The Fetch (1991): Robert Holdstock

★★★½

So far, I’ve only read one book by Robert Holdstock: Mythago Wood, an utterly captivating tale of mythic power and ancient legends, closely bound to the English landscape. The Fetch turned up in a second-hand bookshop some months after I’d finished Mythago Wood and, although I was keen to explore more of Holdstock’s imaginative world, it didn’t take me long to realise that The Fetch is a very different kettle of fish. I’ve never actually read any Dennis Wheatley, but I suspect this has a similar flavour to his books; I’m reminded, too, of those horror films in which wholesome families are gradually reduced to primeval terror. Yet this isn’t an outright horror novel: if it were, I wouldn’t have read it. In some ways it’s a classic Holdstock story, a tale of the past weaving itself into the present and breaking through in unexpected ways, a tale of treasures and quests and miracles – but one underlaid with the slow, inescapable thrum of something nasty in the woodshed.

Holdstock’s story starts simply enough: a middle-class couple, unable to have children of their own, adopt a newborn baby boy. Susan and Richard Whitlock are sensible, professional, practical people: she teaches art at a local college; he’s a specialist photographer of archaeological sites. Neither of them is especially given to fancies, although Richard hopes that baby Michael will share his own deep affection for their family home and the history of the surrounding land. Within days, however, they feel under siege in their own home as someone, or something, covers their son in piles of earth whenever they leave the room. There’s no trace of a culprit. Disturbed by a chance sighting of Michael’s birth-mother outside the clinic at handover time, Susan is convinced the woman is tormenting them; that she wants her son back. But Richard has other, more disturbing theories. When a particularly large earth-fall reveals traces of archaeological matter, Richard reconstructs what seem to be fragments of a shrine and an animal sacrifice. But the animal has been killed recently; who on earth would be conducting animal sacrifices in modern Kent? And why target an infant child?

As Michael grows up, the terrifying earth incidents seem to tail off, and the Whitlock family can breathe more easily – especially because, to their delight, they’ve finally been able to conceive their own child, adding Carol to the family circle. But Carol’s arrival changes the dynamic within a family already stretched to emotional breaking point. Able to bond with his biological daughter in a way he never managed with Michael, Richard struggles against an increasing feeling of alienation – bordering on repulsion. There is something strange about Michael: cold and withdrawn, with a dark imagination which expresses itself in relentless crayon drawings of spiral mazes. The child only seems happy when he’s playing down in the local chalk pit, an old quarry now overgrown and fallen into ruin – and, obviously, a dangerous place for a small boy to be exploring alone. But then Michael starts bringing home extraordinary things, which he has ‘fetched’ from his imaginary castle within the quarry. Stunned, Richard finds himself faced with exquisite gold artefacts; ritual objects; and elaborate jewellery. These things all appear, stylistically, to be immensely ancient; and yet, to all appearances, they’re brand-new. What is going on? Where is Michael finding these gorgeous things? And who is ‘Chalk Boy’, the imaginary friend who allegedly shows Michael where to ‘fetch’ them? As Richard begins to understand more about his son’s astonishing gift, the lines between past and present, imagination and reality, start to blur. But the dazzled Whitlocks relish the unexpected gifts. After all, when your child starts bringing home beautiful objects that can be sold to bolster the family finances (discreetly, of course, to avoid any awkward questions about treasure-trove), what’s not to like?

Quite a lot, of course, as Richard and Susan discover. Holdstock knits the story of Michael’s talent into that of a family struggling to define itself. At root, this is a story of the complex bonds between parents and children, especially adopted children, when their place in the family is challenged by the inadvertent rivalry of a biological sibling. It’s also a story of simple human greed: a modern Midas fable, in which the Whitlocks don’t stop to think about the profusion of treasure until it’s already become a curse. On its most obvious level, it’s a richly-woven tale of a most unusual haunting, roaming from the innocuous countryside of present-day Kent to the salt-drenched beach of some prehistoric fantasy, all bound to the wilful desires of one small, unbalanced boy. Holdstock draws on his knowledge of ancient ritual and shamanistic magic to conceive some deeply disturbing scenes, and the whole concept hangs together very well. There are some sections, obviously, which demand pretty hefty suspension of disbelief; and obviously it’s convenient that Michael’s talents manifest in a family who have the professional skills to understand and interpret the artefacts he ‘fetches’ back. (Regarding suspension of disbelief, I found it easier to believe in objects being plucked through time than I did in the likelihood of the British Museum hiring a psychic archaeologist…)

This was probably a little too dark for me, and skirted close to the borders of what I find comfortable to read: if it were adapted into a film, I’d be behind a cushion for certain scenes. (You can just imagine it having been transposed to America, perhaps with Haley Joel Osment as Michael.) There’s something especially horrifying about a child being the catalyst for this kind of paranormal activity. Nevertheless, as ever with Holdstock, it was formidably interesting, conjuring up all manner of myths, rituals and ideas – some evidently real, or based on reality; others, like the Mocking Cross, apparently creations of Holdstock’s own (at least, I haven’t been able to find any trace of such a thing on Google, save in pages linked to The Fetch). I found it gripping, chilling, and satisfyingly dense; and I think those who have an established interest in paranormal horror will relish this even more. For my own part, I hope my next Holdstock novel will be Lavondyss, taking me back to the equally dark, but perhaps marginally less sinister, world of Mythago Wood.

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