Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert – a very British strain of the weird and wild | fiction
I have an old American copy of one of my favorite books when I was a kid: darkness Is increasing by Susan Cooper. The edition is illustrated by Alan E Cober – dark, fantastical pencil drawings that bring Cooper’s wintry world to life. The best of these sketches is that of the mythical figure of Herne the Hunter, a strange, deformed creature with antlers seated astride a horse. Herne leads his wild hunt through the book’s closing pages, a riot of raucous energy that brings the novel to its stunning conclusion. Now Zoe Gilbert, author of a wonderfully bizarre collection of early made-up myths, Popularmade Herne the hero of his second book.
This is – follow closely here – purportedly an academic collection of writings on Herne, from his 14th century life as Richard II’s favorite hunter to his dystopian appearance at the end of the 21st century. It opens with a compelling introduction by a (fictional) professor who writes about how science and Enlightenment thought drove the “evil psychopomp” Herne from the national consciousness. Now Gilbert’s stories re-enter him as the sometimes shadowy portrayal of a uniquely British strain of weirdness and savagery.
These tales are as much about the place as they are about their central carnivalesque character. Herne’s death and resurrection as half-man, half-beast was believed to have occurred in the Great North Wood, the forest whose remains can still be found in parts of South London (and under the names of Norwood, Forest Hill and Honor Oak). The book traces the town’s evolution, the decline of timber, over the centuries, suggesting that the echoes of wild timber can still be heard in the contemporary (and futuristic) streets of Croydon and Penge.
British folk tales have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years – see the success of communities such as #ThursdayFolklore on Twitter, the presence of folkloric tropes in the work of writers like Andrew Michael Hurley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Moss, and the rediscovery of classic novels by Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Robert Holdstock. In acts of mischief, Gilbert has created a novel that fits into this movement and is entirely sui generis. Interweaving prose and poetry, myth and history, past, present and future, it is a work of extraordinary ambition, brilliantly produced.