Lost Beneath the Waves of Time: Jane Gaskell in/and the ’60s

February 21, 2022   •   By Rob Latham

AN EDITOR’S NOTE in the April 1959 issue of Argosy magazine, prefacing the first published short story by Jane Gaskell, indicated that the British author “plans to write a novel a year till she is fifty.” At the tender age of 18, Gaskell was already well on her way: her first novel, Strange Evil (1957), came out when she was only 16 and her second, King’s Daughter (1959), the same year as her Argosy debut. Though there was a four-year hiatus before her third book, Attic Summer (1963), appeared, her output over the next decade seemed to bear out her youthful boast: between 1963 and 1972, Gaskell released nine more novels. Most were well received by critics, and a few sold strongly, with her sword-and-sorcery saga Atlan — which kicked off in 1963 and eventually ran to four hefty volumes — scoring with audiences in the United States and, in translation, throughout Europe. The final book in the series was released in 1977; then there was a long pause before her next novel, Sun Bubble (1990), appeared. And after that, silence. [1]

At least under her given name. Under her married name of Jane Lynch, Gaskell had a long career as a journalist, covering arts and media for The Daily Mail and penning occasional pieces for women’s magazines like Vogue and Mirabella; she also wrote, under a house name, a popular horoscope column for The Observer. Yet she was doing much of this during the mid-to-late ’60s while also churning out novels, including two titles in both 1965 and 1966. Indeed, she was prolific enough early on to consider a career as a freelance author, especially after the transatlantic success of the Atlan series. Her teenage books had made a big splash, drawing breathless coverage in most major outlets, and she continued to enjoy success throughout the ’60s, with her brilliant post-apocalypse novel A Sweet Sweet Summer (1969) capping the decade by winning the Somerset Maugham Award, a prize geared to support promising young writers at the start of their careers (other winners during the decade include John le Carré, V. S. Naipaul, and Seamus Heaney).

So why is it that, after 1970, Gaskell published only three more books? After all, she was by then not only a well-established and flourishing author, her fiction praised by serious arbiters like Elizabeth Bowen and Brigid Brophy, but also something of a cultural fixture, even a bit of a fashion icon, often asked by mainstream commentators to opine on the views of younger people. The British Film Institute featured her in a 1968 documentary on the “hippie generation,” and there is a photograph of her in the National Portrait Gallery surrounded by teen-cult paraphernalia: movie-star pinups and books about rock ’n’ roll. It is hard to think of another well-known writer of the ’60s who has disappeared so thoroughly: all of her work is out of print, in both the US and UK, and secondhand copies of several titles are scarce and quite expensive (there is only one copy of Sweet Sweet Summer, for example, currently available on Bookfinder — a 1971 paperback, listed at £300).

Jane Gaskell in Books and Bookmen: a 1959 cover story and a 1968 author profile.

 

Of course, few authors of the ’60s were more quintessentially of their time: Gaskell’s books are unthinkable absent the tussles and turmoil of that epochal decade. Like Margaret Drabble and Angela Carter, she used her fiction to explore the new freedoms the era afforded British women, as well as the abiding limitations that constrained them, pioneering — in such books as Attic Summer and The Fabulous Heroine (1965) — what might be called the novel of countercultural manners. Yet she alternated such works of comic realism with languorous fantasies like the Atlan books and gritty futuristic fables like A Sweet Sweet Summer. She even crossbred realism and the fantastic in her superbly strange vampire novel, The Shiny Narrow Grin (1964), which features a stylish and seemingly youthful, though in fact ancient, lad whose Edwardian dress fits right in with the fashions of the Mod subculture. There are few contemporary authors who can boast a more diverse output.

This originality was evident from her very first effort, one of the most vividly eerie of modern fairy tales, written when she was only 14. Strange Evil set the stage for much of Gaskell’s mature fiction: like many of her adult novels, it features a youthful heroine who is brave but alert to her vulnerability, inquisitive yet vaguely lazy, intelligent and personable but also a bit of a brat. Moreover, the novel gestures at the curious erotic undercurrents that would come to inform her later work. Teenage Judith, a nude artist’s model, is visited in London by her cousin Dorinda and Dorinda’s handsome lover Zameis, with whom Judith becomes smitten, though she is puzzled by the delicate antennae that appear on his forehead from time to time. Coincident with this couple’s arrival in Judith’s life, a strange fungoid stain, suggestive of a bearded face, materializes on her kitchen wall; this stain soon reveals itself to be sentient and ambulatory — a “Watcher” from the realms of faerie who is driven by sensual pleasures inaccessible to mere mortals and who, we discover, is tracking Zameis (himself some sort of fairy lord). When Zameis and Dorinda decamp to fairyland via an invisible highway in the sky, a restless and lovesick Judith tags along and quickly becomes embroiled in the complex politics of the rival factions that govern this bucolic otherworld. Eventually, deep in a subterranean chamber, she confronts the freakish deity fanatically worshipped by one of these sects: a fat, gigantic, shrieking Baby, wallowing in its own filth, whose whims are taken as divine commands.

Though florid and overwritten in places, as one might expect given the author’s age, Strange Evil is hardly a nursery story. This is no twee romp full of ethereal sprites whose antics are divorced from petty human concerns; Gaskell’s fairies are dark and sinister beings, as susceptible to greed, concupiscence, and power lust as the rest of us. And they can interbreed with humans: Dorinda is the child of one such pairing, and Judith abandons her London life to join her newfound fairy lover, Enaj. Despite its patches of purple prose, Gaskell’s writing displays a propensity for weird incident and a world-building ingenuity that would serve her well in the Atlan books.

Not surprisingly, the novel was well received, though the mainstream coverage tended to devolve into patronizing comment on the author’s delightful precocity, and a second printing was swiftly ordered. Gaskell was especially buoyed by a fan letter from her childhood idol C. S. Lewis, who praised the book as a “quite amazing achievement” and offered sage advice for what he predicted would be a substantial career. Though Strange Evil continues to find its champions — in 2002, China Miéville chose it as one of the 10 best books of weird fiction, alongside classic novels by Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake, and H. G. Wells — it remains relatively obscure, largely because it has stayed only fitfully in print.

The 1957 British hardcover and a 1979 US paperback reprint of Gaskell’s first novel, written when she was only 14 and published two years later.

 

Gaskell probably didn’t help matters by following up her smashing debut with her only truly bad book, King’s Daughter, a plodding tale of the eponymous heroine, Bulinga, who flees her father’s court in primeval Mu to seek her fortune, only to find herself enslaved and otherwise maltreated through a series of tedious adventures. In a prefatory note, the publisher touted the book for showing “a marked advance in the handling of sustained narrative and a refreshingly objective interest in character.” By “objective,” they seemed to mean an eschewal of the outré supernaturalism that had made Strange Evil so enticing, which perhaps indicates the critical probity of the assessment. King’s Daughter is of interest today mostly as a template for the Atlan saga, which would share with it a prehistoric setting and a pampered royal protagonist appallingly consigned to the brutal world. But Atlan would work a sea change on these materials, becoming a much richer and stranger creation indeed.

There is some evidence that the first three Atlan books were also a product of the author’s adolescent apprenticeship, since they share some of the clumsy plotting and intermittent overwriting that mars Strange Evil and especially King’s Daughter. But if so, it’s fairly clear that the original manuscripts were reworked extensively, researched with some care (a bibliography lists studies of relevant myths and legends), and marinated in the new sexual energies and gendered angers of the era, before they appeared in print as a rambling trilogy: The Serpent in 1963, Atlan in 1965, and The City in 1966. American editions followed before the end of the decade (once the belated pendant, Some Summer Lands, was added in 1977, US reprints hived off part of the long first book as a separate novel, The Dragon), and they were big hits with a counterculture audience drawn to their mystic milieu, their picaresque charm, and their offbeat sexuality.

1970 US editions of the first three Atlan books, with striking art nouveau covers by Michael Leonard.

 

Gaskell’s Atlan, which has only a nominal relation to the defunct island utopia of Plato, is a turbulent mélange culled from prehistoric romance (dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, and missing-link hominids lurk on the margins), classic sword and sorcery à la Robert E. Howard, and quirky pseudo-sci-fi (the geologic spasms that presage catastrophe are presumed to result from Earth’s capture of the moon). While the series has its occasional longueurs, there are also scenes of inspired fantasy, startling violence, and trippy delirium. The closing chapters of Some Summer Lands, as the continent finally begins to dissolve, have a striking, almost hallucinogenic hysteria, and it is not improbable that contemporaneous audiences consumed them with some chemical enhancement (the Atlan series was the only fiction on the bookshelf of my hippie college roommate, alongside Gurdjieff, the I Ching, and other esoterica).

The wandering plot follows the Princess Cija (pronounced: Kee-yah) from her lonely tower in ancient South America, where she is raised by her imperious mother to believe that only women exist, into a lingering exile as the hostage of stern General Zerd, who is plotting to invade the island fastness of Atlan by undoing its magical forcefield. Initially tasked by her mother with assassinating Zerd, Cija finds herself instead in a maddening love-hate relationship with him, and a similar erotic agon marks her on-again, off-again liaison with a fellow hostage, the mercurial Smahil, who turns out to be her long-lost brother. This pattern — the urge to love and trust a man despite knowing that most are smug, manipulative, potentially dangerous egotists — marks all of Cija’s romantic relationships save for one, the strangest and briefest: a tryst in the wilds of Atlan with a tender and caring — and blessedly mute — ape creature, whom she names (rather improbably) Ung-g. In an extraordinary descent from unwitting incest to impenitent bestiality, Cija has a child by each of these lovers, the most interesting and narratively durable being Seka, her daughter by Zerd — who, like her father, a human-serpent hybrid, has shimmering blue skin. Cija is a devoted but rather careless mother who frequently misplaces her children, managing to completely lose Nal, her son by Smahil, for several volumes — until he reemerges at the end of Some Summer Lands, naked and riding a unicorn, the true king of ancient Atlan. Don’t ask.

Indeed, though the books are compulsively readable, they are not always coherently plotted, the story lurching nimbly from improbable event to unlikely coincidence with a breathtaking gusto. The final entry in the series, clearly written much later, even offers a metafictional gloss, at times bracingly flippant, on the flakier twists of the plot, with characters (and, by implication, the reader) “cut off, taken out of context, lifted out of perspective and dimension and possibly sequence.” Though Gaskell provides lavish details of rival cultures and kingdoms, whose dynastic intrigues whiplash Cija and her children unceasingly, this is far from being Game of Thrones. The swirling geopolitics are just an exotic backdrop for the fraught connections Cija makes with various men and monsters (usually indistinguishable) — and a few women, such as Sedili, Zerd’s Amazonian consort. As our heroine, baffled by her own motives, stumbles from one form of erotic captivity to another, it is hard not to read the books as an allegory of the sexual revolution, with its seeming freedoms often concealing only more cunning and elaborate traps. Over the course of the series, Cija is not only repeatedly raped or sexually assaulted, she is also lured into domestic scenarios that seem to promise safety and security, only to morph into patriarchal nightmares. She is surely one of the few sword-and-sorcery protagonists to fret over birth control, much less suffer a botched abortion.

Cija, who narrates the first three books, can be brutally perceptive about the men in her life, and the gender in general (“I realized that most women in the world are used by most men in the world. Just used. That is all they want them for”), as well as about the endemic tensions dividing women from each other, besotted as they are by “the nauseating myths of mother-love and sexual allurement.” And she can be admirably broadminded, as when she befriends a cross-dressing boy in a small mountain town, protecting him from his neighbors’ cruelty. But she can also be shockingly obtuse, rationalizing men’s ugliest behavior and her own worst impulses, nowhere more egregiously than when she “consents” to sex with a brigand who saves her from a street riot: “Damn it, you can’t really call it a rape, can you, when you’re enjoying it?”

Some Summer Lands suggests a somewhat more responsible perspective. Narrated now by Seka, Cija’s mute but fiercely observant daughter, it offers scathing takes on our erstwhile protagonist — “my cautious, sensible mother was an extremely silly lady” — and unsparing analyses of her self-sabotaging behavior: “Will she always need looking after? Will she ever grow up?” Yet even the clear-headed Seka (not to mention her creator) can be astoundingly clueless at times, as when she accepts with seeming delight the sexual attentions of a lusty bandit despite being, at most, 10 years old (it’s hard to say precisely since the temporality of the series telescopes wildly in the final volume).

Given its crazy-quilt design, its wacky theosophizing, and its sometimes dubious sexuality, the Atlan saga has had a checkered critical reception. A 1965 review in The Guardian dismissed the series as a lightweight diversion, little more than “an interesting overspill of [the] talents” better evidenced in Gaskell’s realist fiction, but such contempt from a mainstream reviewer toward a work of outright fantasy is hardly surprising. Yet while some genre commentators — such as Baird Searles, a reviewer for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine — warmly embraced the novels, others were put off by their casual illogic or repelled by their erotic frankness, or both. In his entry on Gaskell for the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers (1996), edited by David Pringle, John Grant damned the series with faint praise as “fascinatingly bad” — lurid, unintentionally campy, and “suffused with a bizarre school-playground sex-obsession.” Grant penned a similarly contemptuous entry for the Encyclopedia of Fantasy he co-edited with John Clute in 1997, and these derisive brush-offs by two major works of reference in the field have only helped to cement the author’s lingering obscurity.

By the same token, Gaskell’s (or, at least, her heroine’s) breezy political incorrectness has not won the series many feminist champions either, and the Atlan saga is seldom mentioned alongside other contemporaneous works of subversive sword and sorcery, such as Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1969) and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx (1976), despite the keenness of its gender critique. Once again, the reputation of the books has probably not been helped by their out-of-print status, though used copies are cheaply and readily available. Whatever the vagaries of its publication and reception history, however, there can be little doubt that the Atlan saga was Gaskell’s most widely popular creation, both in Britain and internationally. Yet now it, too, like the mystic commonwealth it so potently conjures, has vanished beneath the waves of time.

The Atlan series was hugely popular in Germany, though under variant titles: Atlan became “In the Realm of Atlantis” while The City became “In the Land of the Apemen.”

 

By contrast with the widespread reprinting of the Atlan books, Gaskell’s novels of social realism — Attic Summer, The Fabulous Heroine, All Neat in Black Stockings (1966), and Summer Coming (1972) — have never been released, despite their critical plaudits, outside the UK. This transatlantic neglect can partly be ascribed to their relentless Britishness, evident in the opaque subcultural slang and bewildering array of references that litter their pages. Savvier American readers at the time surely knew that Mary Quant was a chic fashion designer, probably knew that Royston Ellis was a music journalist covering the jazz scene, and possibly knew that Durex was a brand of condom, but were they likely to know what winklepickers are? Still, it is hard to understand how these four books (along with The Shiny Narrow Grin, about which more below), which are among the canniest and laugh-out-loud funniest portraits of Swinging London, have been so thoroughly eclipsed. They were certainly seen by contemporary reviewers as significant works, being variously described as “tough, ironic, unpretentious” (The New Statesman); “fierce, sensual” (The Yorkshire Post); and “absolutely sparkling” (The Guardian). They are all that and more.

The weird sideways lurchings of Gaskell’s career are at least partly to blame, one assumes, for the vagaries of her books’ reception. After the lush otherworld fantasy of Strange Evil and the stolid historical romance of King’s Daughter, both rather humorless, who could have expected, just a few years later, the brittle, witty tone that emanates from Attic Summer? Who could have anticipated, in the serious young author, such a shrewd satirical eye or such an exuberant penchant for knockabout farce? Hutchinson, which brought out Gaskell’s first two books, was so puzzled by the manuscript that they rejected it, and it was picked up by Hodder & Stoughton, which released all her subsequent novels save for the very last.

Yet the author herself clearly signaled the continuities across her seemingly disparate output. While Princess Bulinga, in King’s Daughter, was cast into a teeming primeval world and sold into slavery, Unity, the 16-year-old protagonist of Attic Summer, who is living apart from her parents for the first time, sees “The City” (i.e., London) as a remorseless force that “waited with open arms, a new kind of earth-mother, the perilous elemental goddess of the centuries following pre-history,” and views herself, along with the other girls clustered in a nightclub bathroom, as “volunteers for the slave market […] petrified by their knowledge of all those boys waiting to judge, choose, discard.” Gaskell’s unswerving focus on the inscrutability of gender roles and the frictions of heterosexual love, especially amid the shifting social mores of the ’60s, links all of her work, whether sharply realist or lushly fantastic.

British paperback editions of three of Gaskell’s so-called “sex comedies.” The Sphere edition of All Neat in Black Stockings is a tie-in with a 1969 film co-scripted by the author.

 

Several of the realist novels draw on the author’s personal experiences. Like Unity in Attic Summer, Gaskell worked for a time as a cinema usherette and hung out with Teddy Boys; like Sophie, the eponymous Fabulous Heroine, she wrote about trendy topics for popular magazines; like the unnamed narrator of Summer Coming, she was a novelist in a knotty relationship with an ex-husband. She was thus deeply familiar with the social milieus she describes, which gives the acerbity of her observations an added bite. She can be devastating on the preening pretensions of editors or the fragile bitchiness of fellow authors. The narrator of Summer Coming, seething at a literary reception, finds herself repelled by “all those screwed-up mean-faced writers together in one place talking about their gods, percentages, foreign rights, agents’ cuts — like a load of old callgirls,” while Sophie chafes at the castration of her copy by “the features editor, assistant features editor, deputy assistant features editor and assistant editor in charge of features, all crouched on the floor playing tiddleywinks with deadly accuracy against a team from the art department.” Even more tedious is Unity’s usherette job, escorting fussy old ladies to their seats while dodging the petty wrath of her manager and the lecherous maulings of “a succession of bearded part-time-students, out-of-what-they-called-work artists, and dedicated Cockney electronic engineers.”

Romantic relationships are a perennial minefield, just as confounding among tribal teen coteries as among swanky adult swingers. “Did I go too far,” Unity muses after letting a cute Ted grope under her bra, “or not far enough? […] When did liking between a boy and a girl become officially strong enough for a boy not to think badly of you after you’d allowed him and yourself this heaven?” Despite these perplexities, Gaskell’s heroines are generally quite savvy about the flaws and foibles of men. Unity observes that an epithet like “frigid” is “mainly a bogey-term used by boys who wanted to stampede girls scientifically,” while the narrator of Summer Coming gripes that “[a]ny man resents you if you argue with him for more than six minutes at a time without a little break for modesty and confusion.” Complacent dates make light of understandable female anxieties — “It’s not my raping night,” one boy sneers. “Don’t look hopeful” — while expecting at the same time to be soothed and coddled: “They want you to make flattered fools of them. They are dying for you to do it, just so long as you do it prettily and they can feel devils for being allowed to twist themselves round your little finger.” The toughest among them turn out to have marshmallow cores, and they can often be adorably goofy — especially in packs, though slapstick riots usually erupt in their wake. Unity even comes to question what she could possibly be looking for in a “hard other-sex presence” and has “often caught herself wondering vaguely if there were really such unlikely things as men and if so-called men weren’t deluding themselves.”

The spotlight on masculine vanity and foolishness is turned up a notch in All Neat in Black Stockings, the only one of these texts to feature a male protagonist. Ginger, our narrator, is a boastful lager lout and avid womanizer who falls unexpectedly in love with Jill, an inexperienced girl whom he realizes he must carefully woo. But this is fresh territory for Ginger, who is so contemptuous of the “birds” he dates that he can barely tell them apart, crudely objectifying them (“it was not tall and it stuck out and up in front”) and casually sharing them with his best mate, Tom. But this beastly behavior explodes in his face when Tom, finding Jill alone at a party, assumes she is another of his buddy’s cast-offs and basically rapes her. “He said he was your friend,” a miserable Jill tells Ginger. “He said you knew all about it.” When pregnancy ensues, she is so despondent she attempts suicide, but in a way that deliberately implicates Ginger, who is briefly held by the police. Jill survives, however, and Ginger, still in love, persuades her to marry him — which, having no other prospects, she does. The couple wind up living in a cramped house with Jill’s censorious mother, whose incessant carping is finally defanged by an exasperated Ginger when he drunkenly seduces her.

Calling this dark and sordid story, reminiscent in some ways of the kitchen-sink naturalism of John Braine and Alan Sillitoe, a “sex comedy” (Grant’s disparaging term) is rather absurd, but I suppose it’s possible for inattentive male readers, especially those who share Ginger’s sensibilities, to be won over by his breezy, self-satisfied tone. He can certainly be very funny, but he is also a monster. The film adaptation, scripted by Gaskell in collaboration with playwright Hugh Whitemore and directed by journeyman Christopher Morahan, plays up Ginger’s bawdy escapades, à la the “Carry On” franchise, while excising Jill’s suicide attempt entirely. Reviews of the film were largely scathing, most seeing in its portrait of a working-class cad a forgettable rip-off of Alfie (1966), which is not far off the mark. To date, it is the only Gaskell novel to be filmed, though she also scripted two episodes of the ITV anthology series Love Story (1963–’74). It is sad, but perhaps unsurprising, that her searching and sardonic tales exploring women’s views of the sexual revolution never made it onto the big screen.

China Miéville, one of Gaskell’s stoutest champions, has warmly praised what he calls her “London novels,” seeing them as “visionary and quite astonishing” and opining that “[a]ll Gaskell’s novels are worth hunting down. […] [E]ven the less successful are fascinating, and the best are incomparable.” But good luck finding copies of these very rare titles, including the two I consider her finest: The Shiny Narrow Grin and A Sweet Sweet Summer. It’s almost impossible to believe that a novel seen, by discerning critics of the genre like Brian Stableford, as a pioneering revisionist take on the vampire, and another depicting a dystopian near future that, in the words of Baird Searles, makes “A Clockwork Orange look like Winnie the Pooh” (and which, moreover, copped a major literary prize), have both now vanished so utterly. Recently, there have been vague rumors that small-press publishers, looking into the possibility of reprints, were foiled by the reclusive author, who prefers her relative anonymity. If true, this is unfortunate, because these two novels are among the most original and exciting works of an original and exciting decade.

Gaskell’s best (and now scarce) novels: a Mod vampire story and a proto-punk alien-invasion tale.

 

A large part of what makes The Shiny Narrow Grin and A Sweet Sweet Summer so compelling is their fusion of the two main strands in Gaskell’s work: the meticulous scrutiny of social manners and flamboyant fantasy. On the surface, the former novel seems to share the bohemian milieu of Attic Summer, published the previous year. Freewheeling teenager Terry, living with a roommate in London, struggles to negotiate an emotional battleground of one-night stands and broken friendships while maintaining her casual aplomb. She kicks around indiscriminately with scruffy Teds and posh Mods, a combustible mixture since the mutually hostile crews often come to blows about or around her. But then she meets The Boy, a mysterious, golden-haired charmer who only comes out at night and whose icy charisma drives her to frenzies of desire. Dressed in dapper leather coat and boots, he appears to be a Beatles-inspired neo-Edwardian dandy — Terry thinks he looks like pop idol Adam Faith, “only more subterranean” — but of course, as the reader realizes before she does, The Boy is actually an immortal vampire, cruising the scene in search of a perfect mate. And he quickly fixates on Terry, whose penchant for meaningless hookups has convinced him that she is “as empty as I am.”

In her other London novels, Gaskell had strongly implied that the youth dating scene, and the sexual revolution it both expressed and propelled, was little better than a loveless cheat, its promised liberations merely a screen for cynical lust and aimless sadism — in other words, a kind of psychosexual vampirism. The Shiny Narrow Grin literalizes this view in its portrait of a beguiling but eerily affectless predator, who is irresistibly attracted to Terry because she, like him, is “dead” — a “femme fatale of the Big City […] fever-searching in dark cellars at night” to feed an insatiable hunger. In several telling exchanges, Terry mistakes The Boy’s avid bloodlust for coy sexual banter:

“What a lovely Summer night,” Terry said, cold yet cosy.

“Lovely like you are. Wild yet artificial. Bright and desolate.”

“Yeh?”

“I could eat you.” Go on, Terry shivered as he drew electrically close. Slurp me up. “Yet I would destroy you.”

“You’re odd. […] You don’t want to make love to me?”

“I want to make you part of me.”

“I don’t mind,” she invited.

Blithely, she views The Boy’s eerie promise to “look after you in the glimmering skeleton-delicate nights you were made for” as stylish loveplay rather than a deadly threat. Gaskell even suggests that Terry harbors a subconscious urge for this carnal destruction: the first thing she tells her roommate, after meeting The Boy, is: “Shiny teeth. Bet he’s a fabulous love-biter.”

While the various subplots — including a complicated scheme to reunite Terry’s split-up parents — never fully cohere, the novel excels in its treatment of the vampire as alluring erotic other, a theme exploited to much greater commercial success in later decades by Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, though Gaskell’s take is more demystifying. Only John Rechy’s 1971 novel The Vampires has more starkly arraigned the sexual revolution as a “graveyard of sex” full of “beautiful lifeless specter[s].” A Shiny Narrow Grin is largely forgotten now (a 1988 piece in Twilight Zone Magazine identified the book as one of the “13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre”), but its crafty satire and tart, feral intelligence deserve to be rediscovered.

And so does A Sweet Sweet Summer, which is so feral it’s positively lupine. A fiercely conceived post-apocalypse story, the novel stands alongside John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit (1969) and J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) as one of the great urban dystopias of the British New Wave. The story is set in a London balkanized and pacified by the arrival of space aliens — referred to by the characters simply as “Them” — who hover over the city in giant ships, issuing edicts and otherwise manipulating the populace via glittering silver balls whose messages infallibly find their targets, whether some tattered remnant of government, or a particular household, or a single individual. Cut off, in this pre-Brexit parable, from the rest of Europe (and the world) by an “enigmatic invisible curtain” that prevents entry or exit and all forms of communication, the country soon descends into mindless anarchy, despite the “[g]reat prophecies” of ardent flag-wavers “that we would become British, all of us, as never before.” While national institutions totter on ineffectually, and the media still churn out their tired star vehicles, social services and public utilities have become moribund, private barter and other forms of illicit trade run rampant, and local policing is largely the province of criminal gangs. Resistance is of course futile, and any public figure who voices opposition to alien rule is eliminated as a deterrent, prompting the novel’s funniest line: “We was all invited to the execution of Ringo Starr.”

Because this very dark novel is also darkly funny. This is mostly down to the narrator, a preening little git named Pelham (a.k.a., Rat), who natters on in a wisecracking argot offering scathing takes on all and sundry — for example, a long sarcastic aside on the devolution of the Church of England, which preaches toleration toward the country’s alien overlords and “hope[s] They’ll be converted to drinking half-pints of Mild and watching cricket and joshing with the Vicar about whether They’ll decide to turn up to Sunday morning service ‘just to give it a try.’” The entrepreneurial Rat has pluckily transformed his father’s house into an impromptu brothel, which brings him a tidy profit, at least until a fascist gang invades, takes up residence, and turns the place into a waste tip.

Violent rows routinely erupt, especially after Rat’s cousin Frijja arrives, an eerily self-possessed and fearless waif (the contrast with Atlan’s Cija seems deliberate) who escaped from the brutal crew that controls the Docklands, now a black-market hub of graft and piracy. Frijja halts one ugly brawl by using an industrial bolt-shooter as a machine-gun and nailing a burly skinhead’s foot to the floor with a clasp-knife. This cute lunk, Connor, falls instantly in love with her, which only causes further problems since Rat secretly loves Connor himself, though he denies this fact in awkward asides to the reader: “You may […] have formed the impression that I am perhaps inclined towards the homo part of sex. […] You think I’m after Connor, don’t you?” These tensions are only heightened when the mayhem — egged on by the aliens, who send little globes to the various factions — forces the trio to flee the property. What follows is one of the most phantasmagoric sojourns through a collapsing society the genre has to offer, with a bickering Rat, Frijja, and Connor dodging pitched battles between right- and left-wing tribes (a larger-scale discord also stoked by the aliens) and surviving a brush with a cheerful family of cannibals holed up in an abandoned slaughterhouse.

One of the most curious aspects of the narrative is its flirtation with metafiction, not only Rat’s casual asides to the reader, which slowly grow in intensity, but also his self-conscious transformation into an author. A bookish child, he learned to suppress his intellectual ambitions in order to blend in with his illiterate mates, adopting their fractured vernacular even though it pained his doting father. At the outset of the story, he wonders why he is even bothering to keep a written record, since it seems “a scratching of itches I thought I had deadened and made to rot away long ago.” Halfway through, though, he grows bolder, vowing to abandon his streetwise lingo in favor of a more proper form of expression, a goal he manages to attain only fitfully. After all, “[w]ho am I writing this book for? Connor will never read it.” By the end, holed up again in his ruined house, with Connor and Frijja both absconded and even the aliens decamped back to space, his petitions to the reader become more desperate and pathetic:

They’ve left me alone with myself now. It’s me I’ve been left alone with. The Aliens knew what I was waiting for. You, dear reader, you precious lovely person, I know you’re wise, I know you’re wonderful, don’t be afraid of my eagerness, don’t leave me alone …

At one point during their travels, the ever-perceptive Frijja remarks, apropos of the sphinxlike nature of the invaders (a blankness that permits all manner of projection and fantasy): “We all get the Aliens we deserve.” For our narrator Rat, it turns out finally that the true alien is his inscrutable self.

The metafictional trend in Gaskell’s work is particularly marked not only in this last novel of the prolific ’60s but also in her two books of the more fallow ’70s. As noted above, her final Atlan book offers sometimes cheeky comment on the boisterous jumble of the previous volumes, with the gimlet-eyed Seka dissecting her mother’s (and, by implication, the author’s) youthful excesses. In Summer Coming, the heroine, an aspiring novelist, grows progressively disenchanted with the whole enterprise of authorship. Not only does she rain scorn on popular fantasy à la Tolkien — “endless volumes of self-indulgent childish fairy-story escapism” that readers only turn to because their own “dreams are deficient” — she concludes with a weary and disgusted renunciation of literary creation itself:

Oh, sod the novel. Life will be creative from now on. After all, it’s only escapism, writing. It’s a blind alley, writing, I now realize, it’s like some cul-de-sac of evolution which like the dinosaurs was a mistake and won’t get any further, writing is a sick little ego-trip, a product of decadent civilisation in which people have nothing better to do than to mull over what has already taken place, decorating it and trailing over it the slime of their “sensitivity.”

It’s impossible to know whether these musings are confessional, but it’s indisputable that Gaskell, after enjoying her greatest literary success with A Sweet Sweet Summer, made these despairing words the capstone of her very next novel and then only produced two more, one a vaguely demystifying take on her most famous creation and the other, some two decades later, a painful yet oddly hopeful work of self-purgation. [2]

Wiedenfeld & Nicolson’s 1990 first edition of Gaskell’s final novel, which never appeared in paperback or in the US. The author photo shows Gaskell using a planisphere to cast a horoscope.

 

In a rare post-’60s interview, published in Scheherazade magazine in 1991, Gaskell acknowledged that the story in Sun Bubble is “semi-autobiographical,” and implied that her long career hiatus was partly a result of the trying experiences it recounts. After reading the novel, one can well believe this, since the protagonist, Julia, a harried single mother and hard-working scribe on “old rat-cunning Fleet Street,” is struggling to raise a teenage daughter, Sukey — who may be schizophrenic and who disappears on lengthy binges of homeless addiction — while being herself essentially homeless, because a crew of capricious builders has systematically dismantled and then largely abandoned her house. Faced with these cascading crises, Julia’s savings evaporate, and her work habits deteriorate as she lingers by the phone waiting for Sukey to call; meanwhile, her friends — some of whom are well-known real-world writers — fret that her descent through a series of sketchy sublets in questionable neighborhoods, and her seeming inability to stand up to the builders (or to her haughty mother, who treats her abominably), may be causing permanent damage, economic and psychological.

Their concern is only heightened when Julia begins hanging out in Clapham Common with a group of cheerfully quarrelsome alcoholics, with one of whom — Joey, a winsome Irish painter — she becomes so obsessed that she basically stalks him. They soon tumble into an unconventional affair, complicated by the fact that Sukey, back from her wanderings and sulking in therapy, takes an immediate dislike to Joey, while he finds Julia’s journalist friends boring and pretentious. So, the couple meets in secret, sometimes roughing it in the unheated ruins of Julia’s house, fully aware that their idyll is doomed. But while Julia knows that “the drinking is his first love, he always explained that,” she is not quite prepared for his dabbling with heroin or for his sudden blackouts, with their terrifying eruptions of rage and violence. “What he reminded her of was the figure of the marsh king’s child, who is beautiful by day, but as night draws in becomes a toad-like creature.”

This fairy-tale allusion is characteristic of the novel, which has a sheen of fantasy throughout, though this may be just a projection of Julia’s mythicizing mind. In her dreaming eyes, Joey emerges as a “pretty blond Celt” — “fairylike, elflike,” with “a tremendous male feeling off him, a doglike or foxlike persona” — while his fellow drinkers seem like satyrs in a sylvan glade:

The Forest of Arden, have you read John Wain’s analyses of Shakespeare? The forest, the holiday, the subconscious, the dionysian, running with Pan. […] Mind you, as Shakespeare seems to point out, you must return to the town, the city, the court finally. You can’t stay out on holiday picnicking in the forest with the maenads, else I suppose they might tear you to pieces.

When Julia first meets Joey, sharing a bottle with friends in the sunlit park, the scene takes on a hallucinatory vividness, as if the world has been curiously suspended and transformed. “She was in a slipstream of some kind. […] She felt as if she were being magnetized” — a dazzling epiphany that her friend Cosima dubs a “sun bubble.”

Julia is aware, of course, of the transitory nature of all such visions, as well as of her own tendency to romanticize an otherwise drab reality. A self-conscious child of the ’60s, one of “the Chosen […] carbon-dated from one of the Western world’s great times, like the Elizabethan or the Renaissance,” she has “long previously gathered around [herself] the impermeable glowing mother o’ pearl armour” of the era, bewitched as she is by astrology and a “yearning nostalgia for [the] jazz and literary parties of her youth, full of George Melly and gesticulating, pontificating artists.” Ten years younger, the more fatalistic Joey, himself a disillusioned artist, sees Julia as a bit of “a left-over hippie […], crying for the moon and lighting her joss-sticks and sticking her thumb in her copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Struggling to come to terms with her lover’s addiction, Julia reads self-help books with titles like Games Alcoholics Play, and while she appreciates their “splendid shorthands” and their “clarifyings of situations you could otherwise dredge through as though blinded in mud,” she can’t bring herself to accept that their hollow secular jargon could possibly exhaust the world. Though she knows it is pointless and self-defeating, she can’t stop imposing a mythic structure on her torturous relationship: “It was as though she got only an allotted span with [Joey], then back he went like Persephone into the long dark.”

Aside from the sun bubble, which may be a mirage, the main fantastic feature of the novel is a seemingly magical talisman: a Disney-themed pillowcase Julia receives as a gift from Cosima that depicts, “in pastel pinks and blues,” a “fairy godmother inclining benevolently with wand raised.” Increasingly desperate over Joey, Julia begins to address half-joking wishes to this piece of commodified kitsch, and they actually seem to be granted — though, as with all such fetishes, “the f.g.” (as Julia calls the cartoon figure) is tricky and resolutely literal-minded. And unfortunately, as Joey spirals deeper into darkness, the talisman is lost, given away by Sukey to a maid at one of the hotels where the itinerant family takes refuge. But then, the f.g.’s largesse was never quite what Julia had hoped for and was probably an illusion anyway.

At the end, Julia begins writing a novel about her forlorn tryst with Joey, which the reader takes to be essentially the text of Sun Bubble. Though she fears that the story will be “nasty and hateful, full of middle-aged spleen,” it is in fact charming and painfully honest. For all its seeming magic, its overt allusions to the rustic romances of William Morris and James Branch Cabell, Sun Bubble is ultimately a novel about disenchantment — specifically, the dissolution of the utopian allure of the ’60s in the bitter acids of the 1980s. Indeed, it is one of the finest examples of that melancholy genre, on a par with Joyce Johnson’s In the Night Café (1989), Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990), and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). Despite the long gap between books, Gaskell’s satirical eye is as acute as ever, especially her barbed ruminations on the psychic phantasms of that bygone period, which spare no one, not even herself:

[Julia] was one of the sort of rich women who liked the purity of poor men, or perhaps she had just been bullied a lot while growing up through girlhood by that substrata of once-poor men who proliferated in the Sixties and passed then for a section of the era’s aristocrary — not the Terence Stamps who actually made their own big time but the seething semi-shaven mass beneath them, poets who published little but read much in pubs, actors who appeared twice in Z Cars, carpenters who looked like Christ and had read Philosophy, each with their adoring coterie of well-brought-up and well-read women who let themselves be loudly abused for being bred in an environment with an inside loo and parents with a bank account.

And she is no less scathing on the vapid pretensions of the current era, with its zombified parties, its arrogant anti-feminists who think “that to address a woman as Ms. was ironic savagery,” and its supposedly hard-headed belief that one must scuttle youthful dreams and settle for second-best, because “[t]he world is second-best.”

Like several of Gaskell’s earlier novels (Attic Summer, A Sweet Sweet Summer, Summer Coming, Some Summer Lands), Sun Bubble sports a title that evokes shimmering halcyon days, sadly fleeting yet as potent as a spell. These titles can easily be read as allusions to the evanescent pleasures of youth during an era that seemed to define them — though the author, in her Scheherazade profile, attributes the radiant names to her seasonal affective disorder. In that same piece, Gaskell responds, when the interviewer asks whether “there [is] going to be more, or has all the trauma you recount in ‘Sun Bubble’ left you a bit depleted?”: “Not at all. […] You can say that there is definitely more on the way.” That statement was, alas, untrue, and we have had no more of her luminous fictions to succor us through our long collective darkness.

1971 working map of Atlan and surrounding kingdoms, used by Gaskell during the writing of Some Summer Lands. The image at the bottom depicts Cija’s three lovers: Ung-g, Zerd, and Smahil. The banner image at the top of this essay is a detail from the same map showing Cija riding a prehistoric bird. Both images are reproduced by gracious permission of the artist, Deirdre Counihan.

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Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.

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[1] From 1991 to 1998, the British magazine Scheherazade ran a serialization of King’s Daughter as a graphic novel, with illustrations by Deirdre Counihan. If seen as a new title rather than a reprint, this would technically be Gaskell’s final publication.

[2] In a foreword to a brief fairy tale by Gaskell, “Caves,” which appeared in the 1984 anthology Beyond the Lands of Never, editor Maxim Jakubowski mentions that the piece was culled from a novel in progress; this longer work, however, has never been released. Given the tale’s sensationally bizarre subject matter (a young girl, trapped in the home of a giant, enters into a sexual relationship with the looming creature, graphically described), it is probably not surprising that the manuscript was abandoned. Over her career, Gaskell published only six short stories (at least that I have been able to uncover); since they are mostly negligible, I have ignored them here.