|The 1972 dust-wrapper, from Facsimile Dust Jackets, L.L.C.|
In 1971, a London publisher held a contest for the “New English Library's Young Writers' Award”, offering a prize of £2,500. Philip Pullman submitted as his entry The Haunted Storm (the second novel he had written, the first had been set aside unpublished), and it was named as a joint winner alongside of The Waiting Game, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Both were published in hardcover by New English Library in 1972, and the two writers split the prize money. Because of the timing of the contest, the published book lists its copyright date as 1971, which has caused considerable bibliographical confusion. A paperback edition, also bibliographically indeterminate, came out in April 1973; it is sometimes mistakenly credited as being the first edition. The author has since disowned the book (as “a terrible piece of rubbish” in a 1999 essay published in Talking Books, edited by James Carter) and it has never again been reprinted.
Lady Antonia Fraser was one of the judges of the contest, and her blurb published on the dust-wrapper states: “I liked The Haunted Storm for its honest and enterprising attempt to interweave the eternal—and immortal—longings of youth into the texture of a contemporary story. It is thus a serious book, and refreshingly free from triviality.” On his website Pullman himself notes that it was “my first book. I was only 25 at the time it was published by a publisher who didn't realise it wasn't a very good book.” He describes its plot as follows: “Unease and suspicion divide a small village following violence and death. Matthew Cortez is physically involved in the investigation, finding his spiritual problems have a greater depth of reality. Only in the final disastrous confrontation in a ruined Mithraic temple does he, at last, glimpse the possibility of peace.” This is an inadequate and misleading description of the book.
The Haunted Storm consists of eleven chapters. There are three main characters, and two significant ancillary ones (though the ancillary characters are given limited stage time). The primary character is Matthew Cortez, aged twenty-three, who encounters on the seashore a young woman with whom he finds both a metaphysical as well as sexual rapport (he fondles her genitalia but nothing more happens). This encounter is belabored and unrealistic, making the characters seem entirely like cyphers and playthings for the author's exploration of meaning. The woman claims that Matthew reminds her of her previous lover, and after lengthy speech on metaphysics and love, they part. Six months pass, during which time Matthew feels drained of all will and energy. He feels he is in some way in love with this young woman. He goes to stay with his “uncle” (actually his mother's uncle) Harry Locke, an evangelical preacher, who lives in the west country, in the imaginary town of Silminster. There Matthew talks theology with his uncle and also with the local vicar, Canon Cole, to whom he confides that while he does believe in God, he wonders why God seems to be dead. Canon Cole opens up about his own unorthodox Gnosticism, and his study of some ancient ruin he believes to be a Mithraic well. Canon Cole notes he has in this pursuit a competitive enemy, who was formerly his daughter's boyfriend. Of course his daughter, Elizabeth Cole, turns out to have been the young woman Matthew encountered on the seashore six months earlier.
Thus Matthew and Elizabeth are reunited, and despite feeling an almost otherworldly love, they decide to remain completely chaste, like brother and sister. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Matthew has a brother some nine years older, who was thrown out by their parents a dozen years previously and never seen again. His brother Alan of course turns out of have been Elizabeth's previous lover. And Alan shows up in town, and invites Matthew to meet him. Matthew finally learns why his brother had been kicked out of their home: Alan had had a homosexual relationship in school. He admits this to Matthew: “They [his parents] thought I was homosexual, because the headmaster thought I was. So did the boy I was sleeping with; so did I” (p. 160). Mathew finds his brother something of an enigma, particularly for his openly racists views, as well as for his politics, while Matthew acknowledges that his brother is more intelligent than himself, the first time he has felt this way about anyone. Of course all this happens at the same time as two murders in Silminster, at specific times when Matthew has blacked out from severe headaches, to the point that he wonders whether he himself might have been the murderer. At other times, he suspects the murderer might have been his brother. The plot crescendos to an encounter of the three main characters and Canon Cole at a midnight eclipse at the remote location of the Mithraic well.
I have given this lengthy summary because the book is so rare, and also to exemplify certain themes that are cruxes in this early work that will be familiar to readers of Pullman's later books. Some aspects—particularly how Gnosticism is used and described—feel like they descend right from David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a novel known to be admired by Pullman. And there are also elements of fantasy in the book, though they are not developed very far. Matthew has some faculty of what he calls clairvoyance, and some particular odd mental connection with his brother. And the whole interest in the supposed Mithraic well borders on the fantastical, for supposedly “it makes you see the truth about things” (p. 189).
As a novel this book is a real mess. The set-up is long and labored. The prose is often clunky. The denouement is too hasty and the resolution unsatisfying, to say nothing of the nature of the characters as authorial mouthpieces. It is seriously flawed as a book, but it is also one that is not without interest, especially to readers of Pullman's far better subsequent books.
|The 1973 paperback cover|