If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf – an ordinary act – and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.
It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.
The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but also because they had such an influence on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades I rediscovered both the book and my childhood self. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn, the witch’s cat:
Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure – what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes – but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had – a dog’s life.
I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.
And what a witch! Bad-tempered old – ! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.
A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship and is forced to pay a terrib
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in