This rather odd little 1970 Corgi anthology (previously published by Allison & Busby in 1969) consists of three novellas by famous authors, without any editorial foreward to explain them, just a few portenteous phrases on the cover about eerie worlds and strange landscapes in which man himself becomes strange.
The first story is Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake, with a double copyright attribution: 1956 to the author, but 1969 to Maeve Peake, the author's widow who was herself a writer (Mervyn died in 1968). This was disappointing simply because I realised that I had already read and reviewed this story eight years ago, so I'll just repeat what I said then:
This novella (112 pages, c. 25,000 words) is set in the world of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, although they are not named, being referred to only as the Boy and the Castle. It is the Boy's 14th birthday and he wearies of the endless rounds of official celebrations to mark the event, so he takes an opportunity to escape into the wider world beyond. He encounters three strange beings known as the Goat, the Hyena and the Lamb, and faces a terrible danger. That's about as much as I can say about the plot without spoiling it for potential readers. My edition of the book (Hodder Signature, 1996) is illustrated by P. J. Lynch.
It is a very strange story, even by the standards of Gormenghast; the three beings are entirely fantastical and the plot very bizarre, being more in the nature of a fairy tale (of the original Grimm sort). What comes through most strongly is the poetic beauty of Peake's writing. Take this passage describing a peal of bells to celebrate the Boy's birthday; for me, this brought back memories of the strange, rich flavour of the Gormenghast books:
"A bell began to chime, and then another and then a swarm of bells. Harsh bells and mellow ones: bells of many metals and many ages: bells of fear and bells of anger: gay bells and mournful; thick bells and clear bells….the flat and the resonant, the exultant and the sad. For a few moments they filled the air together, a murmuration, with a clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal. Then one by one the tumult weakened and scores of bells fell away until there was nothing but an uneasy silence, until, infinitely far away, a slow and husky voice stumbled its way over the roof-tops and the Boy at the window heard the last of the thick notes die into silence."
Peake is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of the Gormenghast series (as I am) then this one should be added to your collection.
Next up is The Voices of Time, a 1969 story by J.G. Ballard. A strange and atmospheric story, typical of this author, with a plot which is difficult to describe. It involves a post-World War 3 future in which life in general seems to be winding down: a disease is gradually spreading through humanity, sufferers losing their memories while sleeping for an ever-increasing percentage of the day until they never wake up. Meanwhile, crops are becoming steadily less productive and fewer children are being born.
In an academic community set in a bleak, desert landscape, scientists keep working on their projects, including artificially accelerating evolution via radiation. But the word from the stars seems to be the relentless onward progression of entropy.
Finally comes Danger: Religion! by Brian W Aldiss. Yet another post-nuclear-war setting, in which Edinburgh has survived to become the capital of Europe. A historian meets a stranger who uses a portable device to transport them into an alternative world, dominated by religion and with a slave culture. He finds that people from many different worlds have been collected together to help them solve a problem faced by this world, but he rebels instead. His major ally comes from a world in which Imperial Rome is still dominant, but as their fight continues he discovers a problem…
A rather messy story in which various elements and plot ideas seem to have been thrown together to make something of a dog's breakfast. I actually remembered the punch-line so must have read a version of this story at some time, but most of it was unfamiliar. The explanation probably lies in the copyright note, which says that "this version" was copyrighted in 1969; I suspect that I had read an earlier, shorter story.
A curious collection of very contrasting stories which have little to connect them; I suspect that the publishers found themselves stuck with three stories by well-known authors which were too short for individual publication, so decided to shove them together!