Susan Price lives with her parents in the semi-detached house in which she grew up, on a housing estate above the main road between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Apart from the magnificent little garden that her parents have created behind it, there is nothing extraordinary about the house at all. But in a study round the back, a room containing a bed, a word-processor, a long-bow, a folklore collection, wall charts of Norwegian phrases, and music shelves featuring Sibelius, Mussorgsky and other northern composers, some of the most astonishing fiction of recent years has been created.
Susan Price’s books comprise works of social realism, Gothic retellings of traditional folk stories and light-hearted tall tales. They also include the award-winning Ghost Drum trilogy, a visionary evocation of a frozen Northland, of the tyrants and shamans who struggle for the bodies and souls of its oppressed people, and of the ghastly splendour of the spirit worlds which overlap its borders. The tale and its complements, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance, are recited in the incantatory rhythms of oral storytelling, embellished with images of disturbing richness:
‘In that country the snow falls deep and lies long, lies and freezes until bears can walk on its thick ice. The ice glitters on the snow like white stars in a white sky! In the north of that country all the winter is one long night, and all that long night long the sky stars glisten in their darkness, and the snow stars glitter in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight’
All the children and adults with whom I’ve discussed this saga have been captivated by its complex dynamics, and by the terrifying beauty of a preternatural world that Susan Price depicts with the same fidelity to physical detail that she devotes to descriptions of the Black Country, the setting for much of the rest of her fiction.
Her roots here are very deep. She speaks with the strong accent of the region, and insists her stories are grounded in its history and geology, the limestone and iron ore and coal and fireclay of a landscape that spawned the industrial revolution, and fed the word hoard of her working-class family.
When she was five, her mother bought her A Book of Stories that Never Grow Old from a stall in Dudley market (‘a huge book, as big as I was’). Two years later, she fell in love with the Jungle Books and Greek mythology before discovering that the Nordic sagas were even more exciting.
‘I’m the oldest of four children, so I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember, especially ghost stories, and somewhere along the line somebody told me that people actually got paid for this. I thought “that’s what I want to be”, but pretended I wanted to be a hairdresser instead, in case people laughed at me. It’s not that I ever was discouraged. There was just an idea that it was out of our reach, coming from this sort of background. By the time I was 14, it dawned on me that all you had to be was good enough, there was no wealth qualification to say that you can or can’t be a writer.’
After entering the Daily Mirror‘s children’s writing competition for some years, she won it twice in succession – once with a science fantasy, and again with a factually based story of a migrant labourer who brought the devastating 1848 cholera epidemic to the navvy camps of the Black Country. Encouraged by this, she sent a novel to the editor of the paper and it found its way to Phyllis Hunt at Faber, who sent back ten pages of daunting, but encouraging, suggestions. The contract for The Devil’s Piper was signed when she was 16. By the time it was published she had left school, after a rebellious career, without formal qualifications.
‘I had no idea of what to do except to carry on writing. I looked around for any old job but it was the 1970s and the Black Country was closing down. I got sacked from a cake shop after two weeks – it wasn’t for nicking doughnuts – and spent a long time unemployed. Then I worked for a year in a supermarket humping cartons, got sick of it and moved to a job in a warehouse where they packed things like digital King Arthur clocks and imitation toilets as novelty plant holders.’
This experience gave birth to Sticks and Stones, a story about a 16-year-old supermarket worker who longs to be a gardener. West Midlands dialect features both in this story, and in Twopence a Tub, also written during this period, an uncompromising account of a doomed coal strike in nineteenth-century Dudley, and of the squalid poverty that inspired it. Disgust with work conditions also played a part in her decision to concentrate on writing.
‘I got a job washing dishes and spent three days up to my elbows in filthy water. The waitresses kept chucking dishes into the sink, thick with grease and gravy and mash, and after three days I was sacked for not being fast enough. I thought, to hell with this; people are paying me to write, though not enough, and I’m spending it all on phone calls and interviews and stamps. I packed it in and just wrote. The DHSS cut up about it but I just said, “I’m a writer. This is my job.”‘
Her fascination with folklore deepened, and she began to conduct research into correspondences between the motifs of different traditions. This has led to a series of anthologies in which these motifs are shuffled and strung together on various narrative threads. The punningly titled Here Lies Price is a collection of tall tales in which humour and pathos alternate. Crack a Story and Forbidden Doors are virtuoso displays of storytelling, exhausting and delighting readers with their sheer prodigality of incident:
‘The eagle ripped the phoenix, and out of it darted a black raven, streaking away across the blue sky. But the falcon was ready, and swooped on the raven, and it flew no further. The falcon tore the raven and from out of its black feathers flew a small drab sparrow that flew for its life.
But Ivan already had an arrow on his string. He shot, and hit the sparrow, and it tumbled to the earth with an arrow through it. The firebird brought him down to the earth, and Ivan picked up the sparrow’s body and cut the egg from it, the egg that held The Undyings life.
And as Ivan held the bloody egg in his hand, The Undying came in sight, flying like a storm, shrieking with fear and anger because they had found his life. And Ivan squeezed the egg in his hand, crushed it, and The Undying died.’
In the latest of these collections, Head and Tales, the thread concerns two children whose father dies in a navvy camp while labouring on the canals. His last wish is to have his head cut off and carried back to his home town by the children. As the children travel, the head guides them, reciting stories which enable them to avoid the perils of their journey. In spite of the heart-warming conclusion to the tale, the grisliness of the theme has attracted some criticism, which Susan Price dismisses.
‘The image of the head is common in folklore. Mimir’s head was preserved by Odin and spoke prophecy. In Celtic mythology you’ve got King Bran’s head which protected Ancient Britain until Arthur dug it up. It’s meant to be a symbol of life, not Death.’
The living, speaking, severed head could also serve as an emblem of Price’s overall vision, which is driven by paradoxes, incongruities, and the struggle of opposing forces. In many of her books, the mundane world is suddenly invaded by the diabolic: a demon clambers out of a privy, a man-eating fiend follows children home from the supermarket, a schoolgirl discovers she has the power to animate an old fox fur in which blood and bone have been wrapped. Perhaps the most fundamental of these oppositions is between the desire to struggle for a better world, and the desire to succumb to the inevitability of decay and death. This is the theme which unites the committed, socialist anger of books like Twopence a Tub and From Where I Stand (an anti-racist novel set in a West Midlands comprehensive) with the fatalistic pessimism of the Ghost Drum trilogy.
This saga grew out of her fascination with Russia, and the undying reminiscences of an uncle who had been brought up in Poland. An interest in the Shamanism of Lapland, and in the ‘hedge-witchcraft’ which thrived in the Black Country within living memory, were also inspirations.
‘I started to get obsessed with images of land permanently snow bound. I knew there was going to be magic in the story, a lot of beautiful things and a lot of frightening, terrible things, a mad Czar and a young witch, but it took me three years to get the story down after that first vision of growling ice, darkness and bright colours.’
In saying this, she takes down from the shelf a ghost drum – souvenir of a journey to Lapland. She shows me the symbols to which a bone or ring placed on the drum will migrate when the drum is beaten. By reading these symbols, a shaman can communicate with spirits of the Ghost World, mesmerically described in the saga as a land of iron trees and soporific red streams.
Each of the books revolves around a variation of the same moral dilemma: a youthful person is given the choice of becoming a shaman, almost immune from death, or of using their limited powers to try to intercede in the struggle against human misery and ecological decay. The stories are suffused by both compassion and a harrowing sense of futility.
‘I’m afraid it goes against the grain with me to be optimistic. It doesn’t seem to make sense in the world as it is. The theme of Ghost Dance is this push to save the world, and I really wish we could, but when I was writing I thought about this really hard and I don’t think it will happen. Concern for whales and so on is a fashion that’s going out of fashion. Children in the Third World countries are growing up wanting First World goods, and why shouldn’t they? I can’t see you’re ever going to get everybody to agree in time.’
I mentioned that at the end of Ghost Dance, the heroine, Shingebis, looks back on her failure to save the subjects of the Czar from atrocity, a youth from being strung up and butchered like a hog, the Northlands from ruin. She then undertakes an astonishing feat of redemption, fusing life and death in an apocalyptic climax to the trilogy. Is then a flicker of hope here?
‘Possibly, but I’m always wary of attributing deep meanings to my stories. On the one hand, writing stuff like Ghost Drum is matter of hanging on for dear life to a stream of powerful images that seem to be coming from someone else in a part of my head I can’t control. On the other, it’s a matter of the author as a manipulator, juggling with patterns to make the story work for the audience. I’m never sure how sincere I am when I play with ideas. It’s all just words, and the meaning is often less than the pattern.’
Nevertheless, what emerges most strongly from the gloomy strife of much of Price’s fiction is a strong belief in the redeeming joy of story. At the end of Head and Tales, when the children are home safe, that emblematic severed head is buried beneath the fireplace, at rest, but still listening, because ‘by that hearth are always told good stories’.
Susan Price’s books listed here are published by Faber, unless otherwise stated:
Ghost Drum, 0 571 15340 2, £3.50 pbk
Ghost Song, 0 571 16410 2, £9.99; 0 571 16939 2, £3.99 pbk
Ghost Dance, 0 571 17182 6, £9.99
Sticks and Stones, 0 571 16315 7, £3.99 pbk
Head and Tales, 0 571 16914 7, £9.99
Forbidden Doors, 0 571 16837 X, £3.99 pbk
Crack a Story, 0 571 14136 6, £7.99
Coming Down to Earth, Collins Lions, 0 00 674795 7, £3.99 pbk
Other titles mentioned in this Authorgraph are now out of print.