|"The New C.S. Lewis"|
Shadowing the Author of Shadowmancer
Meeting G.P. Taylor at the Oundle Literary Festival 2006
by Dr David Rafer
G.P. Taylor gave a lively discussion about his meteoric and hugely successful writing career to an audience largely made up of the children from two local primary schools in Oundle’s Great Hall. This event was part of Oundle’s Literary Festival, which, this year, boasts an impressive list of popular authors with works spanning a range of genres. With limited tickets for each event, I was keen to take the opportunity to go along and meet G.P. Taylor. With my background in C.S. Lewis, Taylor found my approach intriguing because he’d just been hailed ‘the new C.S. Lewis’ during the promotion of his books in America. He seemed less than sure of the implications involved in such an accolade, having been inundated with emails from American admirers keen to discuss his books. He was at pains to point out that Lewis remains a towering intellect who, like Tolkien, still dominates the fantasy genre despite the new generation of fantasy authors such as J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. The enthusiasm of his young audience supported his view of Lewis’s continuing popularity when he found that quite a few in the audience were Narnia fans.
G.P. Taylor proceeded to deliver an hour and half of lively chat, during which he held the attention spans of even very young children. He has a knack of connecting with his audience, swiftly identifying common interests, cracking jokes and recounting humorous anecdotes on a child-like level. On several occasions he drew children out of the audience, having previously learnt from their teachers which of the more out-going pupils might be up for it, giving them minor roles in his discussions in order to demonstrate various techniques employed by writers. In this way he contrasted methods of description and building suspense and evoking moods in spooky fantasy stories. The children mimed reactions to monsters and pondered such things as the etymology of words and colloquial expressions for flatulence. Mention of the word ‘fart’ had caused Taylor to be ejected by one less than amused headmistress during a school address at a different establishment. He had a gleeful, Roald Dahl-esque humour as he talked of changes in word usage noting, for example, that during the 18th century it was considered the height of bad manners to mention the word ‘trousers’ in polite company. His discussion of mildly taboo words created some hilarity and he explained, without irony, that his book sales had actually risen following the occasion when he’d been asked to leave. The Oundle teachers joined in the joke, being resigned to having children sniggering over his visit for several weeks to come.
Taylor also mentioned slang such as ‘chav’ and ‘whatever’ for humorous effect, providing accompanying hand gestures and facial expressions as used by his own 14 year old daughter and her friends where they live in North Yorkshire. He also entertained his audience with stories of working as a vicar and being called upon to do an exorcism for a lady in Whitby, only to realise that her ghostly rattling emanated from dodgy central heating pipes, and recounted a similarly spooky experience when doors slammed inexplicably when he was at Whitby Abbey. During questions he was proud to state that he’d sold 3.5 million copies of his books and had a host of new writing projects on the horizon including a BBC television comedy, involvement in ‘Ghost Train’ for ITV and is developing a screenplay. He is broadening into new areas although he has also signed up to do three more books for Faber and Faber since selling the film rights to Shadowmancer and Wormwood, Orlando Bloom currently being mooted for a role. After signing autographs for his many admirers the afternoon’s activities came to an official close and the audience was led away having not only enjoyed themselves enormously but also having been treated to a book-signing and chat with the author. Graham then discussed the event with its organisers who were delighted by reactions all round and took the opportunity to sound him out about returning next year as part of a panel debating fantasy that might involve both himself and Philip Pullman. Taylor thought this a great suggestion and mentioned recently sitting in on a radio show with Philip Pullman, who he’d got on with well, although he had been aghast when the show’s rather terse presenter took a dislike to Pullman and ejected him, leaving Taylor to comment that he’d just done the equivalent of booting out Shakespeare.
The afternoon’s activities drew to a close as the impressive medieval Great Hall slowly cleared of people, and I then seized the opportunity to sit down with the author and discuss his thoughts about writing fantasy fiction. It was fascinating to get the chance to gain a closer and more personal insight into the ideas of a writer such as Taylor. My impression of his three published books is that they are a unique form, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste, Taylor having commented in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook that it was hard at first to sell what publishers considered as ‘niche … romantic-fantasy-gothic literature’ (Taylor, 2006, p.240). The thing that hit me during the reading of his books was the curious amalgamation of eclectic elements, adventure and fantasy in fast-paced, twisting narratives that reel off the page often evoking the feeling that I’d just sat through a whirl-wind film noir with 18th century trappings or a black inked graphic novel, Dark Knight-style comic strip, so I wasn’t surprised to find that Shadowmancer has now been adapted to comic form. All of this seems such a universe away from the cosy Rowling world of Hogwarts Mallory Towers-style boarding school and Blyton-esque adventures, although Rowling has been gradually darkening Harry’s world. Potter remains peaches and cream for tea in comparison to the blistering walk on the dark side evoked by the ex-biker-priest of Whitby. Taylor delivers books in which children aren’t safe. They are often scarred individuals suffering terrifying abuse at the hands of evil adults. His authority figures are for the most part corrupted, power-crazed individuals intent on using both children and supernatural forces. In Tersias the titular hero is blinded by his mother, an act of casual cruelty that makes Voldemort’s murder of Harry’s parents seem rather bloodless and clean-cut. Whilst Rowling then gives us interminable chapters of teenage angst about paternal loss, Tersias seldom seems to dwell upon the injustice of his fate. Despite Taylor’s departure from fantasy ‘norms’, he nevertheless acknowledges a debt to Rowling, viewing her as a force that brought fantasy to a wider, mainstream readership.
Having talked about my background, Taylor’s first thought was that I was probably interested in allegory which I immediately denied affirming that, for me at least, allegory’s tidy meanings always conjure Bunyan and his ilk and ‘minds like swept kitchens’. My own tastes incline towards the more mythic type of symbolism from which deeper levels of interpretation, meaning and ambiguity can emerge. Thus not just a simple Christian moral emerges but also other forms of spiritual content. This led to the question of G.P. Taylor’s own approach to myth. I noted his use of pagan Ovidian mythic materials, such as Lycaon in Tersias, for example, being brought into works that draw heavily on Christian myth and the angelic orders, and asked if he found tensions. He replied that he was keen to bring as wide a range of influences to his novels as possible and for that reason he’d included such diverse source materials as Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Zoroastrianism, amongst other mythic influences, as well as Christian myth and such stories as the spear that dealt the Dolorous blow which Taylor re-forges into a sinister dagger in Tersias. He also saw his account in Tersias of ‘the King’ as being, in his mythology, an amalgamation of King Arthur and Christ. These things sit in Taylor’s books alongside more contemporary influences such as lines from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. He thought that tensions, if there are any, submerge within the general engagement of his readers’ imaginations, drawing us into kinds of story that engage on many levels including Christian. He also enjoys using the 18th century backdrop because he doesn’t feel that the concept of ministers dealing with spiritual realities was as unusual during that era as it would be thought to be had he set Shadowmancer in modern times. His words reminded me of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent equivocating during a television interview with Sir David Frost in which Roan Williams was asked the simple question as to whether he believed in the existence of God and could only reply in terms that intellectualised and begged more questions than answered.
Thus, unlike his populist contemporaries, G.P. Taylor isn’t afraid to bring in the angelic orders and God when needed. God, he points out, is called Riathamus in Shadowmancer. In contrast, Pullman kills God in His Dark Materials whilst Rowling goes out of her way to avoid making any direct mention of God in Potter. Taylor remains a writer keen to make his villains darker. Obadiah Demurral, he notes, has sepulchres in his garden to the children he has murdered and is thus the worst imaginable kind of villain. So it’s curious that this paedophile (Taylor’s own expression) emerges as the baddy children most admire according to the reviews posted by children on Taylor’s own ‘Shadowmancer’ website, but then this is fantasy and perhaps should not be confused with the recognisable world from which children read his books in order to escape.
I noted that there were psychological overtones emerging more prominently in Tersias, with characters explaining that they listen to their inner voices and that one comments that things come from his ‘unthinking’. Tersias himself draws upon dark monsters that a Jungian, for example, might read as emerging from his own Id. Taylor felt this was an important point since it is part of his attempt to address the problem of ‘where the monsters come from’, and might even speak to the distant origins of such mythic material. He felt that there are indescribably ‘nasty’ elements contained within people that can emerge as profoundly disturbing possibilities even though there are also higher, good and great qualities to which we can aspire. His message seems simply that we are an amalgam of possibilities and shouldn’t feel frightened to embrace our spiritual natures though within his books we can enjoy the thrills of darkly mythic monsters and apparitions and be shown the depths to which man can plummet.
All too soon, he had to leave and be whisked away to make an address to some business people in Stockton although he said that he doubted it would be quite as much fun as his afternoon in Oundle.