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Literature / The Magic Cottage

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A 1986 novel by James Herbert.

Session musician Mike Stringer and illustrator Midge Gudgeon move from London to Gramarye, a somewhat dilapidated but idyllically peaceful cottage in rural Hampshire, previously occupied by the recently deceased, eccentric but highly regarded Flora Chaldean.

Rather surprisingly, the team of builders sent in to renovate find no trace of a previously prominent crack in the wall. At first, life here is highly contented, in some ways which seem practically supernatural; local wildlife is amazingly tame, the creative inspiration and sensual intimacy of Mike and Midge is spectacularly enhanced, and that crack in the wall seems to have just closed itself over.

On the land surrounding the cottage, Mike is unsettled by recurring glimpses of a distant silhouetted figure. A nearby mansion houses the Synergists, a mystical organisation whose leader, Eldrich P Mycroft, is ominously keen for Midge to join them. Flora Chaldean, widely held to have had some kind of healing power, is revealed to have been in a state of decomposition in the cottage kitchen long before her corpse was found. The cottage’s empathy with nature later reveals rather less benevolent manifestations, and Mycroft’s offer to help Midge contact her deceased parents has Mike worried about her susceptibility to the demands of the Synergists...

This novel provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Mycroft is polite, if a bit supercilious to Mike.
  • All Animals Are Dogs: Rumbo the friendly squirrel reminds Mike of a dog. Well and truly justified; this is a Continuity Nod to Fluke (1977) one of whose dog characters was later reincarnated as a squirrel.
  • Anomalous Art: Midge paints an astoundingly lucid and detailed image of Gramarye in which Mike suddenly sees the ghost of Flora Chaldean, and in whose painted recreation of reality he finds himself briefly immersed.
  • Bequeathed Power: The spirit of Flora Chaldean turns up to pass to Mike her receptivity to magic.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Mycroft's Synergist subordinates, notably jovial Hub Kinsella.
  • Bizarrchitecture:
    • The cottage seems able to reassert its earlier state of disrepair. On arrival in “the round room,” Mike finds himself disorientated by a heightened sensory reception of its expansive view.
    • In a nearby mansion which serves as the Synergist Temple, a darkened room is built in the shape of a double pyramid, to channel energy from both above and below.
  • Classical Music Is Cool: Mike happily includes it in his repertoire.
  • Collapsing Lair: Gramarye, whose occupants have repelled invasion by the Synergists, implodes.
  • Country Mouse: Midge, originally from a rural area.
  • Cowardly Lion: Mike freely admits aversion to avoidable hazard, yet steels himself to undergo it when necessary.
  • Cult: From their mansion retreat, the Synergists' peddling of homemade goods, and attempt to indoctrinate the youth of Cantrip, earn a disdainful such reputation. Mike is somewhat unsettled by their earnest openness. Their seemingly harmless bid to commune with the "Divine Will," said to permeate all, turns out to be not so harmless - leader Mycroft is a power-crazed fanatic.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When Mycroft espouses the doctrine of his Synergist creed, Mike readily deflates his pomposity.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Following a dangerous isolated incident, Mike stays well and truly clear of them.
  • Eldritch Location:
    • Gramarye, stood on a point of the Earth's crust which exudes the "ethereal vitality" said to shape all; via the absorbed demeanour of its past and current occupants, heightens sensory awareness and heals.
    • Mycroft briefly transfers Mike to a gloomy realm of festering malignancy, in which an airborne river houses bizarre creatures.
  • Empathic Environment: Gramarye's manifestations seem to respond both to benevolence and malignancy.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Mycroft may be considered a sorcerer, and is most definitely a wrong 'un.
  • Fauxshadow: Bob is found crouching terror-struck and staring at something approaching from the next room - another house guest coming to see what the commotion is.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Flora Chaldean.
  • Good Shepherd: Downplayed. Reverend Sixmythe, while genial and conscientious, gives a distastefully graphic description of his discovery of Flora's corpse, seemingly to spite Mike and Midge's light reception of his warnings of the Synergists.
  • Genius Loci: Seemingly by absorbing the essence of its occupants via its position on a location of the earth which exudes "ethereal vitality", Gramarye can physically alter itself.
  • Godhood Seeker: Mycroft’s desire to tap the magic leyline of Gramarye is driven by the unadulterated power it would give him.
  • Healing Hands: Flora was a renowned healer. Mycroft and the Synergists demonstrate such skill on Mike although the healing is really enabled by the magic of Gramarye.
  • In Harmony with Nature: The cottage somehow soothes local wildlife to remarkable tameness, and has the power to heal them. Mike and Midge's sex life is enhanced as well, probably because sex is often symbolic of being "more natural", returning to our base instincts, etc.
  • Hermit Guru: Reclusive Flora Chaldean was known for some healing ability, and guarded the secret of Gramarye against the insidious influence of the Synergists.
  • Home Counties: Although Hampshire is sometimes disputed to be a Home County.
  • Magic Is Evil: Averted; magic is defined an "ethereal vitality" innate to all things, which some people are able to channel.
  • Magic Music: Inverted. As Mike and Midge relax in the round room, Mike strums his guitar, and finds himself playing Paganini's Grand Sonata, a usually difficult piece, with exhilarating confidence.
  • Make Them Rot: The cottage, in heralding Flora's ghost, and seemingly in response to Bob's panicked terror, reasserts some of its previous state of decay. To her devastation and Mike's horror, Midge then finds her painting of the cottage to have been ruined.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mycroft.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Averted; Mike fondly mentions his collaboration with Phil Collins and The Everly Brothers.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: A recurring silhouetted figure is revealed to be the ghost of Flora, who arrives to impart the cottage’s magic to Mike. On arrival, she appears as in life, but, on physical contact with Mike, she rapidly, and graphically, decomposes.
  • Parental Abandonment: The untimely deaths of Midge's parents left her grief-stricken and falsely guilt-ridden.
  • Place of Power: Gramarye is built on a point of the earth's crust which exudes the "ethereal vitality" which drives and shapes the universe.
  • Power Glows:
    • In the Synergist Temple's darkened Pyramid Room, a spotlit Mycroft, when drawing cosmic energy, acquires an uncanny lucidity. His head then seems to briefly flare a "spectrum aura radiating outwards, expanding until the triangular room was filled with its variegation."
    • Once the ghost of Flora passes the power of the cottage to Mike, every object within the round room exudes a "blue-violet sheen."
  • Reality Warping: With intricate alteration of stonework; immersion of Mike in a painted replica of the land by the cottage, and sensory stimulation of instantly conjured animals, the influence of "ethereal vitality" seems boundless.
  • Scenery Porn: Some beautiful descriptions of the Hampshire countryside.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: The benevolent magic innate to Gramarye nurtures Mike and Midge's creativity and intimacy.
  • Sentient Cosmic Force: The universe is explained to be driven and shaped by emotion, "the creative energy that bred with itself, the source of everything."
  • Shady Real Estate Agent: Averted with Mr Bickleshift, who conscientiously observes the prohibitions by Flora's will of new inhabitants of Gramarye. Since Mike and Midge have no desire to re-sell a refurbished cottage, estate executor Mr Ogborn is happy to sell.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In Mike's introduction to the adventure with Gramarye, he half-seriously compares it to The Amityville Horror.
    • Mike comes downstairs for a midnight snack, looks outside, and is once again spooked by the distantly watching figure. Sick of being intimidated, he considers:
    Mike: I was going to sort out this bloody watcher in the woods once and for all. Forget about discarnate beings and women in black and shrouded apparitions and something wicked this way comes and psycho and omen and exorcist and the evil fucking dead - I was going to confront the beast that wasn't a beast at all but somebody playing silly bloody games at my expense.
    • When Mycroft magically compels the bats to swarm from Gramarye's cracked chimney, they "swarm like Hitchcock's birds."
    • In account of parasites coursing through Flora's decaying phantom corpse, "slime" is used as a verb.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Detailed nods to natural history.
    • In-Universe, Midge studies wildlife for authenticity in her paintings.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Mike and Midge, while faintly suspicious early on, gradually acknowledge the undeniably supernatural goings-on.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Mike and Val, Midge's agent.
  • Spooky Séance: Mycroft apparently contacts Midge‘s deceased parents. While the procedure is supernatural, it uses sensory manipulation rather than spiritual contact. However, an ethereal mist orally exuded by Mike channels their voices, which urge retreat from the Synergist temple.
  • Starfish Aliens: Possibly - in a glimpse of deep space offered by Mycroft's channelling of cosmic energy, Mike and Midge see, amidst the hinted stars and planets, "shapes that were sometimes human and sometimes vast expanses of protoplasmic masses, a coagulation of life forms."
  • The Stoner: Mike's old pal, tour manager Bob, to an overnight stay at Gramarye, sneaks some "bad shit." That night, it seems to enhance his encounter with something he saw downstairs to leave him paralysed with fear.
  • Straw Vegetarian: Averted with Val, Midge's amiably dry agent.
  • The Swarm: Mike is alarmed to find a sizeable brood of bats in the cottage loft. A suddenly much larger populace simultaneously give birth, cover the cottage walls, and attack other wildlife.
  • There Are No Coincidences: On seeing a newspaper ad for Gramarye, Midge feels mysteriously, irresistibly drawn to it. When their budget can't quite reach the minimum price, Mike and Midge, the next day, respectively receive a lucrative illustration commission and tour work with The Everly Brothers.
  • True Craftsman: Mike and Midge are both devoted to their respective vocations.
  • Weird Weather: On a visit to the cottage from Mycroft and several Synergist "Fosterlings," their bid to indoctrinate Midge via grief over her deceased parents, and Mike's indignation thereat, is quickly followed by a bizarrely brief gale, which abates on the Synergists' departure.
  • Wizard Duel: Being attuned to "ethereal vitality" enables Mycroft and later, Mike to induce fantastic sensory manipulation, with which the two lock horns.