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Bridget Collins on her Favourite Fantastical Novels

Posted on 9th January 2020 by Mark Skinner

A huge hit with our booksellers since it's original hardback publication last year, Bridget Collins's The Binding is now available in paperback as our Waterstones Book of the Month for January. In this exclusive essay, Bridget, a master at combining spellbinding fanstasy with the intense drama of real-life, highlights her favourite books that mix magic with reality.  

A few days ago I went to Waterstones in Piccadilly to see their brilliant installation of the bindery from The Binding, complete with workbench, stove, and marbled endpapers hanging from the ceiling. It was a surreal feeling to step on to the wooden floor and suddenly find myself in a space that up to now I’d only imagined. I could actually sit in Seredith’s chair, open the drawers of leather scraps and tools, and touch the shreds of gold leaf that clung to everything. It was a bit overwhelming (in the best possible way) to see something I’d written made real. In fact, if you’re on Twitter you can see the (many) photos of me marvelling at it, speechless and grinning like an idiot.

But I think even if it hadn’t been based on The Binding, if I’d only stumbled across it one day by chance, it would have been special: a playful, eye-catching island of fantasy on the third floor of a busy bookshop. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to resist: which of us is indifferent to the idea that there are other worlds just out of reach, that pop up here and there and are gone again before you’re sure you’ve seen them? Whether you spent hours in wardrobes as a child, waiting for the blank wooden panel at the back to dissolve into a snow-scented nothingness, or whether you idly tap bricks in walls, in case they’ll squirm and wriggle sideways, making the archway that leads to Diagon Alley… well, we all keep hoping, right? Some of the books that defined my childhood – and some of the books that I still love best today – are the ones where fantasy and reality are entwined, where the characters step from one to the other and back again. Here, in no particular order, are five of them.

I can’t mention fantasy without starting with Diana Wynne Jones, whose books for children mix real life with magic in hilarious and beautiful ways. My favourite was always Fire and Hemlock, which is about love, families, music, friendship, and stories coming to life (among other things). One of the central images is a pair of spinning vases with ‘NOWHERE’ carved on them: the world can go from HERE NOW to NO WHERE in an instant, from school and custody battles and family break-up to monsters and heroes and an uncanny fate-worse-than-death. Wynne Jones is a master at making you feel that both sides are as believable, and important, as each other, and the book is a wonderfully coherent and clever whole. 

Another brilliant children’s classic is Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, which uses some of the most evocative landscapes of the British Isles as a setting for a fierce battle between the armies of Light and Dark. The first in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, has a children-on-holiday-discover-treasure sort of vibe which is almost Blyton-esque – although it’s perfectly executed – but the series becomes more and more lyrical, rich and sinister as it progresses, culminating in a final showdown that is genuinely chilling and uplifting. The elements of fantasy and reality are expertly interwoven, and whenever I visit Cornwall or Wales, there’s still a part of me that imagines elemental forces, just out of sight…

It’s less common in adult fiction for magic to be so rooted in the everyday, but reality still shows itself to be porous and untrustworthy – sometimes in ways that are benign, and sometimes the opposite. A relatively straightforward example (and a compelling thriller, which is why I include it here) is Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, which I suppose a purist might call sci-fi rather than fantasy. In 1960’s Cornwall, a curmudgeonly husband is persuaded by his friend to drink a potion that transports him back to medieval times, where he watches, helpless and enthralled, as a story of scandal, murder and romantic love unfolds in front of his disembodied eyes. For me, the medieval parts are less interesting – it’s the interface between the two eras, the seductive danger and adventure of moving from one to the other, and finally the sense of the ground giving way beneath the narrator’s feet, that feels electric.

With a completely different tone, Russell Hoban’s Amaryllis Night and Day is an odd and poetic book, in which two protagonists conduct an affair partly in real life and partly in their dreams. It features real places – Tube stations, the London museums – as well as an eidetic, haunting dreamscape, and is loaded with images of liminal spaces and objects like mazes and Klein bottles. The effect is to create a world which is both intensely real and intensely unreal, in which love, death and memory are thrown into sharp relief. It’s the sort of masterpiece that leaves you wishing that your own dreams were half as romantic or meaningful.

Finally, I wanted to include an example of the classic ghost story, a genre which generally relies on a no-nonsense, realistic background in order to heighten the unease, the perfectly calibrated wrongness, which makes us shiver. In Sarah WatersThe Little Stranger, one of my favourites, it’s precisely the juxtaposition of the everyday with the sense of horrifying malevolence that makes it so creepy – much, much creepier than if it were set less solidly in the real world! Some of these books make you long to cross the invisible line into somewhere less familiar, less safe – but I love a good ghost story for reminding us that sometimes it’s nice to look up from a book and breathe a sigh of relief…  

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The first chapter of the seminal The Dark is Rising sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone is lighter than the increasingly dense and grandiose books which followed, centring on a group of children discovering a mysterious artefact on a Cornish holiday. Packed with portents of thrilling adventures to come, this is a wonderful introduction to a landmark Young Adult series.
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Vintage du Maurier from start to finish, The House on the Strand deploys the well-worn trope of time travel to make more profound statements about social dislocation and dangerous obsession. Lurching between 1960s Cornwall and a medieval world of intrigue and scandal, this is a masterly slice of speculative fiction.
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An expertly crafted ghost story from one of the twenty-first century’s most gifted writers, The Little Stranger’s chills may be elegant and exquisite, but they are still mighty scary. A crumbling Georgian pad and a family with sinister secrets to hide lend this eerie narrative a slowly escalating sense of creeping dread.
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Strange games have a habit of becoming real as memory plays sinister tricks in Wynne Jones’s dark, complex novel. A stunning blend of richly imagined enchantment and true-life grit, Fire and Hemlock is intelligent fantasy for enquiring minds from a master of magical children’s literature.
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An utterly beguiling oddity from the ever-versatile Russell Hoban, Amaryllis Night and Day drifts lyrically between reality and dreams as two ambiguous characters conduct a very singular affair across London. Enigmatically written and haunting, Hoban’s remarkable book will stay with you forever.
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