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Reading The High House by James Stoddard

The High House – James Stoddard
(Earthlight, 1998)

It’s rare now that I have the chance to recapture the sense of discovery I experienced when I first began reading science fiction and fantasy. After reading Tolkien, I was hungry for more of this new diet and set off down the primrose path of ‘in the tradition of Lord of the Rings’. In the mid-Seventies, this phrase actually meant something, and I was happily placed to take full advantage of the appearance in the UK of Lin Carter’s ‘Sign of the Unicorn’ series, which he edited from 1969 to 1974. Carter brought many long-unpublished fantasies to readers’ attention, including novels from William Morris, E.R. Eddison (who actually met Tolkien), George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and the incomparable Hope Mirrlees, and while Carter’s introductions were outrageously egregious, they listed still more books to seek out. It was a rich and varied diet which undoubtedly shaped my taste in fantasy reading forever after. James Stoddard seems to have been similarly affected for his first novel, The High House unashamedly acknowledges his debt to Lin Carter, and he offers this book as an homage to those exciting times.

There is, though, nothing blatant about this homage. It’s as subtle and elusive as those old-style fantasies, a name or country here, a character or building there, a half-remembered … but no, it’s gone. Stoddard recreates that sense of atmosphere, of ‘otherness’, that so few modern fantasies evoke, while his heroes are unconventional and old-fashioned, imbued with a numinosity that modern divinely-inspired heroes seem to lack. The High House itself, in which the adventure is set, stretches on forever, spanning worlds and times, its function only dimly hinted at, and within its all-embracing walls, Carter Anderson enacts a quest to find his father and the Master Key, to restore equilibrium to Evenmere.

This novel is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. Those who like their fantasy sprawling across continents, peopled by races engaged in enormous wars and heroes who lack introspection may find it tame, but for anyone who ever read Eddison or Peake or John Crowley with any pleasure, reading The High House will bring a sense of recognition, a feeling of ‘you too?’ to accompany an absorbing story.