The other day EMeta mentioned in comments how inexplicable it is that Gene Wolfe isn’t a household name. Here is another one of those inexplicable oversights of the book world: The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.
This book sat on my shelf for years unread when I was a child, one of a few red-banded paperbacks like E. Nesbit’s Three Children and It that had materialized there unseen, like untorn books in Colin Craven’s sickroom. I often picked it up and put it down again in favor of more known quantities (for I was a great rereader) in spite of the cover, which sported a young woman on a horse inexplicably hovering in the night sky!
Whenever it was that I finally opened it, I could have kicked my previous selves for putting it down unread. It is charming, brimming with adventure, and written with a seamless confusion between the real and magical realms. Its charm is partially in its hero, Kay Harker, who writes himself a letter at one point (an assignment from his supercilious governess) that runs:
My dear Kay,
I hop you are quite well.
I hop your friends, the cats, are quite well.
I am quite well.
Please give my love to Ellen. I hop she is quite well. We have a nice dog here, but he is norty.
If that doesn’t have you saying “hop you are quite well” and “norty” (naughty) for the rest of your life in sheer delight (as I do) then you’re constituted quite differently from me.
John Masefield was the Poet Laureate of England for a while, and the book is quite enjoyable to adults (who, in our degenerate age, are more likely to understand Kay’s horror at Latin lessons and French conjugation). Its challenging habit of hopping from a reality where witches convene on brooms pilfered from the Harker family house to one where Kay’s guardian, Lord Theopompus, holds forth is engaging and wondrous. The common thread in both worlds is the lost fortune said to have been stolen and hidden by Kay’s seafaring forebear. With the help of various magical personages and the friendlier local cats and foxes, Kay tries to find out the truth about the treasure (and his family’s past) before the greedy coven of witches and wizards can beat him to it.
In short, this book is a strange, idiosyncratic delight with a twisting historical mystery, a cast of bizarre characters, and a charmingly disobedient protagonist. It deserves a place on the bookshelf of every book-loving child and child at heart. However – and this is why I write this blogget – it is largely unknown in our era and has long languished out of print. 108 people on LibraryThing own it, and only 21 on the more populous Goodreads. When I discovered that my childhood copy had gone missing, my mother quietly looked for years before buying a 1959 printing over the web from New Zealand and presenting it on my 19th birthday.
However, these dark days are coming to a close. The Midnight Folk is being reprinted, available September 30 according to Powell’s. I encourage everyone intrigued by this blog post to pick up a copy (but not to read the spoilerish Publisher Comments) at once – preorder if you like! It’s a book that deserves a wide and loving audience. I hop it shall do quite well.