Cassandra Golds is an Australian children's writer whose first book, Michael and the Secret War, was accepted for publication when she was 19 years old. In collaboration with the artist Stephen Axelsen, she has written a string of flamboyantly themed graphic novels, all of which have been published as monthly serials in the venerable New South Wales School Magazine, and one of which, The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim, was republished as a book by Penguin Australia in 2005. Her novel Clair-de-Lune came out in the UK in 2006, and she is putting the finishing touches on a very gothic follow up. Here Cassandra discusses Down in the Cellar by Nicholas Stuart Gray.
Cassandra Golds on Down in the Cellar by Nicholas Stuart Gray
It is painful, I think, for anyone to know that an author whose work has had a profound influence on him or her has fallen into obscurity. But if you are a writer yourself, and if you consider the author in question to have created your vocation, then the pain is a special one. You think of all the people like you who - because they don't already know about him and so don't know to get him out of stack, or order him from dwindling supplies at Amazon, or seek him out on AbeBooks - will never have the chance to read those books. And there is even a kind of guilt about it: how is it that you are taking up shelf space while your master languishes unpromoted, undiscussed and unfilmed? I think it must have been such thoughts that caused C.S. Lewis to try so hard to resuscitate the reputation of George MacDonald.
So who is this insufficiently celebrated author who is so important to me? I am a children's author, and so naturally he is a man who wrote almost entirely for children. His name was Nicholas Stuart Gray.
I actually had three major literary influences as a child - Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis and Gray, whose work I discovered last - but the other two don't seem to be in danger of being forgotten any time soon. And yet my favourite Nicholas Stuart Gray novel, Down in the Cellar (1961), is far more perfect a work than any of the Narnia books (powerful as they are). It is also far less dated.
I will never forget the Saturday afternoon (c. 1973) on which I finished reading it - I was about 11 and had borrowed it from my primary school library in the outer Western suburbs of Sydney, intrigued by the Edward Ardizzone cover. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I'd finished it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I knew I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children's author myself. Ever since, that book has been my benchmark.
Down in the Cellar is the story of four children and an ancient cellar which they discover accidentally behind, and below, a cupboard within the country Rectory where they are spending the Christmas holidays with their Uncle James, the Rector. The cellar is disused and, of course, out-of-bounds, but they play in it secretly anyway - until they discover another use for it.
That other use is a fugitive, and his name is Stephen. A young man, alone, injured, despairing, they come upon him in an old bomb shelter beside the chalk quarry nearby. Mysteriously, he will not allow them to get help, indeed he begs them to leave him alone, to forget him. It seems Stephen has enemies, and they are not the kind of enemies from whom the usual avenues will afford protection.
So (against his will, but by that time he is delirious with fever) the children hide him in the Old Cellar. Stephen gets sicker, the children find it more and more difficult to conceal what they are doing from their kindly uncle and his housekeeper (and to bear up under the stress), and as the days and nights pass, and the cellar is besieged, they begin to realize that the enemies they are dealing with are supernatural ones.
But they have supernatural friends, too. And, although they don't know it, the Old Cellar is on the threshold of something even older - a Gate into the centre of a hill that no longer exists, a hill which was demolished before the Rectory was built - a hill which, nonetheless, holds within it a faerie kingdom, where there is no death, no pain and no fear.
I doubt that this bare outline of the plot gives any inkling of what a rich, strange, poignant, breathtaking experience Down in the Cellar is. As I have spent my adult life trying to rewrite it, I ought to be in a good position to tell you exactly how it works, exactly what makes it tick. But it still has me so much in its thrall that when I try to do that I find myself at something of a loss. It is like attempting to dissect myself.
Undoubtedly part of it is the characterization - Gray's stories always hinged on this. Each of the four siblings has a completely distinct attitude to the (increasingly supernatural) events, ranging from scepticism in Bruce, the eldest, who is the sympathetic but unreliable narrator, through to what might best be described as second sight in the youngest, Deirdre - quite possibly the best-drawn five-year-old in English fiction. Her eery, incongruous statements, spoken from the position of having one foot in another level of reality, and at first dismissed by her older and supposedly wiser siblings, are one of the most memorable features of the book. She is a tragic character in her own way, but there is even greater pathos in the roughly 12-year-old Bruce, whose narration is wonderfully comic and yet who bears the weight of one of Gray's enduring themes: cynicism as a cover for vulnerability. (Gray was a professional actor, which may account for his genius with individual voices - especially in minor characters - and for an extraordinary ability to place himself in a character's position and write from out of that. For a truly virtuosic display of this talent, see his novel The Stone Cage.)
A second part of the book's success is humour. Gray must be one of the wittiest writers ever to have written for children. Re-reading the book for this post, I laughed again, even after all these years, at the sheer wit, and was moved to tears once more by the superb final chapter. But the most original part of it is his mysticism, which reaches deep into pre-Christian folklore and myth.
The hill, though demolished, is actually still there - and it is the gateway to transcendence.
This idea, around which the whole book is built, was a complete revelation to me as a child (even though I was already in love with Narnia), and I still find it strangely enthralling, perhaps because, unlike, say, the Wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is at the back of the story rather than in the foreground. Indeed, Down in the Cellar belongs to a tradition of British fantasy novels, perhaps beginning with Wuthering Heights, which have realist settings and yet which refer continually to an offstage fantasy dimension governed by a mythical system which is never actually articulated, and is probably original to the author. For Lewis, the Wardrobe is an assertion. For Gray, the Hill is an assumption. And in fact, when I compare the approaches of these two authors it strikes me that whereas Lewis was writing about mysticism, Gray was writing as a mystic.
And that is why he is so hard to beat. It seems to me that he is writing from so far inside the story that even as an adult I almost find it difficult to accept that it was something he invented. And believe me, that is a very spooky thing to have to admit.
Why does a person choose to write for children? In my case it is because of an intense personal allegiance I hold to myself as a child. I have read and admired many great authors since the Saturday afternoon that I first finished reading Down in the Cellar, but to forget the fact that none of them have affected me as deeply would be a betrayal of that 11-year-old self who still lives within me. And to break faith with your childhood self is, it seems to me, one of the few ways in life that it is possible to genuinely fail.