Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts Of Heaven

I took The Ghosts of Heaven at its word. The four novellas that comprise the book are, in their published form, arranged chronologically: a prehistoric story, then one set in early modern England, another in early twentieth century America and the final piece set centuries into the future. The author claims that you can read these novellas in any order, that there are “twenty-four possible combinations” in which “the story will work”. (There was a time when I’d have been able to do the maths to confirm this, but I’ll take Sedgwick at his word.) I wanted to test this so went 2, 4, 3, 1 and I don’t think this hindered my enjoyment of the book, but … I’ll come to that.

In the book’s order, then: in “Whispers in the Dark” a young woman in an unidentified prehistoric society longs to be chosen to make magic marks on the walls in a cave to ensure her people’s success in the hunt. She is not chosen, but is pondering the power of the spiral shape and on the verge of inventing writing when disaster strikes. The old man and his apprentice responsible for making the marks have failed, the tribe is slaughtered by a rival tribe.  In “The Witch in the Water” a minister has arrived in a village to replace its dead vicar, and sees devilry everywhere. Appalled to discover the villagers dancing (in a spiral) at a funeral he soon traces the source of evil to an innocent young woman, aided by the willingness of other villagers who are sexually attracted to her, jealous of her or simply scared enough to denounce her. “The Easiest Room in Hell” features Charles Dexter, a poet and a patient in an asylum in Long Island who befriends his naive new doctor and the doctor’s small adopted daughter and for various reasons is terrified of climbing up the spiral staircase at the centre of the building. “The Song of Destiny” features a spaceship carrying hundreds of bodies in suspended animation on their way to an inhabitable planet. Keir Bowman is one of ten sentinels who check the status of the ship yearly–but when he wakes after ten years of sleep he finds certain irregularities that suggest the ship is haunted.

It’s obvious from this summary that these all have very different settings, and it’s probably also obvious that some of them are very clearly pastiches of existing works or genres. To me, this was clearest in the third and fourth stories–”The Easiest Room in Hell”  with its asylum setting and its Things Under The Water would be recognisable as a Lovecraft tribute even if it hadn’t gone and named a major character after one of the author’s most recognisable works; and “Keir Bowman” is equally clearly a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which Keir Dullea plays David Bowman). The first two stories were less obviously linked to existing works for me–they could be any/every witchhunt/prehistory narrative I’ve ever read (they felt familiar, in several ways), or they could be clear references to a reader more immersed in those bodies of literature than me. (Lucy suggested that the first section might be linked to The Clan Of the Cave Bear and I’m not sure she was wrong.) I’m not sure that the intertexts add a great deal to a reading of the book, even assuming its readers have access to them–I only “caught” two references, and I’ve discussed the book with other, widely read and quite nerdy, adults who missed them. What the format does do, though, is provide a spread of styles–beyond obvious differences in shape (the first section is in verse, the third section is a first-person log of events, the second and fourth sections have third-person narrators, but while the earlier narrator appears omniscient the later one is confined in the main to Bowman’s perspective) these are all completely different stories.

Which is both great for showcasing Sedgwick’s range and bad for creating any real sense of cohesion. I said above that the order in which the stories are read made very little difference, and I don’t think that’s so much the result of brilliant, complex trickery as it is of these stories reading as four separate novellas with some themes in common. Too often the spirals are the only obvious link, so that the text has to lay extra stress on pointing out when they’re there–as when Bowman, thinking of the forward movement of his toroidal spaceship, reflects that he is spiralling through space. As a symbol the spirals themselves feel rather underwhelming to me–the book goes into some detail explaining why spirals are interesting, the golden ratio, the fibonacci sequence and (thus) the fibonacci spiral, helixes in our DNA, and yet (perhaps my mind is unreceptive to the wonder and terror of maths?) I’m rather left with a sense of “spirals are everywhere … and?” If there is a fruitful link between the stories, for me, it’s not the spirals themselves but the reactions of the characters to them–each of these main characters is hyper-aware of the hugeness and unknowability of the universe around them; each feels an awe that verges on terror (and in some cases descends entirely into terror), each is compelled towards knowledge nonetheless. Sedgwick’s choice of intertexts, as far as I recognise them, works well here–Lovecraft’s body of work as well as 2001 are both full of the wonder and terror of the vastness of space and time. In each case knowledge and oblivion are closely linked–three of the novellas end with a death. As for Bowman, perhaps he is dead–or perhaps he has dreamed all these novellas during his ten-year nights. Or we accept the ending the novella gives us, in which he arrives on a possibly-inhabitable planet and meets a young woman, much like the woman of that first, prehistoric, novella, who thinks in verse–we’ve circled round to the beginning of the text, except not quite. (Perhaps that’s a spiral too.) It’s possible to think of the whole as a single narrative across deep time, whose protagonist is the human race and our relationship to knowledge. But for that, I suspect, you should read it in chronological order. (Certainly the references between the individual novellas seem to assume that you will do so, Sedgwick’s twenty-four combinations notwithstanding.)

I’m not sure what about the book marks it out as particularly for children or young adults–none of the main characters are children by the standards of the worlds in which they live, and the things in which it expects its readers to take interest (pulp horror writers, maths) don’t seem particularly restricted by age. I’m quite sure that I would have been thrilled by exactly those elements of the book as a teenager, but I don’t know that the category “children’s literature” (insofar as it’s a meaningful category at all) should simply include everything any child anywhere is willing to read.

I’m also aware that my relative lack of enthusiasm for it now is a function of having, in the years since my teenagehood, read several books about space and time and maths and knowing and horror that do more with those things. It seems a strange thing to think about a book as intertextual as this one, but I suspect The Ghosts of Heaven is most successful when read by a naive reader. For a jaded one (me), it evokes grand, ambitious, huge ideas and then seems content not to do them justice.

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