Rob Holdstock is one of those people – was one of those people – who were so alive that even now, over five years after his death, it’s hard to think of him as being gone for good. On some deep level I am certain that Rob will be sitting near the bar the next time I’m in the kind of place that writers of the fantastic gather. Rob is tall, good-looking, and comfortable in his own skin, in an awkward, English, happy-to-be-uncomfortable sort of way. He might look slightly older than the last time I saw him – a few more lines in his face, a little more grey in his beard – but that happens to all of us, and he will still be the Rob Holdstock I have known for over thirty years: easy, talkative, affable. The sort of person who seems delighted by his friends’ successes and both baffled and pleased by his own. Someone who likes to be liked, and enjoys liking other people. A good person.
When I first met Rob he was an established writer – he had been writing for fifteen years at that point, since he was twenty – who was earning some of his living writing work he was proud of under his own name, and work he was (sometimes) less proud of under a variety of pseudonyms. He was well-liked, maturing in craft and skill. He took what he did utterly seriously, while always finding humour in the action and craft of writing, and the trappings that went along with it. When Rob wrote Mythago Wood, he seemed to mature and to find his identity as a writer, just as he found the story waiting in the wood.
It seems to me that the marvel of Mythago Wood, and the stories that followed it in the Ryhope Wood sequence, is that Rob created something that seemed, in retrospect, to have been there the whole time. Like a sculptor who takes his tools to an oddly shaped log and seems to do almost nothing to it, but now we see the dragon that was waiting there to be revealed the whole time. It was obvious, but we could not see it. It took an artist to show us what we should have known and should have seen, and once we had seen it we could not unsee it.
English woods are strange things. They do odd things with space and with time. Even the smallest woods seem to remember when the whole of the island was one huge forest, and contain that forest within themselves, just as every fragment of a broken hologram contains the full image, but fuzzier and less detailed. Rob Holdstock posited (and once he had posited it, we all knew, as if we had always known) that some of the old woods, the ones that remembered, that went all the way back to the dawn times, contained mythagos, mythic imagos: people and things that existed because they had been needed in the popular imagination, because enough of us had believed, and that these mythagos could gain power and existence from the mind of a living human.
Mythago Wood is a fantasy novel written by a science fiction writer, and, perhaps more importantly, by a former scientist. The magic in this book is science, of a sort, capable of being understood and interpreted and, most importantly, used. It’s magic, only because we do not know how it works, because it is imprecise, because it deals with belief and with minds and woods and the past and the future. But the author knows the rules and the world, and is building something that feels right – historically, mythically and emotionally.
Holdstock is the only author of the last fifty years who can stand with Alan Garner, another author who combines what we know about the past, and what we conjecture, with the myths and romances known as The Matter of Britain, to give us something powerful that tells us new-old things about our past and ourselves.
The language is powerful and honest. Mythago Wood is a first person narrative, told in the years following the Second World War. Our narrator, Stephen Huxley, has been hurt, more than he knows, by his childhood and by his father. Now he will need to understand his family, and to try to rescue what he can, of his family and his life, from the wood. Holdstock picks his words with care – repressed, accurate, observant, pained, and uses them to create a place and people we will never forget.
Mythago Wood brought Rob Holdstock the acclaim that he deserved. The initial novella, written in 1981, won the BSFA award and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1982, an achievement repeated in 1985 when he expanded the novella into the novel you are about to read.
(A memory: Rob was unable to travel to America to collect his World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and the award, an Easter Island style head of H. P. Lovecraft, sculpted by Gahan Wilson, was presented to him by editor Jo Fletcher at a British Fantasy Society open night. He was thrilled, but his speech was anything but self-aggrandising. “This is a day to tell my diary about,” he told us, happily. “Went to British Fantasy Society Open Night. Was given head by Jo Fletcher.”)
Rob Holdstock was to return to Ryhope Wood, and to these characters and their families, several times in the years that followed the publication of this book, as he filled in a mythic patchwork of events and people, some before this book takes place, most after. But Mythago Wood, a classic of the literature of fantasy, is the cleanest and the first expression of Rob’s genius, and the perfect way to discover Ryhope Wood, a place which is, like so many other people and things, bigger and stranger and much more alive and dangerous the further in you go.
on the edge of the dark woods