The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
Purportedly written for children but with a strong appeal for adults as well, Alan Garner’s first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is a swashbuckling heroic fantasy set in the present day, and one that conflates elements of Welsh, Nordic and English mythology into one very effective brew. Though now deemed a classic of sorts, I probably would never have heard of this work, had it not been for Scottish author Muriel Gray’s article about it in the excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books. In her article, Gray describes the book with expressions such as “truly gripping,” “beautifully crafted” and “a young person’s introduction to horror.” And now that I have finally read the book, I can heartily concur.
In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, we meet a brother and sister named Colin and Susan (their last name is never given, nor are their ages), who, when we first encounter them, are going to stay with their mother’s old nurse and her husband, Bess and Gowther Mossock, while the kids’ parents are abroad for six months. The Mossocks’ farm in (real-life) Alderley, in Cheshire, seems initially idyllic, but trouble soon looms. As it turns out, the heirloom pendant that Susan wears on her wrist is nothing less than the titular Weirdstone, essential for protecting the sleeping warriors in underground Fundindelve from the depredations of Nastrond, the Spirit of Darkness. Delivering the Weirdstone safely to the good wizard Cadellin Silverbrow, however, aided by Gowther and by two Viking-like dwarves, Fenodyree and Durathror, embroils the two children in the adventure of their young lives.
At this point, you may be wondering why a seemingly adolescent fantasy novel was chosen for inclusion in a listing of some of the best adult horror books, but trust me, those horror elements are present in abundance. Besides featuring witches, warlocks, the svart-alfar (goblins), the mara (a sort of monstrous, 20-foot-high, walking female statue of green stone), the Fenris wolf, giant eyeless dogs, malevolent scarecrow creatures et al., the book also throws in horrors of a more subtle variety. All the birds in the county seem to be in league with the forces of evil, and are used as both aerial spies in the story and as beaked and taloned fighters; indeed, the scene in which Durathror goes up against a swarm of these birds cannot help but bring to mind the famed Hitchcock film of three years later.
No one in Garner’s book is to be trusted, either; even a neighbor who one has known for decades may turn out to be a warlock or abettor of evil. An aura of real paranoia is thus engendered by the author, similar almost to the one encountered in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Garner’s story also features some extended bravura set pieces, including the children’s exploration of sorceress Selina Place’s abode, the 50-page sequence in which they explore the underground caverns of Cheshire (a sequence that will most assuredly prove disagreeable to anyone who suffers from claustrophobia), and the lengthy section in which our five heroes flee across a wintry countryside from all the forces of evil ranged against them.
Garner writes very well, simply but movingly, although his powers of description regarding geography and terrain can be a bit shaky; young (and old) readers might have to exercise their gift of imagination fully to envision some of these sections (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Though supposedly a children’s book, I wonder how many adults out there will be familiar with such words as “shippon,” “withy,” “mithered” and “nesh,” not to mention the heaps of mythical references and names that Garner casually dishes out! Having said that, I will admit that The Weirdstone of Brisingamen offers some nice words of wisdom to the youngsters, such as when Fenodyree tells the children, “The deed is nothing. It is the thought that breeds fear; and we achieve little by lingering,” or when Gowther shows us all the perfect way to apologize: “Ay. I spoke out of turn. You’re reet, and I’m wrong. I’m sorry.”
Another plus for this chilling fantasy novel: the inclusion of a pair of charming maps, drawn by one Charles Green, that greatly aid in visualizing the odyssey that the children and their allies make. Bottom line: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen should not be ignored by adult readers, especially if they happen to be horror buffs. The book was followed by a direct sequel, 1963’s The Moon of Gomrath, and I cannot imagine any reader of the first volume not curious to find out what happens next to Colin and Susan…
One of my favourites. I have no recollection of how I came across it originally, but I suspect it was in the public school library. There were some ‘interesting’ books in that little library. Definitely worth a read.
I read this at primary school and have never forgotten it.