I do not think after all that I have read Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Apple-Stone
(1965); I think I have just read a lot of E. Nesbit, Mary Norton, and Edward Eager, all of whom are obviously in the DNA of a novel about five children—the English narrator and his two sisters plus their Scottish cousins who are known collectively as "the Clans"—who find a strange, ancient, sentient power that brings magic into their lives for about a week and then moves on, leaving mostly memories and just a few things changed for good.
"One touch from me animates the inanimate," boasts the Apple-Stone, the "small, bright, golden ball, about the size of a marble" that assisted in the birth of the universe and gave rise to the myth of the Golden Apples of the Sun; the children find it on the highest bough in the orchard, like a Sappho fragment come to life, and they make enlightening, foolish, dangerous, and kind use of it over the next twelve chapters until it returns to the earth to sleep and restore its power and find another apple tree to bloom from, decades or centuries hence. Most of their adventures have a comic slant, as when they animate the decrepit hearthrug to settle a bet over what kind of animal it came from and never find out because they spend the day having confused their "Lambie" with an actual escaped leopard prowling the moors, or have to play detectives for a lost glove weeping bitterly over being separated from its beloved right hand ("I'm deeply attached to it. I love it"), or create an intelligent, talkative, opera-loving sheep about twice the size of a Great Dane for reasons that make sense at the time. Sometimes the comedy turns spooky, as when they accidentally animate a feather boa and get Quetzalcoatl, who not unreasonably expects a sacrifice for incarnating when called, or an episode with a formerly model rocket triggers an international incident and science fiction, or the narrator discovers an unexpected and unwanted affinity for night flight on a witch's broom. An interlude with an effigy of a Crusader constitutes the kind of history lesson that would fit right into Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill
(1906), as some of the children have their romantic illusions punctured and some come away with an interest in astrology and medicinal plants. And the two weirdest, most numinous chapters are the reason I can't be one hundred percent sure that I didn't read this book a long, long time ago: the life and death of the Bonfire Night guy that is partly the sad, passionate ghost of Guy Fawkes and partly a pyromaniac patchwork of the five children whose castoffs and imagination gave it form (as it explains in one of its more lucid moments, "Everyone is a mixture, you know, and I'm more so than most") and the introduction of new magic when the weeping gargoyle off a nearby church turns out to be the stone-trapped form of a medieval demon named "Little Tom," a wild, ragged, not quite human child in tricksterish and forlorn search of a witch to be familiar to. Both of them gave me the same half-echo as Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew
(1953), again without any of the language coming back to me. I might run it by my mother to see if she remembers bringing it home when I was small. On the other hand, it might just be that I know ashlyme
is the second book I've read by Gray and The Seventh Swan
(1962) almost doesn't count, since I know
I read it in elementary school and all I can remember is that it upset me more than the original fairy tale, which I suspect means I should re-read it. I like this one a lot, non-magical parts included. We learn early on that the parents of the English family are the puppeteers behind the popular TV show Ben and Bet Bun
and absolutely none of their children think once of bringing the Buns or the Foxies to life because they find the whole thing desperately embarrassing. (The Clans' parents are rocket scientists and the narrator envies them deeply. "We're fond of our Mum and Dad, and hope they may grow out of it in time.") The children as a group are a believable, likeable mix of traits and alliances, differentiated well beyond obvious tags like Jo's academic crazes or Nigel's artistic talent or Douglas' belligerence or Jemima's imperiousness or Jeremy's daydreaming. They fight almost constantly with one another—the Clans especially, being composed of one Campbell and one Macdonald, are engaged in the kind of dramatic ongoing feud that is half performance art and half really blowing off steam—but close ranks immediately against outsiders, even supernatural ones:"But I must tell you straight, gentles, that I can't do much of the true Black Art," said the gargoyle. "I'm not one of the great ones. I was never aught but a very little 'un. Horrid tricks I can manage," it added, boastfully, "like makin' folks squint, or muddling their minds, or twisting their tongues so that they stammers and stutters—"
"I c-can do that without your help!" snapped Nigel, going red.
"And I'm muddleheaded enough for everyone," I said, quickly.
"No, you're not!" said Jo, fiercely. "And Nigel only stutters when he's away from his home." Then she turned on the gargoyle. "You'll do no horrid tricks, do you hear? We're not sorcerers. We brought you here to help you."
The creature was still changing during all of this . . . Its hair was long and black, and tangled. Its ears were still pointed, though not as huge and batlike as before. It gave us a scornful grin, and said, "Many sorcerers don't care to admit to it."
If you have not read this novel, you can probably tell by now if you're going to like it. The Nesbit it reminds me of most is The Enchanted Castle
(1907), but it feels like itself and it feels like its own time, which is equally important. I am actively sad that the near-fine UK first edition I saw at Readercon cost sticker shock—the library copy I just finished reading is the American first edition and the illustrations really didn't work for me. (I'm sorry, Charles Keeping! Your work for Alan Garner, Mollie Hunter, and Rosemary Sutcliff was great!) Maybe sometime I'll get lucky at the Strand. In any case, the text is what matters most and that I recommend. It is good at the strangeness of things that are not human and it never risks making even the cute ones twee. It's good at children's priorities and the ways that not being an adult doesn't mean not seeing the world. I didn't quote much of a descriptive passage, but I like its language. Anyone with other favorite novels by Nicholas Stuart Gray, please let me know.