He wrote dozens of books – in the late 1970s and early 80s, he published one every three or four months, under numerous names – but Rob will remain most famous for this breakout novel, a study of what it means to be a storyteller and the dark wells that novelists tap.
Written to the music of Vaughan Williams, and showing Rob's detailed knowledge of prehistory, Mythago Wood was at odds with readers' expectations of literary fantasy at the time. Rob's world was brutal, disturbing and almost unknowable, rather than being simply our world in medieval fancy dress.Set in the late 1940s, in a small Hertfordshire forest that has been undisturbed since the last ice age, where time flows more slowly and the forest protects itself by disorientating those who try to enter, Mythago Wood is a history, not of the British Isles, but of our pre-Christian, shamanistic subconscious.
Holdstock isn't a writer I've talked about much on this blog. I haven't read all of his work (or even all of the Mythago cycle books), and I rarely reread him. I occasionally recommend him (most recently Merlin's Wood to a friend who has hardly read any fantasy but loves Idylls of the King). But I'd been thinking about his work in the week or so before his death becase Unmana asked me about books that people just beginning to read fantasy ought to read, and it was clear to me that Mythago Wood was one of them. I remember reading it for the first time (I was about 16) and being overwhelmed by the depth, and the cleverness, and the way it worked. This was simultaneously an exploration of the subconscious, and a piece of fiction that hit me hardest at that subconscious level. There's so much to say about these books, and how much they fed my brain then, and continue to now. And yet the strongest memory I have of the series is not a particularly clever moment at all. It's that bit from the first book, when Stephen and Guiwenneth are in the Huxley bathroom and she's looking at the bath fittings and he's looking at her hair, and it's all sunlight and shadow and smell.
Holdstock's most recent (and last, I suppose) book was published earlier this year. This man was genuinely important as a writer (and apparently a pretty amazing person too); these books are treasures, and I haven't done enough (like this guy, for example) to tell people about them. Read them.