Book Review: The Ragthorn by Robert Holdstock and Garry Kilworth

“An absolutely necessary read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the fantastic or the macabre.”

The_Ragthorn_Cover_FinalThis collaboration between two of Britain’s finest fantasy and horror authors, Kilworth and Holdstock, has long been hard to find: now, courtesy of Infinity Plus, it’s available as an ebook.

Holdstock’s roots were in science fiction, but he’s chiefly remembered for his Mythago Wood cycle of novels, which drew on the rich folklore of the British Isles; his gift for uniting the fantastic and the everyday was what made the stories so memorable and vivid. Kilworth is a master storyteller, in the old sense of the word: he can bring a setting and its characters to immediate life, and hold the reader’s attention, no matter what bizarre twists and turns the tale takes. And, like Holdstock, his fiction thrives in the English landscape – although it’s pretty damned healthy in other climes, too, as The Ragthorn shows.

Outside a lonely cottage on a Yorkshire moor stands a strange tree; a tree that may be found nowhere else in the world. In the lintel above the cottage’s door is a stone with cuneiform lettering on it. Together they may hold the key to eternal life – or to something worse than death. The tree is called the ragthorn.

Dr Alexander inherits the cottage and discovers the cuneiform lettering; he traces it back to modern-day Iraq, and the site of an ancient Babylonian temple. A tablet containing a missing segment of the Epic Of Gilgamesh tells of a tree that restores lost youth and conquers death. As Alexander investigates further, he discovers that this tree is in fact the ragthorn; over the centuries the knowledge of it has been expunged from the record, but hints and clues remain for those who know where to look. When illness threatens to shorten his life, Alexander looks to the ragthorn for his only hope of survival, but he must reconstruct the necessary ritual exactly and follow it to the letter: the slightest error may lead to his soul being trapped within the tree forever.

The Ragthorn won the 1992 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella, and it isn’t hard to see why. Like many great ideas, the story’s premise has an elegant and enviable simplicity: it’s the kind of tale no writer can read without thinking ‘Why the hell didn’t anyone think of this before? Hell, why didn’t I?”

As ever, though, the proof of the pudding is in the execution, and Holdstock and Kilworth never disappoint. The spell they weave is utterly convincing; the sense of place, from the Mesopotamian plain to the bleak Yorkshire moorland, is perfectly evoked.

Another of the novella’s particular charms is the evocation of classic English literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, to provide evidence of the ragthorn myth and clues as to its application. It’s beautifully done, deepening the sense that we are lifting the lid on history to see something that was always with us, only just out of sight. And it comes full circle with a verse by John Betjeman, absorbing the events of the story into the cycle of myth and legend that Alexander has drawn on throughout the narrative in a chilling conclusion that will stay with you long after the last line is read.

The ebook is, frankly, well worth the asking price for The Ragthorn alone, but there are welcome bonuses in the shape of a story from each author. Kilworth’s tale, The Fabulous Beast, takes David Wilkins, a minor character from The Ragthorn, as its protagonist. Like Dr Alexander, he is drawn to investigate an ancient myth (in this case that of a mysterious creature that serves as the primal mother of other mythical beasts) only to discover that it holds a grain of truth. In The Fabulous Beast, however, terror plays second fiddle to wonder – at least until the final paragraph and its implications. (Like The Ragthorn, the central relationship in the story is a borderline homo-erotic one between the narrator and a working-class rural labourer whose aid he enlists in his project.)

Holdstock’s own contribution, The Charisma Trees, shares a different thematic connection with the novella: again we have trees whose peculiar biology gives them fantastical properties – in this case the ability to incorporate human DNA and express the personality traits of national leaders, artists and other public figures. The tone here is decidedly more humorous, incorporating sly satire and good-natured ribbings of Holdstock’s contemporaries, with a dash of time travel thrown in. It adds a nice touch of variety to this mini-collection.

In short, The Ragthorn is an absolutely necessary read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the fantastic or the macabre. Major kudos to Keith Brooke and Infinity Plus for giving it a long-overdue second outing.


Publisher: Infinity Plus
Ebook (120pp)
Release Date: 16 September 2015

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