“Ally Ally Aster” by Ann Halam

The sci-fi and fantasy writer Gwyneth Jones needs no introduction, but is perhaps less well-known for her YA supernatural novels, written under the Ann Halam pseudonym. Several of these (such as King Death’s Garden and The Fear Man) are very good for readers of all ages, but I’ve only just got round to reading Ally Ally Aster, her supernatural thriller based on Scandinavian mythology.

This slim book feels very different from her other Halam jobs, which tend to benefit from a kind of updated MR James-for-kids style. This isn’t really like that, and I found its style hard to describe in terms of other authors. Although it’s set in a textbook Gothic location – the young hero, his sister and their parents all move into one half of an old farmhouse on a moor in the North of England – this is not a straightforward ghostly tale, even allowing for its slightly Jamesian stash of cursed Norse treasure.

It’s written in an oblique and slippery way; a lot of events, many of them psychic and metaphysical, are packed into a very short book, and often described in an understated way that makes significant plot twists very easy to miss, even for an adult. By the end, I was totally unable to decide how much of this was deliberate and how much the result of authorial shortcomings or possibly even some kind of mangling during the editing process. In one online interview with Jones she oddly mentions this book as having been a “comedy thriller”, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort, so God knows what happened between her first pitching it to her usual publishers and the thing finally coming out with a different publisher.

The character development is very peculiar, too. In a novel of this length, and written for kids, you don’t always get deep depictions of the adult characters, but the parents of thirteen-year-old Richard and his slightly younger sister Laura seem like ghosts, and the other secondary characters are very inaccessible too. Even before the two kids become beset by supernatural forces they seem completely cut off from society, and usually from each other too. But the strangest thing is the way Halam handles Richard, the character through whom the events are experienced.

The plot of this book revolves around the supposed daughter of the couple living in the other half of the farmhouse, in fact a pair of bent antique dealers with occult tendencies who have summoned a kind of Nordic elemental ice being, causing her to take the form of a teenage girl, Ally. Now, I understand that times have changed (this book was first published in 1981), but to a modern reader the complete absence of any kind of details about Richard’s emergent sexual persona is very startling, and gets weirder as the novel wears on.

Obviously, in a book for kids you wouldn’t expect or want graphic treatment of adolescent sexuality. But considering that Richard – an otherwise intelligent and unusually grown-up boy – spends most of the novel following Ally around, and that Ally is a pretty fascinating girl (with her long white hair and tendency to change apparent age and perform sacrifices), it is jarring that there isn’t even the slightest mention of him having any kind of romantic or sexual thoughts about her, either positive or negative.

This in itself could be explained away by an excess of prudery on the part of the author – except that Jones is anything but prudish in her writing normally. Also, as I entered more deeply into the novel, it began to feel like it actually is about Richard’s sexuality, but in a kind of latent way. The sudden and chaotic events that follow virtually all of his covert sightings of Ally, though in no way sex-related, still have a kind of sideways erotic charge to them which I found myself totally at a loss to account for or relate to the actual writing. It’s like this side of his character is somehow hiding in the writing, as if it were encrypted. I’m not talking about mere subtext here. I can’t stress enough how odd this effect is – I’ve never responded to any other book in this way, that I can remember. I suspect Richard’s unusually grown-up way of expressing himself has a bit to do with it, but ultimately I think I’d need to have a degree in English Literature to really get to grips with what is happening here.

The big question is how much of this effect is intended. I think Jones might be doing it on purpose, if only because she uses this book to revisit one of her favourite themes, the uneasy relationship between the world above ground and that under the earth. The subterranean geological world is a very dynamic, threatening but also fascinating place in Jones’ books, operating in stealth to undermine and confound human endeavour all the time. And that could practically be a description of adolescent desire.

One thing’s for sure though – this is not a suitable book for children or even young people. Not because it contains any “inappropriate” material or language, but simply because so much of it is likely to go over their heads. It’s even worse than The Owl Service for that. I wouldn’t even recommend it to adults, unless you want to spend a lot of time scratching your head. That said, there are some lovely flashes of moorland scenery and a convincing sense of cosmic hugeness, of geological, mythical time. If anything this aspect is almost too successful – the lens that is meant to focus these colossal forces seems rather too feeble for the job, and I think a more solid grounding of the action in the modern world would’ve helped with that. I’ll certainly not forget this book in a hurry though!

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