‘”HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOW STORM IN THE NIGHT IN THE YEAR 1755″
“THE PRINT OF A WOMAN’S SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE IN THE SNOW WHERE HE LAY DEAD”
On a stone in the heart of the Cheshire Pennines, a little way from the Thursbitch valley, these words are written. In 1952, a young Alan Garner fell over it, and the words brought with them such a sense of uncanniness that he fled back home. It is with the mystery of this stone—which does not, by the way, appear in the book except on the back cover—that his novel Thursbitch grapples: who was John Turner? And how does the mysterious stone relate to the equally mysterious, and entirely disturbing, valley that lies nearby?
There is much about Thursbitch that will be familiar to readers of Garner’s other works. The connection with Garner’s own past is one that is echoed in The Stone Book Quartet, a novel—or a series of four novellas— that engages with Garner’s ancestors, and their close and sometimes painful connection with the world they inhabit (Garner still lives in the village in the Cheshire Pennines where he grew up). His first novels, the children’s series which consists of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrah are set on Alderley Edge, bare miles from the Thursbitch valley, and have inspired pilgrimages by childhood fans to look on the landscape he describes. His other novels: Elidor, The Owl Service (widely remembered as a classic children’s television series), Red Shift and Strandloper are set in worlds as disparate as Wales, contemporary Manchester and Australia, yet retain their essential links to Garner’s earlier works, and to the later Thursbitch: the deep and discomfiting relationship between man and land, and an abiding sense of the shudderingly uncanny. Garner is never gory, or crude: only spine-tingling light in his evocation of the supernatural: this is one reason why the many collections of folktales he has edited remain successful and entirely individual. Garner’s latest novel, Boneland, will be published this year, and will bring his novels full circle as the characters of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Thursbitch are woven into the same narrative.
Thursbitch, which was first published in 2004, tells the parallel stories of Jack Turner, a packman who carries salt, silks and curiosities on a train of ponies in the 17th century, and of Sal and Ian, a very twenty-first century couple who encounter the valley while walking, attempting to reconnect Sal—for many reasons that I will not spoil—to her surroundings: Sal’s profession, as an academic geographer, leaves her with an acute sensitivity to the natural world and Thursbitch allows her to once more access this facet of her life. Except that it doesn’t just tell those stories. Sal and Ian and Jack Turner are almost an excuse to tell the story of the valley, which is unnerving and difficult and full of strangeness. In Jack Turner’s day, ‘high stones marched into Thursbitch from all around, gathering the ways’: it is a centre for strange rites and mysterious happenings, and Jack Turner is heavily involved in them all. Within the valley the stories of Sal and Ian and Jack intertwine, as they see each other across centuries, and everything blurs into a dizzying spiral of dialect, ‘sentient landscape’ and an unsettling feeling that this is not entirely fiction. (There is, Garner claims, something strange about the real Thursbitch valley: it is worth reading his 2008 lecture, ‘In the Valley of the Demon’ just for the uncomfortable tales of his research into its local significance.)
It’s easy to forget Alan Garner in the pantheon of great British writers. He doesn’t do things the way that things are traditionally done. He focuses so narrowly on a single location over his oeuvre that it feels almost impossible that any landscape, even the beautiful hills of Alderley Edge, can stand up to his scrutiny and remain both loved and mysterious. Thursbitch manages the almost impossible: it describes, with absolute attention to geographic detail, a tiny fragment of British countryside, and invests it with a significance that resonates. It is a tiny, beautiful novel that covers the great and the minute, providing a time-spanning map of the way people and land must and do live side by side; it remains with you, pulling at you when you stand in locations that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck for no reason at all. It comes as no surprise at all to find that ‘Thursbitch’ means, in Old English, ‘Valley of the Living Dread’.
Rebecca Harris is a bookseller at Topping & Co in Ely.