A little while ago I saw this video on the excellent BoingBoing website, about a New York artist who creates sculptures out of bin bags. He tapes them to the subway gratings that are a feature of the city’s sidewalks, and when a subway train passes beneath, the rising air inflates his creations, so that passers-by are startled to see a horned monster, a Nessie, a giraffe - anything – rise eerily before them, then settle just as mysteriously into inanimate rubbish once again.
My initial thought on viewing this was of a scene in my favourite* Diana Wynne Jones book, Fire and Hemlock, in which a giant assembles itself from the rubbish lying about the streets of Bristol and chases our heroine and hero. That combination of the mundane and the scary is particularly potent, I think: the more ordinary and familiar something is, the more frightening it has the potential to be. I think I first noticed this when I read Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a child. It’s not generally seen as a scary book, but the chapter in which the children devise an audience for their home dramatics out of old coats, umbrellas, walking sticks and the like, and then accidentally bring their creations (the “Ugly-Wuglies”) to life, still has the power to frighten. I believe I was thinking of that episode when, in The Lurkers, I created a demonic child from the contents of an airing cupboard: a boy with cotton soft, pine-fresh hands, a clothes-peg grin, and a scar made from the stitching of an inside-out pillow case. To my mind that was more unsettling than finding, say, a goblin magicked in from some other world entirely, and, going by what readers have told me, they agree.
Alan Garner sums up this preference for the ordinary very well:
If we are in Eldorado and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it’s a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancashire, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possibly the reader will, too.
I suppose, in fact, that’s why I write fantasies set in this world, rather than in some other land that wears its magicality on its sleeve. Magic in our own world is less easy to spot; but one my jobs as a writer is to show that it’s there nevertheless, woven into every fibre of the universe.
*But then I have so many favourite DWJ books! Drowned Ammet, for example. The way she does gods in that one is... well, perhaps the subject for another post.