One of the serendipitous rewards of having created this blog is discovering another side to a writer I am already familiar with. Take the case of John Keir Cross, an obscure Scottish writer whose collection of strange and supernatural fiction The Other Passenger
I thought was his only noteworthy book. In researching his work as part of my preparation for a foreword to the upcoming reissue of The Other Passenger
from Valancourt Books, I learned that the bulk of his work was in children's fiction under his own name as well as his fictional alter ego of "Stephen McFarlane." He wrote a mix of science fiction, detective novels and fantasy for children with much of it published only in the UK. One of the more obscure books published in both the UK and the US is The Owl and the Pussycat
(1946) reviewed here under its more familiar US title The Other Side of Green Hills
. Also, I thought I would arouse your interest using the US title since the original one is an allusion to the well known nonsense poem by Edward Lear and might cause a bit of confusion as it did me.
Green Hills is the name of a house in the Scottish countryside where several children are spending their Christmas holiday. The "other side" refers to an elaborate alternate dimension on the grounds where the Owl and the Pussycat live. These are not literally two anthropomorphic creatures as in Lear's poem, but an elderly violin playing gentleman and his companion, a little girl about ten years old. The focus of the story is on Geraldine, one of the youngest of the children spending her holiday at Green Hills. It is her uncanny ability to penetrate the Other Side that allows all the children to see and speak with the Owl whose real name we never learn, and the little girl known only as Pussycat.
Sounds a bit too strange already, right? I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles in which another world is accessible through that magical wardrobe located in Professor Kirke's massive home. In The Other Side of Green Hills
Geraldine first discovers the alternate universe when she falls into a secret basement after uncovering a trapdoor in a cottage she and her friends are exploring. After being rescued she claims that she was pushed though no one was anywhere near her as she is told by the older children in the group. Later when all the children are visited by the elderly eccentric Owl and the angelic, forever young Pussycat we learn that there are weird creatures known as Moon People who are the enslaved minions of the wicked sorcerer Titus. They are trying to kidnap Geraldine for an unknown purpose. The elderly Owl knows why, but is too terrified to reveal the secret of Titus' motives until it is almost too late.
The Owl talks a lot about the concept of paradox which he first introduces to the children in an optical illusion included in the many macabre illustrations done by artist Robin Jacques. He explains this familiar drawing of cubes done in black and white (see illustration at left) as a tool in appreciating how the Other Side exists. "It all depends on how you look at it," he tells the children." Then -- as he so often does -- the Owl bursts into song: "Look once, look twice./Look round about --/And in a trice/What's In is Out." Staring at the drawing the children discover that the cubes look as if they are going in or rising out of the paper. And this is also the key to understanding how adults are unable to see into the Other Side or be visited by any of its occupants. Adults, of course, grown too lazy in their thinking and accustomed to their grown up ways tend not to have the ability to see differently as do children the Owl explains.
Though the story begins with a lighthearted fantastical tone as The Owl regales the children with anecdotes of the Other Side, and revealing his philosophy of life through a series of songs with seemingly nonsensical lyrics, much of the story descends into a dark realm atypical for a children's book of the 1940s. The story will turn into the age old battle between good and evil, innocence and experience, with the children helping rescue Geraldine from the clutches of Titus and the Moon People. Eventually the Owl will divulge the secret motivations of Titus and his search for missing pages in a Book of Secrets the children find. The story is imbued with an increasingly eerie atmosphere, magic rarely is used for good, and the reader cannot help drawing an analogy with the battle that takes place in the climactic pages as a fantastic rendering of post World War 2 England after the Blitz.
Interestingly, these eccentric fantasy characters and incidents echo what is found in Cross' strange adult stories of wanton cruelty, inescapable violence and haunted individuals who populate the pages of The Other Passenger
(1944). The theme of an alternate world is explored more metaphorically as characters discover they are trapped within their cursed interior lives. I'll have more about that book in the coming months along with news about its reissue and release date.