The Whispering Swarm

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus Reviews The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Last year I read the Oswald Bastable novels by Michael Moorcock, stories of time travel in which the author uses the documentary conceit common to 19th century fantastic fiction and many of the early pulps (especially sword-and-planet yarns from ERB onward): the story is a first person account from a manuscript that has come into the possession of the author. Moorcock’s use of this framing in his Bastable books at first involved his grandfather as an intermediary, and eventually brought “Michael Moorcock” himself closer to the strange events of the narrative.

The Whispering Storm is the first volume of Moorcock’s currently projected trilogy, “The Sanctuary of the White Friars,” and it is again fantastic fiction featuring time travel, but now the author’s identity has moved from the penumbra of the fiction into its full shadow. He has brought in so much autobiographical content that the book turns out to be a personal memoir with a fully-developed portal fantasy embedded in it. Set chiefly in London in the 1960s, it features “Moorcock’s” discovery of a secret neighborhood within London, isolated from the mundane world, and opening onto past centuries and perhaps other worlds rooted in fiction. His ability to travel to this Sanctuary and its tributaries marks him as having a native talent for sorcery, which is developed late in the book as events come to focus on a story of 17th-century London at the end of the English civil war.

Although I know that Moorcock is capable of deliberate, highly crafted, literary narrative (as well as genre novels cranked out in a day or two), that’s not what I read here. The book genuinely reads like a naive and somewhat rushed recounting, stumbling over sequences and sometimes revisiting details as if they had not been told before, because they all coexist in the teller’s memory. He is a genuinely unreliable narrator in the way that any memoirist must be, with that thrown into relief by the supernatural elements of his tale. He’s made public statements that some of the autobiographical details have been suppressed or altered in kindness to other people, but I had to wonder if the fantasy narrative was a screen for certain of his activities in the period, since his magic involvements seemed to have real consequences for his interactions with his mundane family, for instance. It’s not a blind for illicit drugs in any case, since he at first tries unsuccessfully to blame his experiences on acid, and later claims that his experience with drugs kept him skeptical about the phenomena of his strange travels.

The portal adventure uses concepts such as the “moonbeam roads” and “Second Aether” that Moorcock had developed in his later fantasies. If one suspends disbelief according to the account in hand, those would reflect a growing transparency on his part, in which his fiction increasingly reflected his genuine occult experience! While I do think that this book could be enjoyed by those previously unfamiliar with Moorcock’s considerable oeuvre, it definitely will be more rewarding for those who have read in his earlier work. The next volume is supposed to be titled The Woods of Arcady.

“We agree on fresh histories enabling us to take action. It is part of what makes us such flawed creatures. Creatures of narrative fiction creating cause and effect. … We are protagonists in our own novels” (362). [via]