needs to return to it.
It’s a short book (152 pages) but powerful for all that. And scary!
The passage below is a lesson for writers on ‘scary’.
The alders swung and the land lurched. Above the house, the sky cracked. And in the rack was a claw. The claw rent down, and the gap was blackness moving, mirror cold, with snow.
‘Hold fast,” said Treacle Walker. ‘This is no hurlo-thrumbo. No lomperhummock, this. This is Winter. This is night.’
Again the sky was torn. And in the gap was a bird, huge, wings spread, claws open to clench the house.
Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo…
The blackness surged. It flowed from the sky, across the embankment into the yard. It seethed up the house, the roof, the walls, the windows and the door. It was an ivy of black climbing the pear tree. It bulged against the hedge and spilled out onto Big Meadow and down the field towards Treacle Walker and Joe.
And thunder with no pause. Joe shut his eye against the lightnings and the dark.
It is scary — elemental. I think Treacle Walker really benefits from being read in context with Garner’s later books, especially Boneland (which is kind of a sequel to Weirdstone, but not in the way a lot of fans would have liked). He has said that he likes to strip his work back so there is no unnecessary word — Treacle Walker is really the ultimate expression of that philosophy, it could hardly be sparer.